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CRICKET: WISDEN’S LEG BEFORE WICKET

February 11, 2018

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Illustration by Feica
Illustration by Feica

It is a hard thing to watch when a trusted institution begins to lose its way.

The Wisden Cricketer’s Almanac has been in existence, I assume, since before Cro Magnon man walked the earth. Its annual release of writing has typically encapsulated the essence of the previous English summer. Who won. Who lost. What happened in the counties. What were the talking points.

Within its bindings also flow the Five Wisden Cricketers of the Year. Or, as was the case in 2011, only four. In that year, editor Scyld Berry pragmatically refused to name Mohammad Amir as his fifth award winner. Probably because of the well-known spot-fixing scandal.

By ignoring the feats of Pakistan’s ODI team in last year’s Champions Trophy for its cover, the cricketing almanac has made the wrong choice. Can its judgment be trusted anymore?

The other important task of the editor is to choose a worthy picture for the front cover. One that commemorates the spirit of the season. An image that demonstrates impact on English cricket. Most likely a player. Rarely a debatable choice. Usually the best English cricketer from the international matches. Sometimes the best touring player. Now and then the best county player.

In 2017, editor Lawrence Booth made the unusual call that Virat Kohli would adorn this irreplaceable yellow book for his 2016 achievements. Unusual in the fact that the photo was of Kohli playing a reverse sweep. Unusual in that, in 2016, Virat Kohli didn’t play a single international match in England. Booth had decided that the batsman’s heroics elsewhere eclipsed anything seen on local soil for the year.

A brave call? Curious in the least but perhaps a sighter that Wisden was morphing to take a wider, less jingoistic view of the cricketing landscape. In Wisden’s eyes, Kohli’s feats elsewhere had such a global impact that the traditions of what led on the cover need not be based on things happening in England.

This year, Wisden have recently announced that Anya Shrubsole will adorn the front cover. The first time a woman has appeared as the face of the Almanac. Shrubsole has strong claims. She singehandedly turned the Women’s World Cup final against India and was named player of the tournament.

However, she wasn’t the only triumphant captain of an ICC tournament held in England in 2017. The Champions Trophy was also played. The lesser of the ICC men’s ODI tournaments, but an important one nonetheless.

Not that I need to jog anyone’s memory, but Pakistan qualified in last place. They then beat England and India in successive matches to claim the prize. The Pakistan versus India final was easily the biggest cricket match played on the planet last year. It was perhaps the biggest match up in any sport seen globally that year. From a pure TV audience perspective, there was no contest.

Yet the achievements of that team and its heroes have been passed over. For context, not even a third of the Women’s World Cup matches were televised locally in the UK. Those that did make it to prime time were hidden behind the behemoth of the Sky Sports pay wall.

Yet the cricket media that attended were pumping this tournament up as a game-changer for women. The making of a glorious female future. The greatest cricket event ever seen. A right royal circle jerk of niche interests and social justice warriors getting drunk on their own gushing fairytales and practical misnomers. For although the Women’s World Cup was a serious success, it pales into insignificance when measuring its impacts versus Pakistan’s Champions Trophy win.

The women cricket hipster journalists claim it was the birth of equality and put women’s cricket on the map. The harsh reality is that it didn’t. Until India made the final, the vast majority of cricket fans globally would have been blind to the fact that the event was even on. It wasn’t reported as front page news. It hardly featured on TV sports wrap ups. Cricket fans were not talking about it with their mates.

Outside of the UK, it was about as well-followed as the South Kingston Over 45s tiddlywinks tournament. A wonderful local event of overstated importance by those that had direct fiscal links to the size of the hype they could collectively convince their editors of.

Now none of this should be perceived as an anti-women’s cricket stance.

My message is that the Women’s World Cup was not as great as some vocal journalists make it out to be. In global terms, it was a blip compared to the impact of the Champions Trophy. And given that Wisden had, a year earlier, used its front cover to highlight the impact of non-UK based events, by ignoring the resultant changes in Pakistan — both in cricket and socially due to the Champions Trophy — Wisden has, in fact, embraced inconsistency, with potential for allegations of pandering to the cool kids of the press pack.

That historic win last year brought all the bubbling sentiment and drive and want to the surface. Thousands gathered outside Sarfraz’s modest house. This doesn’t happen if it doesn’t mean anything. How many cricket fans gathered at Shrubsole’s home?

