Wisden 2021: a bumper writing competition

Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack appears for the 158th time and in a slimmer edition. The ongoing coronavirus pandemic seriously disrupted global society in 2020 and cricket was not exempt (why should it be!). This edition contains fewer match reports but more articles and commentary. The writing competition remains: the opportunity for non-professional writers to have a short article in the “cricketers’ bible”.

Last year I wrote an analysis of the first eight competitions; how does the ninth outing compare? Well the most visible change is that the entry level has shot up. “In a year of fewer distractions Wisden received 193 entries”.

Before looking in more detail a word of congratulation to this year’s winner, Philip Hardman. His appeal to recognise John Snow in the pantheon of great fast bowlers of the “modern (loosely pre colour television) era” was triggered by the photograph of Snow on the cover of the 1971 Playfair Cricket Annual, the first cricket book he bought. For those who don’t recall Snow’s bowling here is a clip (in black and white) introduced by Richie Benaud. I wonder if the winner of the 59th Writing Competition in Wisden 2071 will look back as nostalgically on Zak Crawley, the cover portrait of this year’s Playfair.

193 entries, that’s nearly double the number for most years. As entrants can write two articles it looks like 29 people entered two articles and 164 people just one. Around three quarters of the entrants were making their debut in the competition. Mr Hardman’s success broke new ground. As I noted last year eight of the nine winners were first timers (the sole exception was on his second entry). Unless there are previous entrants also called Philip Hardman this was his fifth entry. An encouraging breakthrough for those who enter regularly!

This year there is a slight change in the prizes. Unlike the Wisden Photography Competition there is no monetary reward, just recognition and an invite to the annual launch dinner (if held). A year’ subscription to The Nightwatchman will be now thrown in (£34.95 plus shipping). The shortlisted entries (whose authors are not disclosed which is a shame, not even with an * in the list of names) will be published in The Nightwatchman.

Four people remain ever present. Paul Caswell, David Fraser, David Potter and Christopher Sharp maintained their 100% record since the opening competition in 2013. A further seven have scored 7 or 8 entries, making up an all-time XI. (I keep my place). Eleven, including some of the all-time XI have been regulars over the last five years.

Mr Hardman’s article broke several other of the characteristics of winners: he lives in Lancashire (the first to live so far “north”); he does not appear to blog (or tweet) about cricket and, of course, he was not a first timer. His article was in the tradition of writing about cricket rather than the effect cricket has on the author. Clearly John Snow had an effect on the writer but the focus of the article was on Snow.

The short overview of the competition mentions that entries came from an impressive range of countries “Australia, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and New Zealand, and also from Belgium, Canada and the Virgin Islands”. My entry from Spain was in there somewhere but as Valencia had a mention last year it is too much to expect an annual tip!.

What I found more interesting was the increase in women entrants. It’s not fully clear from the list of names to identify everyone, there are several unisex names, but it looks like around 5% of the entrants were women. It may appear to be low but it is a significant step forward compared to previous years. There are now more women article writers in Wisden, more match reports from around the world and a catch up in the obituaries section of women cricketers overlooked in the past.

Among the feature articles Emma John’s review of books stands out. No longer a placid run through of the years’ books she transforms this long standing feature to an essential commentary on the culture of cricket. Her reviews of recent books by Duncan Hamilton and Michael Henderson are priceless. Let´s hope she continues in the role to make the feature as indispensable as, and complementary to, the “Notes by the Editor”. There are many who would wish the post pandemic world to return to the past (2019 if not 1971 or even 1951). Articles by Ebony Rainford- Brent and Michael Holding building on their Sky interview on racism in cricket powerfully show that change is needed. Several claims of racial discrimination in cricket are underway and will no doubt be reported on in Wisden 2022.

Perhaps the outstanding sentence in the 1248 pages of Wisden is in the books review “There was nothing published in 2020 that feels like the cricket book we need right now”. It’s not just the Hundred which might bring in changes in 2021.

The Wisden Writing Competition

In 2013, to celebrate its 150th edition Wisden Cricketers´ Almanack opened its pages to the general public.  Well, to be precise, one page of its 1,500+ pages, and it came with a catch.  The Wisden Writing Competition offers the lucky winner the glory of seeing their short essay (originally 480 to 520 words and recently reduced to 500 words) published in cricket’s “bible”. If that was not enough the winner is also invited to the annual launch dinner at the Home of Cricket, Lords.  That’s it, no prize money, no tickets to a Test Match at Lords or indeed anywhere else.  The concurrent MCC-Wisden photographic competition attracts a £2,000 prize and 650 entrants.

There is a consolation prize for all who submit essays: their name in Wisden.  Now this does have value.  For those not playing in the upper reaches of the game around the world (or at one of the privileged public schools) the chances of getting your name in Wisden are few. The best opportunity is if you were a cricketing “personality” or a long serving club player/umpire. You might be named in the obituary section.

