Born in the early 19th century, John Wisden was an English county cricketer. Aged 18, standing at 5ft 6in and weighing just 44 Kg, Wisden made his First Class debut for Sussex against the Marleybone Cricket Club and took nine wickets over the two innings. The slender young boy went on to play 187 First Class matches for Sussex, Kent and Middlesex.
Because of his moderate height, he was nicknamed ” The Little Wonder” and was considered as one of the best all-rounders of his day. But perhaps he is best known today as the founder of the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack – an annual cricket publication that was first published in 1864, making it the oldest continuously running sports annual in the world.
It is said that Wisden founded the Almanack as a rival to Fred Lillywhite’s The Guide to Cricketers which had been running since 1849. Lillywhite was an entrepreneur who is remembered for organising the first overseas tour by an English team.
Since 1902, the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack has honoured five cricketers every year for their performances in the previous season. In the 1918 edition, one of the five cricketers did not know that he was nominated for such a prestigious award. Interestingly enough, that is not the funniest bit. The said cricketer never played a First Class match in his life!
The outbreak of the First World War in 1914 saw the temporary suspension of First Class cricket in Britain. Therefore, the Almanack could not come up with their five choices in the year 1916 and 1917. But in what was a very bold move, the then editor of the Almanack, the esteemed Sydney Pardon decided to choose five amateur school cricketers for the award. One of them was a South African-born boy called Harry Calder. The four other nominees went on to play First Class cricket. Greville Stevens who was one of the five choices for the award played 10 matches for England and even captained his country on one occasion.
In retrospect, Calder’s pinnacle in cricket was a solitary appearance for Surrey’s second XI in 1920 against Staffordshire. Even that was undistinguished and boringly unremarkable. The spinner bowled four overs without taking any wicket and conceding 21 runs. His batting statistics read a duck in the first innings and six not out in the second.
Calder returned to South Africa along with his family and was lost to time and history.
Robert Brooke, a cricket historian and writer, after some diligent investigation tracked down Calder in a nursing home in Cape Town in the year 1994. Calder was 93, weak, tired and steadily crawling towards death. But even more disconcerting was the fact that he was completely unbeknownst to the knowledge that he was among the five best cricketers in 1918, 76 years earlier.
He insisted that he was not aware of this honour until Brooke told him. Calder died in 1995 with an impressive CV that included a great season with Cranleigh School where he took an impressive number of wickets, one appearance for Surrey’s second XI and one Wisden Cricketer of the Year award.