Wisden has been turned into a depressing, wry political pamphlet
The 2022 Widen is perhaps the most depressing since the 1917 edition, which listed the cricketers who died in the Somme, and in the other dreadful battles of the previous year.
The misery which the new edition inspires is twofold: recognition of the truly sorry state of English cricket and the idiocy of many of those who run it; and the publisher’s obsession with pointing out the Widen brand virtue on the offensive treatment of non-white people by some distasteful white people and, to a lesser extent, the profile of women in the game.
Lawrence Booth, Widen‘s editor, has a form on political grandstanding. Last year he showed poor judgment when he approved the stunt of ‘taking the knee’ before matches. It was an error in judgment not because there is anything insane about hating racism; but it was naive not to realize that Black Lives Matter, whose signature gesture is “taking the knee”, is in Britain a predominantly anarchist organization committed to the overthrow of capitalism. Manipulative (and often white) extremists exploit the vulnerability of ethnic minorities to make political points that, unlike anti-racism, are deeply offensive to most people. I regret having to write about such things in a cricket column, but if Widen must continue to obsess over politics, a cricket columnist cannot ignore the ramifications.
We are spared a repetition of this advice. However, Booth doesn’t just mention the racism controversy, sparked by former Yorkshire player Azeem Rafiq’s experiences with his county, in his editor’s notes: he also commissioned a separate piece from Rafiq himself. , whose testimony must be taken at face value; there is another article on what happened in Yorkshire, which makes many of the same points; and the self-flagellation continues in an article on rebel tours of apartheid-era South Africa (although this at least allows some of the actors involved to defend themselves) and an article by Charles Barr, a prominent film historian, on Philip Larkin’s interest in cricket. It inevitably comes with health warnings about the poet’s distasteful views of black people.
But the overkill really sets in with Booth’s decision to print an abridgement of MCC Cowdrey’s annual Spirit of Cricket lecture, given last November by Stephen Fry. Fry is a gifted and likeable man, with a genuine love of cricket; but this conference is not his finest intellectual achievement. He knows and uses all the tricks of the trade of an evangelist to assert his point of view on the evil of racism; after basking in self-mockery over his inability to deliver this lecture, he adopts the classic lawyer approach of dehumanizing the enemy he is attacking while viewing the argument he is advancing as beyond any criticism. Speaking about the Rafiq controversy, he calls it one of those ‘unsavory scandals’ which create a ‘suffocating miasma’, with Yorkshire giving off a ‘mephitic stench’ which has been smelled around the world.
Fry endured mental health issues, for which any sympathetic person should sympathize; and he mentions how he suffered bullying at school, but used his superior mind to defeat his bullies. So he claims an understanding of the misery and alienation felt by players – Rafiq and other victims of racism – abused and insulted by teammates, and left to writhe in the wind by those who should have protected them. As a gay man, Fry said he felt “manly cricket and the manly world of manly men” did not accept people like him. But the law changed to grant Fry equal rights, including marriage; and cricket has changed too. Fry hates conservatism in cricket, even when it can’t hurt anyone: he mocks one of the few constituencies of people still allowed to be ridiculed with impunity, saying ‘white balls and black screens threaten health mental of Telegraph readers everywhere.” He’s zealous up to date with all the new language, dropping ridiculous “hitters” and “ash men” in his remarks, and ridiculing those who would attack him to be “awakened.”
Widen be careful. All sane people – this includes Telegraph readers – will hate any player at any level being treated by teammates or officials in a way different from all other players. Likewise, anyone who loves cricket would want the women’s game to be encouraged.
However, the exaggeration of the racial controversy represents a determination to educate Wisden readers about their thinking and behavior. Most people do not need such rehabilitation; but the sport will always attract its share of less educated, immature and insensitive men whose testosterone overload will make them less susceptible to reason and control, now and forever. One was Rafiq himself, who acknowledged youthful anti-Semitism and who, to his credit, apologized. Fry has every right to disdain ‘manhood’ and use excessively colorful language to ridicule the way cricket has been run, but many shouldn’t be expected to agree with him or resent him. need to do it. He can view the Gentlemen v Players match as cause for shame, which shows an interesting understanding of the historical context; but if he thinks he can eliminate male aggression, in all its unpleasant manifestations, from competitive sport, he is too optimistic.
A rather smug photograph shows those present at Fry’s lecture giving him a standing ovation. It must have sounded better than it reads, which is a personal testament and not a serious insight into a troubled game. If Booth had dealt with the Yorkshire controversy more concisely, he might have made his important point about common decency much more effectively. It might also have found room – as it did before – for articles outside the obituaries pages of two prominent English names who died last year: Ray Illingworth and Ted Dexter. But both were white, neither was a woman, one was a tof and the other was guilty of an even more shocking sin: he was a Yorkshireman. The perspective is flawed and anti-historical, and many readers won’t like it.
To be fair to Booth, he pays attention to how the Test and Championship cricket are destroyed by stupid and venal administrators; but it is a shame that he focused on political issues and not on how, or if, serious cricket could be saved. Less and less Test cricket is being played; we are in the era, for most countries, of the series of the two Tests. It may not be long before English crowds get used to something similar.
If Booth remains editor, he might like to devote much of the next year to debating how to save serious cricket, which is clear (from this year’s remarks) that the Almanac believes to be under existential threat. For the time being, Widen seems to be doing its part to alienate traditional cricket fans – not because such people are inevitably racist or sexist, but precisely because they are not; and are tired of being lectured as if by a book where the balance between politics and gambling has been seriously upset.
With any luck, the Almanac is going through a rather unfortunate phase. It’s a shame the same can’t be said of cricket.