It’s Wisden week. Ah, the comfort of numbers. The 150th edition of cricket’s holy book has spawned no end of eulogies in the sports pages, accounts connected by something greater than the love of the game. It is a peculiarly English thing to celebrate a tome first published at the height of Empire, a nostalgia for order, for doing things “our” way.
Cricket has long been a metaphor for civility, a vehicle for conveying the importance of core values and mores as they pertain to the liberal conscience of the Anglo-Saxon world. This powerful whiff of Establishment has always complicated the essential appeal of bat on ball for this scion of the North-west, who, like many an issue of the English working class, was pushed towards Wisden’s yellow glow via a grammar school system that co-opted those with pricked-up ears.
I learnt the game on casual land, much like the great unwashed on the subcontinent. The wicket moved around grassed open spaces that served as football pitches in winter. Imagine Kes in whites. The moment the final whistle blew at Old Trafford or Maine Road someone would draw the stumps on the side of a cardboard box propped by wood from a packing case. The cherry was a faded green tennis ball snatched from the mouth of a dog. My Gray-Nicolls bat, coated with a white protective covering was taken as a luminous indicator of the la-di-da existence of the grammar school boy. You don’t want to know how my forward defensive was received.
These lads just plonked their foot down the wicket and hit through the line. They were not interested in the finer points, just scoring runs, taking wickets and landing catches. Yet, in their unreconstructed way, they were as attached to the sport as the Wisden priesthood, if dismissive of any attempt to set cricket’s rhythms to words.
The literary dimension is Wisden’s legacy as much as the facts and figures, a detail I missed wholesale as a boy. Reading was homework, sport a release from the classroom contract. My loss, of course. I wised up eventually and came to recognise the importance and worth of the Wisden tradition, the window it offered not only into cricket’s past but the cultural history of the nation.
I remain awed by the capacity of grown men to maintain their attachment to this yellow touchstone. A part of the process is reaching back into childhood, taking comfort from the fonts and typesettings pored over in the days when it mattered how Surrey fared against Middlesex. Many of the Wisden constituents can probably smell the dorm, heavy with adolescent scent, and hear the clip of the housemaster approaching. The public school stereotype is legitimate as in that environment the game maintains a presence in the curriculum, is nourished, cultivated and maintained.
The results pages of the Oldham Evening Chronicle were my Wisden as a kid. There, across one great tabloid page, were match details from the Central Lancashire League. It was football’s summer reflex, played by the same lads who chased leather through sodden winters. The fascination was the light years separating club enthusiast and visiting pro. The idea that Joel Garner might appear for Littleborough across the fence behind my sister’s terraced garden in Royton was impossibly exotic.
In my postgraduate years I turned out for a team of strolling players in north London. The great English actress Rosemary Leach kept score while her husband, the actor Colin Starkey, flayed all too briefly in the middle. I would make the tea. Gertie, the Weekenders’ tea lady, that was me.
Fond memories include a partnership of 26 with Clive Swift, who you might know as Richard, the long-suffering husband of Hyacinth Bucket. The third Captain Birdseye, Martyn Reid, was another solid, middle-order man. Many of my team-mates had far more in common with the Wisden community than I and will probably strike up a 150th edition gathering to celebrate the great ledger’s daddy hundred. I’ll wait until the Oldham Chron comes out next Monday to see how Oldham did at Royton.