Sussex start their County Championship fixtures against Middlesex on Sunday, but for most cricket fans the event which really signals the start of another summer is the publication of the Wisden Almanack.
Although this year’s edition is published on 10th April, February marked 151 years since the first Almanack was produced by John Wisden, the son of a Brighton builder, in 1864, the year after he retired from first-class cricket.
From its humble beginnings Wisden has established itself as ‘the cricketer’s bible’ and not even two World Wars could interrupt its publication, although at various stages of its existence the book has been published as early as January and as late as June.
John Wisden was born in Crown Street in Brighton in 1826. He was only 18 when he made his Sussex debut in 1845. Back then bowling was underarm or round-arm and Wisden, despite being only about 5ft 4in and weighing not much more than 7st, was one of the best players of his generation.
He was a consistent wicket-taker for Sussex and also played for Kent (once) and Middlesex in a first-class career that spanned 187 cricket matches. In 1850, bowling fast, round-arm off-cutters, he took all 10 wickets playing for the South against the North at Lord’s, the only instance in the history of first-class cricket when all ten victims in an innings were bowled.
His business career began not with Wisden, but by selling playing equipment in Leamington (now Leamington Spa). Five years later (1855), after a spell coaching at Harrow School, he went into business with Fred Lillywhite (who played for Sussex on one occasion) and established a cricket and cigar shop in central London.
Wisden’s first Alamanack was much more than a record of the previous year’s cricket. Its 112 pages contained horse racing fixtures, the rules of various English parlour games and even a list of historical battles. The distinctive yellow cover wasn’t actually introduced until 1938 while the modern Wisden now runs to more than 1,500 pages.
John Wisden’s contribution to cricket, and more importantly cricket in Sussex, is being recognised in August when the county produce a pictorial book to mark Sussex’s 175th anniversary. Put together by club historians Nick Sharp and Roger Packham, it contains more than 500 photographs that tell the story of the oldest first-class county including previously unpublished images.