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The freaks of nurture – A review of the 2017 Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack

Posted: 11th April 2017

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‘Remember, offside only’, we’d all shout at each other.

Back in the late 1960’s, out on a nice area of flat grass near our house, with a large tree on it, ideal for doubling up as a wicket, the best way of deploying my brother, his friend and myself in our 3-sided game was to place the one of us not batting or bowling in the area of what might loosely be described as the covers.

With this set-up, the batsman was not allowed to hit to the legside and had to hit everything on the offside.

That role was where the work of the day had to be done as the fielder had to chase and field every ball hit on the offside of the strip we had created from the bowler’s wicket to our large tree.

This way of playing, also meant that even though the appropriate choice of shot for the batsman might well have been a glance, drive or pull to leg, it just didn’t seem right, even though thinking back, there was nothing to stop the bowler becoming the leg side fielder in addition to his bowling duties.

Back then of course, the reverse sweep as shown by India’s Virat Kohli above on the front cover of the dust wrapper for this year’s Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack, had not been developed. Such a stroke would have been one way for us to re-direct all those ill directed leg side deliveries back onto the offside where our lone fielder patrolled.

So the phrase, ‘offside only’ developed and balls to the leg side or ones which could be hit there were actually caught or stopped and returned to the bowler.

It was our way of playing: our way of having fun and enjoying the game with the resources and space we had at our disposal.

In later years, even when playing at a decent standard in club cricket, it is perhaps no surprise that my strength was on, you’ve guessed it, the offside and I struggled to score runs on the legside, even though, it seemed, the higher standard you played at, the more the better players were stronger legside players than offside ones.

This was an aspect of the game that I experienced as a bowler and I became increasingly aware that when bowling my seamers, with the better players, if my line drifted towards middle and leg, the ball would be worked away for runs with infuriating regularity.

Many kids played like we did in our early days above and the topic of learning in all types of different environments is covered in one of the fascinating articles in the Comment section of this year’s Wisden published a few days ago to coincide with the start of the 2017 domestic cricket season.

The article is included in the openings section of the 154th edition of the famous book and looks back at a number of the early starts in the game made by many well know top players.

Peculiar Cricket Educations: Freaks of Nurture is written by Rob Smyth, author of Gentlemen and Sledgers: A History of the Ashes in 100 Quotations and Confrontations.    

In his article, Rob takes us through numerous examples of how some of the best players in the world in recent times began their first steps in the game, often at home with relatives.

Just like my brother, his friend and me above, even the very best players like Ricky Ponting, Sachin Tendulkar, Brian Lara, the Waugh brothers and Ben Stokes had to start somewhere and usually at home in their garden, up and down the hallway or nearby in the local alley, street or park.

Techniques and shot selection were developed as a function of restrictions which the circumstances dictated. Hit the ball into Grandpa’s Azelias and you were out. Playing without pads, if the ball hit you, it hurt, leading to an even keener eye to watch a deviating delivery onto your bat and not your shin. Glance the ball into the bushes and you were out; direct it between them into the fence and you scored a 4.

Rob Smyth takes us through a number of intriguing situations which faced our top stars when they were young, all of which are unique to each player in question but nontheless seem similar to ones we experienced ourselves.

Whilst the MCC Coaching manual might well tell us all the correct way to do things; so many of us at all levels of the game actually learned the game and developed our basic techniques in circumstances far adrift from the perfection of the pages of coaching manuals.

Rob finishes his article with a repeat of the lovely line above in the sub heading of his piece. He makes the point that although each player’s early experiences will be slightly different, every player can recognise and relate to the experiences of others. They are all freaks of nurture, he concludes.

The piece, as ever, is one of a number of really good ones, perhaps essay is the best way to describe them, written on a number of quite eclectic topics in the first section of the almanack, Part 1 – Comment.

The first section of the almanack begins traditionally, with the usual Notes from the Editor and this year, Lawrence Booth again takes us through his view of what might be called the state of play of the game with all the changes and often conflicting pressures trying to integrate together in order to move the game forward.

Booth covers the England team in all its forms where what comes across is a bit of stagnation compared to performances and results in recent times. Also covered is the change in England Test captaincy from Alistair Cook to Joe Root. As we get older, the saying goes, everyone else seems to get younger and I feel this about Root. Joe is a fine batsman and time will tell about his effectiveness as a captain but I can’t help looking at him and feeling as though he is cricket’s version of Dougie Howser having taken over the top job in running the NHS. Nonetheless, I wish him well, of course.

Also in the notes are remarks about other issues including proposals for a better structure in which to play Test cricket and to help market it better to regain spectators.

The plight of Durham, whose recent experiences are a microcosm of the issues which counties face in trying to operate at the top table of cricket’s domestic finances where there seems to be such a fine line between getting it right and getting it wrong enough to bring down harsh financial and playing penalties onto the county’s head.

Following Booth’s notes, as well as the article by Rob Smyth, the Comments section is full of the usual features like the various Wisden awards including the 5 Cricketers of the Year but also various other interesting articles on such topics as Alistair Cook and Joe Root (again), the history of the 6, the much respected and recently lost broadcaster and journalist Tony Cozier and a look at the changing demographics of cricketers overall but especially in the England teams where the old working class links have been deteriorating despite the excellent work of the likes of the Chance to Shine charity. Between 1960 and 1990, 60% of England cricketers came from state schools. Since 1990, that figure has halved.