The 2020 edition saw the eighth running of the competition; time to review progress.  It attracts between around 80 to 120 entries each year. We can’t be precise; entrants can submit two essays and the very brief review each year does not meet Wisden’s normal standards of accuracy.  For example, the 2020 competition attracted 79 entrants who contributed “over 80” essays.  Over the years the entries have come from “all corners of the world” with Bermuda, USA, UAE, Ireland, India, Italy “and that cricketing stronghold of Valencia” being mentioned (is there someone else in Valencia besides me entering?). Winners are not allowed to re-enter; several have subsequently been invited to write articles in Wisden, an additional reward.

Over 470 people have entered over 760 entries.  Three quarters of them (over 370) have only entered once: enough to get their name in the book.  Some enter for a few years and then give up; others drop in and out. Currently there are eleven who have entered the last five competitions. Four stalwart writers have been ever-present since 2013 and a further eight have passed the 75% mark with 6 or 7 entries out of the possible 8.  I hesitate to call this group the “1st XI with a 12th man”. Despite their over 80 appearances they (we) have failed to win. They (I) clearly write in hope and cling to the adage “if it first you don’t succeed, try again, fail better”.

What do you need to win?  Is there a pattern? Is there a magic hidden code to achieve victory? Here are four pointers.

A man.  All 8 winners have been men.  Indeed the number of women entrants looks to be very low with at best a handful each year.  In the 2020 edition the Editor, Daily Mail cricket writer Laurence Booth, continued his policy of opening the book to women cricketers. Attracting more women entrants seems an area to work on in the future. Perhaps endorsements and encouragements from Emma John or Isa Guha or Marina Hyde?

First timers.  7 of the 8 have won with their first entry (and the other with his second). This is perhaps the most surprising finding. Clearly the winner of the first competition in 2013 was a first timer: everyone was. The second winner could also be expected to be a first timer as people would have seen the first winning essay in the 2013 edition and thought “I can have a go”. Then 5 of the most recent 6 have also won on their debut. Not very encouraging for the repeat entrants! “If at first you don’t succeed, give up”. is not useful advice!

Live in southern England.  6 winners live south or west of Birmingham from Ely to Herefordshire to Devon to the London/Home Counties area; just one has come from outside the UK, in the USA. The location of one winner was not disclosed. Entries may come from around the world and from many counties but there is a clear geographic bias; unintentional I am sure.

A blogger.  This art-form is falling into disuse with the rise of quick fire Twitter but 5 of the winners were bloggers at the time of winning. Most have given up or considerably reduced their blogging since winning.  Another, a vicar, presumably honed his short form creative writing skills in his sermons.  Five, at least, are now active on Twitter.

Those four points cover the who, where and how of the winners.  What about the “what”: the content?   Can we discern any clues, any indicators, any trends? What are the judges looking for, besides good writing skills?

The rules require the content to be “cricket related but not a match report” and not published beforehand: that gives a very wide field to choose from!

The Editor, when launching the competition in Wisden 2012, said “this one page soapbox is yours to do with as you wish” . So how have the winners responded to this challenge? And how open have the judges been to accepting a challenge in the august pages of Wisden?

The first three winning entries were diverse: reflections on South African cricket through the careers of former teammates Kevin Petersen and Hamish Amla; a humorous selection of cricketing references in the works of William Shakespeare and an equally humorous account of a cricketers’ career, albeit a totally fictional creation.

Since then the most recent five winners although ostensibly covering different topics have three common attributes.

Firstly, they provide a romantic and nostalgic reflection on a time when cricket made an impression in the writer’s past.  That time ranges from the 1970s, through to the most recent decade.  The impression may be personal (father/son; a contact with a cricketer, a teams rare victory, or a following a team from afar). There is a fondness for that moment, one that stays in the memory and generates a warm smile; the Cardus and Arlott of long ago.

Secondly, four of the five are written in the first person (and the fifth recounts a shared team experience), a marked contrast to the first three winners. The dynamic has changed. The first three winners were about cricket; the more recent ones about the way cricket impacts upon the writer; they convey a more personal and contemplative internalised understanding of the emotions offered by the game.

and thirdly, they all refer to cricketing events in England (although one looked at an aspect of English cricket from the vantage point of Washington DC).

Wisden looks to the past; it is a book of record, of events of the previous year which will be remembered for decades to come. The winning entries of the Writing Competition reflect that approach.

Entries for the 2021 edition are now open: I (and you) have until to the end of November 2020 to enter. Enough time to reflect, to choose a topic; write draft after draft and keep watching that Word Count. Will the trends and patterns of the first eight years continue? Will we see any tinkering or a radical change? Wisden 2021 will have over 1,000 pages to fill with possibly very little cricket being played. The Quarantine Cup report and scorecards won’t take up much room. I look at my 157 editions for inspiration; that soapbox is there for the taking.