Thursday, January 28, 2010

Whither The Wisden Cricketer?

I already have a pretty good collection of “The Cricketer” magazine which I found to be an invaluable resource when I was writing the biography of Kent and West Indies stalwart John Shepherd. I recently had the opportunity to augment – indeed to complete – the run when I bought a large number of the late Bill Frindall’s copies of the magazine at an auction. Founded by Pelham Warner in the early 1920s The Cricketer was always an authoritative and comprehensive record of the game of cricket – initially mainly from an English perspective but later it had a genuine world view. Re-reading copies more than thirty years after the events was enjoyable and even addictive – and the quality of the writing was always good.

A few years ago “The Cricketer” lost its independent existence when it was merged with the very different “Wisden Cricket Monthly” and became “The Wisden Cricketer” (TWC). Little of the original character of “The Cricketer” remains in TWC, good magazine though the latter definitely is. TWC is a strongly commercial publication with in your face use of colour and photographs and well-written, but comparatively superficial, articles and features. For in-depth writing about cricket you need to look elsewhere – either in specialist periodicals like the excellent bulletin of The Cricket Society, or – once a year – in Wisden’s Cricketers’ Almanack. “Wisden”, despite sharing its name by licence with TWC, is quite independent of the magazine and there is no editorial or other connection.

In 2007 “The Wisden Cricketer” was acquired by Rupert Murdoch’s BSkyB Publications Ltd and it seems that it may presently be subject to the same in-depth review that affects Sky’s other magazines like “Sky Magazine”, “Sky Movies Magazine” and “Sky Sports Magazine” (said to be is the highest-circulating sports magazine in the world) which are sent “free” to subscribers. The satellite subscriber magazines, although free, do have a cover price and there is apparently a complicated and not entirely transparent tax advantage in this for Sky. As far as TWC is concerned it is an anomaly in the stable in that it is sold through conventional outlets, and by subscription, and does not have any overt Sky branding on it.

TWC has generally been pretty independent and under its able and often outspoken editor John Stern it has not dodged controversy – of which there is plenty in the world of cricket! It hasn’t, however, recently been particularly forthright on the subject of the likely inclusion of “The Ashes” in the “listed events” that government requires to be on free-to-air television. Sky TV, of course, would be a loser if this actually happens.

In recent market research amongst its readers and subscribers TWC has clearly be exploring its brand and identity options. Will it continue to use the “Wisden” name despite the fact that it can arguably not be seen to adhere to the independent cricket observer character that has always marked Wisden? Indeed will Wisden’s owner Bloomsbury be happy to continue to licence the use of the Wisden name for the magazine given that is has little or no control over TWC’s content, style or editorial position. A straw in the wind might be John Stern’s editorial in the most recent “The Wisden Cricketer” (February 2010). At the end of the first paragraph Stern writes: “What do you do in the winter?” people often ask me. Well, given half the chance, switch on Sky Sports and enjoy.” A Pretty obvious bit of pro-Sky puffery you might think!

So what is the future for “The Wisden Cricketer” and will the memory of its great independent predecessor “The Cricketer” now fade forever? I can’t personally see BSkyB wanting to miss the opportunity of using a magazine in its stable more overtly to promote Sky Sports and this might perhaps lead to the magazine being rebranded “Sky Cricket Magazine” and it becoming a more overt adjunct to Sky’s TV cricket coverage. Alternatively, but much less likely, might BSkyB dispose of the magazine – perhaps even to the Bloomsbury subsidiary “John Wisden and Co”, publishers of Wisden? If the former happens then there will be a gap in the market for a wide circulation but totally independent magazine on cricket – as “The Cricketer” once was. But whether anyone would anyone have the courage, and be prepared to take the commercial risk, of jumping into the gap? Unlikely I think!

Saturday, January 02, 2010

The drama of Colly's finger

In fielding practice today at Newlands Paul Collingwood wasn't going to concede lack of fitness to anyone. He took the high catches as well as the rest and barracked any of his collegueges who gave anything less than 100%. But the likelihood has to be that Colly's injured digit will keep him out of the Cape Town Test. What a truly committed cricketer Paul Collingwood is - but even he may have to accept that you don't bat, bowl or field against a wounded Proteas side on their favourite ground carrying a nasty injury...