In the next section of the book, Part 2 – The Wisden Review looks at the game in the previous year through various topics, themes and areas, like the media, the blogs (where Goals and Wickets got a mention back in 2013!), Cricketana, the law, the weather and also obituaries on all the key cricketing figures who left us in the last year.

England’s year follows in Part 3 – England’s International Cricket. Playing for your country, especially if you are someone like Joe Root, is almost a full time job now.

The section on Part 4 – English Domestic Cricket comes next in, with the scorecards and potted summary of all the previous season’s County Championship matches in addition to summaries of all the matches in the One-Day Cup and T20 competitions.

Historically, the almanack was known for publishing the full scorecards of all County Championship matches and indeed, the book still does this.

These scorecards are supplemented with summaries of the matches in the Royal London One-Day Cup and the T20 Blast.

It seems that the dot ball has come of age as in his opening preface, editor Lawrence Booth lets readers know that these are now recorded in their own column in the T20 scorecards reflecting the importance of such deliveries in that format of the game.

I particularly like the next section, Part 5 – Overseas Cricket and there are sub sections on the game in each of the test playing nations. These sub sections are divided again into a look at the international cricket played by each nation and then the domestic cricket competitions played through the local cricket season.

This is the section of the almanack where you can find out about the Ranji Trophy in India or the Big Bash T20 competition in Australia. Whilst at home, we are constantly looking at our domestic competitions, their formats and schedules (a topic close to me own cricketing heart – see the Other Topics column on the Cricket homepage of the site), whatever changes take place pail to insignificance when considering that in Pakistan, the First Class structure has retained the same format and number of competing teams on 2 consecutive years only once since 2000.

Reflecting the place of the Women’s game within the sport, the next section is devoted to the women’s game: Part 6 – Women’s Cricket.

Then comes the section on statistics and records in Part 7 – Records and Registers which many people would think of immediately when Wisden is mentioned. This information used to be at the front of the almanack but for some time, have been placed towards the back of the book in the penultimate section.

Finally comes a sort of miscellaneous section with the information which doesn’t fit into the other sections: Part 8 – The Alamanck.

As always, the photographs in the almanack are brilliant. For a book now 153 years old, there have only been colour photographs in the last 2 decades but these are now often stunning images. Last year, I picked a favourite but this year, it seems almost disrespectful to single one photo out amongst so many superb ones.

My advice is look at them all and enjoy them all. Each and every one of them has its own story.

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I mentioned last year how Wisden is special for many reasons and means something unique to every cricket enthusiast who enjoys it.

I was teenager in the late 1960’s when I was introduced to Wisden. I loved the books, especially the linen covers and the front cover design, in those days, produced with a different colour typeface each year. I even loved the peculiar smell of the books, probably something to do with an early attraction to glue used in the binding.

Now, many years on, looking at the latest Wisden, even though the almanack is organic and dynamic, changing a little bit each year to reflect the sport it covers, its consistency as far as style, tone, writing quality and deep commitment to cricket in how its production team put it together mean that it is reassuringly reliable, consistent and enduring, almost everlasting and therefore what seems like a constant while everything changes around it.

Finally, when reviewing last years, almanack, Richie Benaud could be seen signing off in the shape of a nice photo on the back cover.

This year, it’s time for some personal reflection as, at the time of writing, someone else hugely important in my life is about to sign off: my mother.

We can almost go full circle back to my childhood experiences playing the game for fun out in the local park mentioned above at the top of the post.

Without my mum, that would never have happened. When she spotted that my cricket button had been well and truly switched on, it was her relentless support which helped to nurture that interest and helped to turn it into a love of the game.

Indeed, whilst dad did his bit helping with all the driving to school and colts matches, often, like lots of dads, he was at work. His help had to be at the weekends. Mum did all the rest and without her, I would never have been introduced to Wisden (she always bought the gifts at Christmas and birthday) and would not have attended all the net practices at club and later at County level during the winters, when I got older.

If my brother and I wanted to go to Lord’s to watch Middlesex or occasionally, down to the Oval to see Surrey, without hesitation, she found the change for the bus or tube, the admission, a scorecard and something to eat and drink.

When I had got a bit older and was playing a few big matches at my level, she made the trip with either my brother or sister (or both) to places like Queens College Oxford in 1976 when I was playing for Liverpool University against Loughborough Colleges in a UAU Semi-Final match (see Other Topics – Walloped by Wilkins: Playing cricket for Liverpool University in the 1970’s).

In 1979, when playing for Finchley CC in a National Knock-Out Quarter-Final, she was there again in support with my siblings as again, we lost a very close match in the last over to Colchester and East Essex, a team which included that day, a young Neil Foster (see Other Topics – Another great day at the cricket – Essex and Surrey deliver a wonderful day of county cricket as I return to Castle Park, Colchester).

Someone said to me that even when she will not be around any more, at least, we will have the memories. I replied that this would be a given as I am too much of a walking and living embodiment of her and her support for my love of cricket (and football) for that not to be the case.

This very website is in no small way, all these years later, manifestation of all of that maternal support for a cricket and football mad boy. Across the site, most of the memorabilia in both cricket and football that I’ve written about was introduced to me by mum when Christmas and birthdays came around.

As I write, she is still with us. But by the time you read this, she may well have left us.

Rest assured mum, you will never leave us.

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Category: Cricket Annuals

Tag: Wisden Cricketers' Almanack

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