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The Spin | Behind the scenes at Wisden: 161 years old and still going strong
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The Spin | Behind the scenes at Wisden: 161 years old and still going strong

The commission came by post, which was unusual even in 1994. We don’t pay very well, it said, but we can offer you “a sliver of immortality”. Only the editor of Wisden could have written that.

The editor was Matthew Engel, whose waspish wit had (unwittingly) lured me into sports writing. Five years earlier, when I was mulling an unexpected offer to switch from arts and features editing to being the cricket writer for the Independent on Sunday, what swung it was rereading an anthology of Matthew’s sparkling spell in the same role at the Guardian. So I jumped at the chance to work with him and spent long hours sweating over the Almanack’s media roundup. Only in Wisden could this appear on page 1,359.

In 1996 Matthew was looking for a new editor for Wisden Cricket Monthly. Even if I hadn’t been a fan of his, Wisden would have been hard to turn down. I had bought my first Almanack when I was 10, shelling out a full £2 (these days it’s £60). I wasn’t a collector, but felt the pull of Wisden’s history, which began in 1864, a decade before Test cricket itself.

The problem with the pull was that it tended to drag people back into the past. Even the Monthly, founded by the cricket historian David Frith in 1979, had become dated. It needed refreshing – with greater diversity, bigger pictures and livelier writing. To Frith, all this was probably froth, but we had to attract younger readers.

And younger writers. We started an intern scheme, which did well because aspiring cricket correspondents had nowhere else to go. The first intern was Tanya Aldred, now the Guardian’s queen of the county scene. Her successors included Rob Smyth, now the master of the over-by-over report, and Lawrence Booth, now the editor of Wisden.

They all showed precocious talent, but Lawrence had something even rarer: a precocious temperament. Whatever task you threw at him, he kept strikingly calm. When we set about building an up-to-the-minute Wisden website in 2001, he was the lead writer. Soon he joined the Guardian, where he launched a newsletter called the Spin.

Our website was doomed: Cricinfo, the Wisden of the world wide web, was too far ahead. Wisden’s then owners, the Gettys, saw this and merged the two (if you can’t beat ’em, buy ’em), before selling Cricinfo to Disney. I was laid off, then instantly re-engaged because the Almanack needed an editor for 2003, until Matthew returned from a Guardian job in Washington. I couldn’t resist the chance to be Wisden’s shortest-serving editor.

Again, it was obvious what was required: some sympathetic renovation. While Wisden’s words had become more colourful, the layout remained stubbornly dull. The cover, set in stone since 1938, was an annual nonevent. It was crying out for a photo of the player who had dominated the previous year, preferably showing some passion. I pledged to keep the distinguishing features – the yellow background, the Playbill logo, the stumpy dimensions – and to add only a black-and-white portrait. The chairman, Sir Paul Getty, was swayed by one argument: wouldn’t the 1948 edition have been more memorable with Compton and Edrich on the cover, celebrating their feats in 1947?

Copies of the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack are displayed at a book saleView image in fullscreen

When we announced the change, the Guardian put it on the front page and ran a follow-up feature by Lawrence. From elsewhere on Fleet Street came the sound of harrumphing. To Ian Wooldridge, the Daily Mail sportswriter, putting a photo on the cover of Wisden was “scarcely less heretical than slapping a picture of Judas Iscariot on future editions of the Holy Bible”. That seemed a rather unsporting thing to say about the young Michael Vaughan. Giles Smith, in the Telegraph, had a smarter line: “De Lisle has dragged Wisden, kicking and screaming, into the 1920s.”

An email came in from a contributor, Simon Barnes. “Hope you’ve enjoyed your year,” he said, “as Wisden’s George Lazenby.” I certainly had, thanks to the quiet excellence of the permanent staff, though you do feel the weight of the thing when it lands on your shoulders. The page proofs are daunting, the pressure bracing. You have to work out not what you think about cricket’s neverending issues, but what Wisden thinks. Uneasy lies the head responsible for writing the Notes.

The best bit is being an ex-editor. Wisden’s publisher and mainstay, Chris Lane, kindly invites us all to the launch dinner in the Long Room at Lord’s. Waiting at every place, next to the wine glasses, is a bright yellow book. Every year I leaf through it, chuckling at the errata page (this time there’s a slip on a county scorecard that went undetected for 98 years) and admiring Lawrence’s discreet updates. Before his time only one woman had ever been among the five cricketers of the year (Claire Taylor, chosen by Scyld Berry in 2009); Lawrence has named nine more, including the first female cover star, Anya Shrubsole, in 2018.

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Every editor leaves a stamp. John Woodcock made Wisden wiser, Graeme Wright broadened its horizons, Engel gave it a sense of humour, Berry made it more about the players. Lawrence, the son of two therapists, has made it more diverse and empathic. “I’ve tried to be guided,” he says, “by the idea that cricket’s place in the world is as fascinating as cricket itself. Tanya Aldred’s annual piece about the impact of the climate crisis should feel as natural as a farewell to Stuart Broad.”

He now has a record of his own. The 2024 Almanack is Lawrence’s 13th, taking him past Matthew as the longest-serving of living editors. He just needs to quit before he rivals Norman Preston (1952-1980), whose final decade was not his best.

At the grand old age of 161, Wisden should be an anachronism. Yet it remains a perennial bestseller and headline grabber, because it acts as the conscience of cricket. It’s in good hands with Lawrence, who has a moral compass to match his composure.

Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack 2024 (Bloomsbury Publishing PLC, £60). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

Source: theguardian.com