Book review: Pearls of wisdom speak volumes

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Wisden contains more than 1,500 pages for the first time this year. This is not entirely because of the expansion in the "Notes by the Editor", although when the present incumbent assumed the post for the 130th edition he took seven pages and for this, the 136th, he has taken 11. It must be the 60 per cent increase in one-day internationals.

There is, of course, plenty to say and Matthew Engel is typically rumbustious in saying it. His first note calls for the resignation of the chairman of the International Cricket Council, Jagmohan Dalmiya, on the eminently reasonable grounds of lack of leadership.

This sets up the delicious prospect that Engel, a self-confessed whinger, will use the rest of his space in demanding the removal, in short and descending order, of the chief executive of the England and Wales Cricket Board, the secretary of the Wombwell Cricket Lovers' Society and the captain of Upper Clogthorpe second eleven. He resists what was probably a terrible temptation.

Instead he enters other controversial areas: suggesting that the MCC still have a way to go in opening their doors, despite the admission of women; doubting the wisdom of a two-division County Championship; explaining the selection, as one of the five Cricketers of the Year, of a player - Ian Austin - who finished 57th in the bowling averages and 152nd in the batting averages; and warning that "cricketing apartheid" is accepted practice in some English club cricket.

The editor is not without his contradictions. He begrudges the number of one-day internationals, but concedes that the World Cup in England this summer is a crucial opportunity.

It is the polemic that has come to garner Wisden (John Wisden and Co, pounds 28), not least the 136th edition, all its publicity. Indeed, the establishments at the ICC and the ECB have probably come to regard it as the yellow peril. But there remains much more to it. There are, as usual, a series of beautifully crafted essays, Peter Roebuck on the enigma of Graeme Hick, Simon Wilde on the mystery spinners of the past. Mickey Stewart's piece on the evolution of one-day tactics is fascinating. The biographies of the Cricketers of the Year are constructed with characteristic attention to fact.

Yet the core of Wisden remains the recording of the events of the previous season, not least the reports on each of the counties, all objective, critical and loving at once. Nigel Fuller of Essex is now the longest serving chronicler (traumatic and shambolic are two of his descriptions in his 25th year) ahead of Gerald Mortimer of Derbyshire where, as he points out, winters can be more interesting than summers.

Cricket in other countries is allotted its usual space at the back. So is English schools cricket. The establishments are the same as they have always been. Maybe real progress in the game at large will have been made when the comprehensives start putting in their averages.

The 1999 Wisden is another beauty, well-ordered, readable, evocative. No other sport comes close. There are 148 contributors. Only two of them are female (a male writer, Peter Hayter, has contributed the piece on the advance of the women's game). It is a start. But, as Engel might say, only a start.