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Pearls of Wisden

This article appeared in the Sunday Herald

Neither the passage of 13 months nor a similar terrorist outrage before this year’s African Cup of Nations football tournament have made the details any less shocking.

The murderous attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore last year should never have been allowed to happen. But it did; and its survivors will be haunted by it for the rest of their lives.

The account of those awful minutes inside the team bus contained in the 2010 Wisden Cricketers’ Almanac leaves us in little doubt of that. Written by Scyld Berry, the Sunday Telegraph’s cricket correspondent (and for the third year running Wisden’s editor), along with an Indian colleague, Nagraj Gollapudi, it includes interviews with many of the men who came under siege that morning, and it is incredibly moving. Right-handed batsman Tillakaratne Dilshan, we learn, risked his own life by daring to pop his head up and navigate as the driver got the bus moving towards safety. Mahela Jayawardene, too, dodged bullets, as he sought to assess the situation, while in the minibus carrying the match officials to the Gadaffi Stadium, the English referee Chris Broad helped save the life of Ahsan Raza, the fourth umpire, by stanching the flow of blood from a bullet wound.

“On a very basic level, it’s interesting how some of these guys reacted,” says Berry. “It’s a matter of conjecture how ordinary people might react in similar circumstances, but basically they had to take it lying down, which is not something sportsmen do easily. They don’t like to hide. That’s what they found so difficult looking back afterwards – they hadn’t been able to fight this enemy back.”

According to Berry it is the “duty” of Wisden to recapture the event for posterity, a view that is in-keeping with the publication’s significance in the cricket world. Wisden is no officially sanctioned gospel: it is known as cricket’s “bible” because it does not flinch from telling the sport the truth about itself. “It’s the game’s summary of itself,” says Berry, who wrote for the Herald in the 1980s. “Few human activities summarise, analyse and chronicle themselves as coherently and articulately.”

John Wisden, a pioneering cricketer in Victorian times, published his first Almanac in 1864. The book, which cost five shillings, ran to only 112 pages and included non-cricketing information such as dates of battles in the English Civil War, an account of the trial of Charles I and a list of winners of The Oaks to pad it out. This year’s Wisden runs to 1728 pages and retails at £45, but for many of the game’s followers, at least in England, it is indispensable.

There is, in fact, no better indication that the cricket season is entering full swing than Wisden’s arrival on the shelves. This year, Englishmen have the added bonus of being able to look back on 12 months of solid achievement. One of the book’s major draws is a piece written by the England captain Andrew Strauss in which he claims the home side’s Ashes success last summer can be attributed to collective will: “What people like to call the unity, or spine, of the team.”

“It was a good year for England,” says Berry, “particularly I think as they didn’t lose in South Africa over the winter. In 2005, after winning the Ashes, they lost everything for a long time afterwards but this time they didn’t suddenly go from fourth gear into reverse. And they kicked on in 50-over cricket as well, beating South Africa 2-1 out there, only the second team they had lost to at home in 50-over cricket.”

But it’s not all a case of jolly good show, chaps. In his Editor’s Notes, Berry does not shy away from the problems facing English cricket, or indeed where the England and Wales Cricket Board have let the game down.

“We really ought to have an inquiry into why England have never won anything in limited-overs cricket,” he says. “They’re the only major Test-playing country never to have won either a World Cup or Champions Trophy. The ECB shouldn’t get away with such a history of failure. Their response has been to cut the 50-over format from the domestic programme and replace it with a 40-over structure that’s wholly absent from the international stage, which is a very good way of making sure you never win anything.”

Berry also voices concern that England’s reliance of late on batsmen born or bred in South Africa exposes a frail underbelly in terms of county cricket’s record of developing young talent.

“You just have to be a promising 18-year-old without ever having performed at senior level and you can be on a contract of £40,000 a year for three years, so what’s the incentive to go and play in the under-19 World Cup for England if you have a good living at such an early age?” he wonders. “English players born in England have to be nurtured into winners.”

But while there is a place for gripes, the overall tone of Wisden is more celebratory than reproachful. In that spirit, we find Michael Parkinson writing, in praise of Ricky Ponting, that “he has always been a particularly Australian mongrel, an unflinching cross between battler and maestro”.

And in the “Chronicle” section, the editor has culled all manner of jocose tidbits from the world’s sports pages, including the news that in Pakistan a team of eunuchs beat a side of “normal” male cricketers in the first match of its kind, and that 500 prisoners in Kolkata went on strike after the authorities refused to install cable TV so they could watch IPL matches.

There is also an excellent article by Stephen Chalke about how cricket helped boost morale in communities throughout England in the post-war years. It is a reminder that while geopolitics – and even atrocities – may occasionally cast their pall on sport, it will take more to extinguish its spirit.