I spend a lot of my life in the British Library, reading back editions of Wisden Cricketers Almanack. To get your hands on a copy, you have to go into the “Rare Books” reading room, sit in a special area and – as security – leave your readers card behind the issue desk. It’s the British Library’s equivalent of the Hope Diamond. The system reflects what most cricket fans know, instinctively, to be true: Wisden is special.
Today’s news – that 3 of the 5 Wisden Cricketers of the Year are women: Heather Knight, Nat Sciver and Anya Shrubsole – is also special.
The Almanack, published since 1864, did not feature women’s cricket until 1938; until then, one would have been hard-pushed, reading it, to see any evidence that women were playing the game at all. But they were, and in 1938 the editor Wilfred Brookes decided they warranted inclusion. “I found a good deal of support for the suggestion that some space should be given to women’s cricket,” he wrote.
“Some space” is perhaps an overstatement, implying something more than the reality: one page of the 1000-page volume would carry a women’s cricket report, having to cover – in approximately 500 words – the entire of the global and domestic women’s game in one calendar year.
Occasionally women broke through the barrier: in 1970, the first full page feature on women’s cricket was to be found, featuring leading England all-rounder Enid Bakewell, who in Australia in 1968/9 had become the first cricketer to score 1000 runs and take 100 wickets on tour. But such coverage was rare, to say the least.
Indeed the standing joke was that the women’s cricket page was to be found languishing near the back of the 1000-page volume, right next to the obituaries. Joking about it was the women’s cricket community’s way of shrugging off the fact that their achievements were often given less space than the Eton v Harrow fixture at Lords.
When Roedean School in Brighton submitted their averages for inclusion in the schools section of the 1991 edition, the editor Graeme Wright said they had presented him with “an editorial dilemma”. It was, apparently, shocking to believe that a girls public school might wish to feature alongside their male counterparts. (They were included, reluctantly, in the 1992 Almanack.)
Gradually in recent years more women have featured within the pages of the Almanack, including – in 2009 – the first woman to be featured as a Cricketer of the Year, Claire Taylor. Then editor Scyld Berry wrote that “there is no element of political correctness or publicity-seeking about her selection. The best cricketers in the country should be recognised, irrespective of gender.” Five years later, in 2014, Charlotte Edwards received the same honour. Still, though, a closer look at Almanacks in the decade between 2000 and 2010 reveals that more words were sometimes devoted to “cricketing wives” than any woman worthy of inclusion on her own merit.
It was not until 2015 that a full “women’s cricket” section was introduced, in the same year as the Leading Woman Cricketer in the World was inaugurated as a separate award – both the brainchild of current editor Lawrence Booth. Meg Lanning was the first recipient; Suzie Bates, Ellyse Perry and now Mithali Raj have followed in her footsteps.
Today, in 2018, we have women not just inside the pages of the “Bible of cricket”, but a triumphant Anya Shrubsole adorning the front cover as well.
There are many women in times gone by who would have been worthy Cricketers of the Year: Myrtle Maclagan, who hit the first ever century in an Ashes Test, in January 1935; Rachael Heyhoe-Flint, who in 1973 organised and starred in the first ever cricket World Cup; Cathryn Fitzpatrick, still the fastest bowler to have played the women’s game. To have ignored them has always been Wisden’s loss, not theirs.
Today, though, is a time to look forward, not back. This is not the end of the story for women’s cricketing equality – it never is – but it matters because Wisden matters. It represents – it is read by – the conservative cricketing establishment which ignored the women’s game for far too long. Suddenly, now a woman is on the cover, it becomes simply no longer possible to ignore women’s cricket. That’s worth celebrating.