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.