Book of the week: An iconoclastic, amusing and magnificent must

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Wisden Cricketers' Almanack 1998 Edited By Matthew Engel (John Wisden, hardback or paperback, pounds 27.50)

IT IS tempting to regard Wisden Cricketers' Almanack as part of the establishment, merely by virtue of the fact that it has been around for 135 years. Quite possibly, in the distant past, the game's "bible" did go along with anything and everything; simply recording, rather than commenting on, the happenings in the game. Not any more though.

Editor Matthew Engel has no qualms about hitting out at the game's rulers. Take Lord MacLaurin's blueprint for the domestic game "Raising the Standard". Engel says, "Fortunately, the various anomalies, complexities and idiocies that would have arisen from this nonsense are now only of academic interest..." He is critical, too, of the third umpire and cites the changing of the Australian total during the Oval Test last summer when a four awarded Greg Blewett was changed a day later into a six.

But Engel does not restrict his attacks to these shores. The Almanack is global and to prove it its editor calls on the International Cricket Council to pay "more attention to what is going on in the gutter" rather than reaching for the sky in terms of staging meaningless one-day internationals as country after country makes a bid for Test status. The gutter in question is the one which runs with rumours of match-fixing in one-day internationals, under the sinister hands of betting syndicates. "Anyone with experience of gambling will feel that the amount of smoke billowing out of this story is a pretty reliable indicator of fire," writes Engel.

It is not all high-minded comment and serious ponderings on the state of the game; Engel has a cultured sense of humour which manifests itself not only in his comments on the confusing Duckworth-Lewis method of settling rain-affected one-day matches, but is also reflected in the content of this impressive 1,472-page tome. Wisden's chronicle of 1997 records happenings on and off the field, from the implausible to the plain bizarre, including a hang glider stopping play in Lincolnshire, and the club player's hat- trick which spilled over from the last match of 1996 to the first of 1997 against the same opponents and a fielder returning with the ball by bus.

The statistical section is comprehensive; the features of the highest quality. Author Leslie Thomas reviewed the year's best cricket books, there are well-written tributes to the late Denis Compton by Lord Cowdrey of Tonbridge and to Graham Gooch. There is an iconoclastic piece, honest and probably true, on WG Grace by Geoffrey Moorhouse which features the words "grasping", "mercenary", and "shameless cheat". And Andrew Longmore's valediction to chivalry in the game is apposite, too.

It was a pleasant to note praise for the England team and the set-up; and also the appearance of two English cricketers, Graham Thorpe and Matthew Maynard, among the celebrated five Cricketers of the Year which also included the Australians Matthew Elliott, Stuart Law and Glenn McGrath.