Club Cricket Conference

Wednesday, 24th April 2024

Essential Wisden revives cricket's eccentricity and heritage

By Charles Randall

10 January 2014


A French player once completed a winning run in the European Nations competition not realising he had suffered a fractured skull, readers of a famous almanack were told in 1998.

This anecdote and hundreds of other curiosities have been assembled in a volume called The Essential Wisden (Bloomsbury; £50). The joint editors John Stern and Marcus Williams, both experienced cricket writers, trawled through 150 years of Wisden Cricketers' Almanack material to draw out interesting items and crisp journalism through the ages. The result is a very fat book well worth the price and highly recommended.

The France last man David Bordes nearly killed himself before a one-run victory over Germany could be achieved, a result that landed the 1997 European title in Switzerland. He declined to wear a helmet, knowing he only had one ball to face at the end of the innings, and he was struck on the forehead before staggering through for what turned out to be the crucial run.

After the incident, mentioned on page 1002, Bordes collapsed after making his ground for the honour of his country and spent two weeks in hospital. It was several months before he could claim a full recovery, but he went on to play a major part in the rise of cricket among ethnic French people.

It was not in the remit of The Essential Wisden to dwell on the characters in the book, so they might have added that Bordes, a leg-spinner and left-hand bat aged 23 at the time, went on to become a coach, selector and key member of France Cricket. In a 2010 interview for the BBC he pointed out that almost half the 1,200 registered players were Frenchmen after years of expatriate dominance, and since then many primary schools have introduced children to cricket.

Lesser injuries are common enough in cricket, but on page 1001 a lady spectator at Hove was twice hit by a cricket ball in separate incidents during a day's play between Sussex and Gloucestershire in the 1995 county championship. A boundary by Andrew Symonds struck her in the face and, after she returned from treatment, she was struck on the leg by a Symonds six.

Every turn of the page contains something of interest, though professional cricket from around the world naturally dominates. Big events are covered; personalities are dissected. The wonderful breadth of the game remains constantly on show. For example, by picking a page at random - 722 in this case - you would read how Northamptonshire managed to lose at home to Essex after hitting 632 in their first innings. Another flip... and on page 1016 two teams representing Himachal Pradesh, a province split by a political quarrel, turned up to play Triplura in Indian domestic competition, both teams taking the field at the same time with a claim as legitimate opponents.

The Northampton game incidentally, in 2002, proved to be one of Andrew Flower's most impressive performances with the bat as he hit 103 not out and then a run-a-ball 93 not out as Essex chased down 291 in 52 overs with more than two overs to spare.

Much of the writing stems from eye-witness, a particular strength of the collection. The Earl of Darnley followed Frederick Spofforth's career after facing The Demon in a Cambridge University game against the Australians in 1878. Darnley wrote in recollection: "I should imagine that the nickname of 'Demon' arose from the terrifying aspect of his final bound at the wicket when delivering the ball - long lean arms whirling through the air at a commanding height and a long delivery stride coming down with great force and damaging effect on a very awkward spot for a break-back ball bowled from the other end."

So roughing up the pitch was a problem in that era as much as, or probably more than, these days. Darnley recounted that Spofforth was tall at 6ft 3in and sinewy, and a "cheery and amusing companion". Spofforth weighed only 11st 7lb at his best, according to the bowler himself, and Darnley added: "His early life on horseback in the Australian bush gave to him the lasting power which made him incomparably the best stayer of any fast or medium-pace bowler I can remember."

The Darnley writing appears in the obituaries section amid a startling array of accounts, curiosities and anecdotes. Roy Sheffield, an Essex wicketkeeper between the Wars, was arrested on suspicion of being a Bolivian spy as he canoed down the River Paraguay while the Bodyline series was unfolding in Australia. Sam Morris became the first Afro-black man to play Test cricket and the only one to represent Australia, his parents apparently arriving from the West Indies during the Victoria gold rush. Seymour Clark, a steam train driver from Weston-super-Mare, did not play cricket until the age of 25, but was spotted keeping wicket with natural brilliance in a railwaymen's make-up game and he was selected five times by Somerset as Wally Luckes' deputy in 1930. The list of famous and not-so-famous goes on.

This book is difficult to put down.

The Essential Wisden: An Anthology of 150 Years of Wisden Cricketers' Almanack

Edited by John Stern and Marcus Williams (Bloomsbury; £50)