Wisden offers sobering critique of ailing English game

The 159th edition of the famous yellow book represents a searing state of the nation address

Rory Dollard
Wednesday 20 April 2022 22:30
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ECB chief executive Tom Harrison comes in for criticism in Wisden (Hollie Adams/PA)
ECB chief executive Tom Harrison comes in for criticism in Wisden (Hollie Adams/PA)

While arrival of a new Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack is an annual cause of celebration among the sport’s most ardent fans, the 2022 edition represents a sobering critique of an ailing English game.

The famous yellow book has never been afraid to hold up an unflattering mirror to its subject but, even by its own standards, the 159th edition represents a searing state of the nation address.

It is, perhaps, no surprise to find Wisden shaking its head at establishment rather than nodding its head in approval. In the 12 months since it last appeared, there has been much to bemoan and little to applaud.

From the fallout of Azeem Rafiq’s harrowing account of systemic racial discrimination to the dire form of the men’s flagship Test team and a spate of sackings and resignations from key positions, it has been a messy period to reflect on.

Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack 2022 (Wisden/Bloomsbury Publishing)

Joe Root’s picture adorns the cover, staring down the lens as he executes a glorious cover drive, and he is also acclaimed as the world’s leading cricketer in the awards pages, but the batting excellence that saw him touch new heights at the crease is a lesser part of the broader story.

England’s entire Ashes campaign, which ended in a 4-0 thrashing, is eviscerated in Lawrence Booth’s editor’s notes. A decade into the prestigious role, Booth savages the preparation and execution of a torrid trip Down Under, suggesting “no tactic as too ill-conceived, no plan too half-baked” and suggests the entire leadership structure is beset by “delusion”.

Contextualising the hammering among other similar setbacks, he adds: “In a crowded field, this was one of England’s most hapless tours”.

While blame is apportioned among those on the ground, including the sacked Chris Silverwood (“a good man but he was out of his depth, thrown into the open sea with a deflated lifebelt”), much of the ire is reserved for decision-makers who condemn England to an exhausting schedule that “reduces athletes to husks”.

No tactic as too ill-conceived, no plan too half-baked...this was one of England's most hapless tours.

Wisden editor Lawrence Booth on the 2021/22 Ashes.

England and Wales Cricket Board chief executive Tom Harrison cops a volley of criticism, not least for his controversial acceptance of a lucrative contractual bonus in a period that saw 62 staff members made redundant, as well as the twin ills of the racism storm and the Test team’s struggles.

Having called on Harrison to return some of that money to facilitate a return for some of those who lost their jobs or to boost the coffers of the organisation’s diversity program, Booth bemoans “the soulless logic of the suiterati, who regard cricket as a business not a sport, measured in pounds and rupees not runs and wickets”.

The editor’s notes also cover Rafiq’s landmark appearance in front of a parliamentary select committee in November, but the former Yorkshire spinner is also given the room to speak for himself in a lengthy first-person essay. Having laid bare his own experiences at the vanguard of cricket’s lengthy reckoning with ingrained discrimination, he ends with an exhortation for cricket to seize its watershed moment.

“If the ECB don’t learn from this, we’ll be sitting here in 20 years with another racism scandal on our hands,” he writes.

Azeem Rafiq contributes a heartfelt essay on his experiences as a racism whistleblower (House of Commons/PA)

“If that happens, I hope whoever is involved survives the experience – because I nearly didn’t.”

Other concerns are floated – over the IPL’s growing footprint, the ECB’s flippant cancellation of a tour to Pakistan and tepid promotion of the county game – but there are glimmers of hope to be found too.

Much of the optimism concerns gender equality, with scepticism over The Hundred tempered by an enthusiastic embrace of the women’s competition and space afforded to the adoption of the neutral ‘batter’ instead of ‘batsman’. While Emma John argues compellingly for the change, a refusenik’s rebuttal from Alex Massie falls predictably flat.

Light is also shone on the grim fate of women’s cricket – and women’s lives – in Afghanistan after the return of the Taliban regime, with former development officer Tuba Sangar’s narrative ending in four simple words: “Please don’t forget us.”

Hopes for better days – on a cricketing and cultural level – persist but where the game falls short, the 160th edition of Wisden will be there to shine an uncomfortable light.

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