Despite claims to the contrary, the true flow on benefits from the Women’s World Cup have been negligible. Brutal honesty reveals to us that the Women’s Big Bash League is the true mover and shaker in regards to advancing the female cause in cricket. A professional league with free to air local coverage, every match available to stream online at no cost, proper wages for its players, creating a pathway for the subsequent launch of the Kia Super League in the UK and, therefore, a true circuit of professionalism and sponsorship opportunities. It is the T20 leagues that are championing the growth in women’s cricket in a tangible sense. Not the Women’s World Cup.

In fact, the most powerful and everlasting moment of the Women’s World Cup was Indian captain Mithali Raj at a press conference. When asked “Who is your favourite male cricketer?”, Raj responded with “Do you ask the same question to a male cricketer? I have always been asked ‘who’s your favourite cricketer’ but you should ask them who their favourite female cricketer is.”

Now if Wisden really wanted to grab the essence of the Women’s World Cup and a game-changing moment from within it, then this was that nugget of gold. A picture of Raj’s angry and defiant face responding to that male reporter would have been worthy of Wisden’s cover. It was that response that was heard around the world. It was that moment that will leave the bigger legacy if that were the Almanac’s aim.

But if Wisden’s front cover decision was based on promoting the cause of the women’s game ahead of pure cricketing triumph, then where will it stop? Would we have the same warm and fuzzy feelings if Wisden had chosen a picture of Moeen Ali with his “Save Gaza” wristband or perhaps Jane McGrath representing the “Pink Test” cause. Sure, the second example is not necessarily English, but Wisden showed with its Virat Kohli cover that it no longer required the cricketing influence to have occurred in England.

But objectively for this year’s cover, and despite its raw power, Raj’s words still trail the rebirth of Pakistan’s pride and desire to return international tours to home soil as the biggest cricketing event that England saw in 2017.And therefore the question is what do Wisden now value more? Is it cricketing performance, is it social activism or is it human impact?

It is not a trivial question, given the history and reverence that the institution of Wisden holds. Because whether you appreciate it or not, making the cover of Wisden is a pinnacle. Wisden has tremendous gravitas. Its words and pictures define and record the history of the game like no other. Whatever Wisden publishes about you becomes irrefutable truth for the ages. Only Wisden writes the history of cricket. It is where scholars go to understand the past. It is the sport’s holy book.

As a concept, the promotion of women’s cricket is as important to the game as any other issue. But should the prestige and purity of what the Wisden cover has represented for all this time be highjacked by lesser achievements? Because if so, then in this case, Shrubsole wasn’t the best choice. If we are looking for the biggest impact for the cause of women’s cricket, then it was Mithali Raj. If Wisden were looking for the biggest impact on cricket as a whole, then it wasn’t Raj who deserved the honour. It was the Pakistan ODI team that brought home the Champions Trophy.

And the reason for this is that without this win, the fabulous momentum that we now see in regards to returning international cricket to Pakistan would not be there. It is true that, prior to the Champions Trophy win, Zimbabwe had toured Pakistan. That a PSL final had been held at Lahore. But none of these were full-fledged international tours undertaken by a major cricketing nation. And it is this that Pakistan is lacking and it is this that the Pakistani public crave with all of their heart.

That historic win last year brought all the bubbling sentiment and drive and want to the surface. Thousands gathered outside Sarfraz’s modest house. This doesn’t happen if it doesn’t mean anything. How many cricket fans gathered at Shrubsole’s home? International players began to show their support to visit Pakistan. Administrators became more vocal and confident that they could engineer a way through. Corporates pledged money. The World XI happened. The Sri Lankan T20 series happened. All of this on the back of Champions Trophy success. Versus India. In England.

Next year’s cover will be interesting, primarily on the basis that no one now knows what the rules are. It is clearly not just based on the best cricketing feat achieved in England during the summer, as it has been for generations. The Virat Kohli cover proved that. This Shrubsole one reinforces this even more.

In a sense, Wisden have chosen the easy path rather than the correct one. In this regard, history is being recorded with inaccuracies. And this is a problem, because Wisden is trusted like no other. Let’s hope that trust isn’t eroded through this change of focus and direction.

Dennis Freedman is an Australian cricket journalist and host of the popular Can’t Bowl Can’t Throw cricket podcast and is a regular contributor to Dawn

He tweets @DennisCricket_

Published in Dawn, EOS, February 11th, 2018