The Little Wonder by Robert Winder

IMG_0107Ah, the winter. A perfect time for dreaming of the summer. During England’s current cricket tour of South Africa, the home team’s first innings in Johannesburg created history: the first time in 140-odd years of Test matches that every member of the XI had made double figures but no-one had scored a fifty. These are the sort of ultimately useless but oh-so-elegant (and, let’s face it, wonderful) statistics that Wisden was invented to record – and no doubt the 2016 edition of cricket’s sacred book will faithfully render these in indelible (if very tiny) black and white. Robert Winder’s The Little Wonder (the nickname of its founder, John Wisden) traces Wisden‘s history from 1864, offering plenty of incidental pleasures: the woodcut on the front was created by Eric Ravilious, for example; Wisden was also, bizarrely, really sniffy about W.G. Grace for a long time; and it’s always lovely to be reminded that there was, in England in the mid-19th century, a professional cricketer called Julius Caesar. Wisden has endured through evolving with the times – not always happily. It did not distinguish itself over the D’Oliveira affair, for instance, and was for far, far too long in a reactionary tizzy over the professional/amateur divide. But it is independent and opinionated – and always full of interest. Very full: Wisden 2015 was 1,520 pages long. (The final page, incidentally, contains the Index of Unusual Occurrences, a feature of the book which alone makes it worth buying: how else would you find out that two players called Stalin and Castro opened the bowling for a club side in Cuba? Or that the match between Haslingden and Church in the Lancashire League had to be halted while the teams chased a thief? That match was reduced to 31 overs per side as a result, by the way. This is the sort of detail that Wisden simply adores). You can always find something delightful. What’s perhaps most remarkable is that Wisden should have survived financial downturns and the internet revolution to remain relevant today. But then, as Winder writes, ‘the richest path through cricket’s undergrowth is still, in many instances, the oldest technology of all: the single finger, the opposable thumb, and a fat yellow book’.

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