Game space

Wisden offers a sobering review of the sick English game

While the arrival of a new Wisden Cricketers almanack is an annual cause for celebration among the sport’s most ardent fans, the 2022 edition represents a sobering review of a struggling English game.

The famous Yellow Book has never been afraid to cast an unflattering mirror on its subject but, even by its own standards, the 159th edition represents a searing address on the state of the nation.

It’s perhaps unsurprising to see Wisden shaking his head at the establishment rather than nodding in approval. In the 12 months since its last publication, there has been much to lament and little to applaud.

From the fallout of Azeem Rafiq’s harrowing tale of systemic racial discrimination to the disastrous form of Test’s flagship men’s team and a series of firings and resignations from key positions, the cooling off period has been complicated.

Wisden Cricketers' Almanac 2022 (Wisden/Bloomsbury Publishing)

© Provided by Cricket365
Wisden Cricketers’ Almanac 2022 (Wisden/Bloomsbury Publishing)

Joe Root’s photo graces the cover, staring into the lens as he performs a glorious cover drive, and he’s also acclaimed as the world’s best cricketer in the awards pages, but batting excellence that saw him reach new heights at the fold is a lesser part of the larger story.

The Ashes’ entire England campaign, which ended in a 4-0 thrashing, is gutted in Lawrence Booth’s editor’s notes. A decade into this prestigious role, Booth tackles planning and executing a torrid journey Down Under, suggesting “no tactics so ill-conceived, no plan too ill-conceived” and suggests that the whole structure leadership is beset by “illusion”.

Contextualizing the hammering among other similar setbacks, he adds: “In a crowded field, it was one of England’s most unfortunate tours”.

While the blame is distributed among those on the ground, including the sacked Chris Silverwood (“a good man but he was out of his depth, thrown into the open sea with a deflated lifeline”), much of the anger is reserved for the decision makers who condemn England to a grueling schedule that ‘reduces athletes to bullets’.

England and Wales Cricket Board chief executive Tom Harrison is facing a volley of criticism, including for his controversial acceptance of a lucrative contract bonus during a spell that saw 62 fired staffers, as well as the two evils of the racist storm and the Test team’s struggles.

After asking Harrison to return some of that money to facilitate the return of some of those who lost their jobs or to replenish the coffers of the organization’s diversity program, Booth laments “the soulless logic of the suiterati, which regard cricket as a business not a sport, measured in pounds and rupees and not in runs and wickets”.

The editor’s notes also cover Rafiq’s landmark appearance before a parliamentary select committee in November, but the former Yorkshire spinner also gets the chance to speak for himself in a lengthy first-person essay. Having laid bare his own experiences at the forefront of cricket’s long reckoning with entrenched discrimination, he ends with an exhortation for cricket to seize its defining moment.

“If the ECB doesn’t learn from this, we’ll be sitting here in 20 years with another racist scandal on our hands,” he wrote.

Azeem Rafiq contributes a candid essay about his experiences as a racism whistleblower (House of Commons/PA)

© Provided by Cricket365
Azeem Rafiq contributes a candid essay about his experiences as a racism whistleblower (House of Commons/PA)

“If that happens, I hope the person involved survives the experience – because I almost didn’t.”

Other worries float around – over the IPL’s growing footprint, the ECB’s flippant cancellation of a Pakistan tour and the county’s lukewarm promotion of the game – but there are also glimmers of hope to find.

Much of the optimism is about gender equality, with skepticism over The Hundred tempered by an enthusiastic embrace of female competition and the space given to embracing the gender-neutral “drummer” instead. of the “drummer”. While Emma John makes a compelling case for change, a refusalnik rebuttal from Alex Massie predictably falls flat.

Light is also shed on the grim plight of women’s cricket – and women’s lives – in Afghanistan following the return of Taliban rule, with former development worker Tuba Sangar’s account ending in four simple words: ‘S’ please don’t forget us”.

Hopes of better days – cricketally and culturally – linger but where the game fails, the 160th edition of Wisden will be there to shine an uncomfortable light.