War Minus the Shooting August 23, 2008

Cricket minus the cliches

In this narrative of the 1996 World Cup, context means more than the final wicket



Until this riveting, revelatory and largely run-free account of the 1996 World Cup came along, observations of subcontinental cricket emanating from Britain, and just about every other corner of the so-called old world, tended to be clich├ęd, wrongheaded, derisive, patronising or just plain racist. Small wonder, then, that it took a London-based American with a rucksack, a notebook and a CLR Jamesian yen for Marxism to supply an overdue corrective.

In adopting George Orwell's oft-quoted characterisation of sport for the title, Marqusee sets out his stall from the outset, even if he does conclude, in the aftermath of the Kolkata riot that cut short Sri Lanka's shock semi-final victory over India, that "sub-continental solidarity" had finally, belatedly, returned. Part-travelogue, part-reportage, part-dissection of the virtues and vicissitudes of cricket in India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, but primarily the story of a confusing new love affair, this is above all a cricket book where context means more, much more, than the final wicket.

With its "spin bowlers, raucous crowds and labyrinthine politics", Indian cricket "seemed an exotic variation on an exotic theme, an eccentricity within an eccentricity." As his journey and the tournament progressed, however, the author "realised that sub-continental cricket was not a quaint legacy of the Raj but something new and vital ... now unrivalled as the national sport in all three countries".

As eloquent as he is industrious and impassioned, Marqusee trawls through history and casts a sceptical eye on the "trickle-down theory", which states that the game "percolated from the colonial elite to the princes to the Parsi merchants to the middle classes and thence to the masses." He suggests, not without extremely good reason, that this "may reflect little more than the social assumptions of those who have written cricket's history".

The Coke-Pepsi War, the sad irrelevance of crowds, the Shiv Sena, the Tamil Tigers and Benazir Bhutto share equal billing with Sanath Jayasuriya, Arjuna Ranatunga and Muttiah Muralitharan. What worries Marqusee most is globalisation, which "creates not a global culture of sport but a televised substitute for it in which national identities are commercial playthings". I would hazard a guess that no other cricket book quotes Wole Soyinka on the tragedy of Nigeria: "A nation is a collective enterprise - outside of that it is a gambling hall for the opportunism and adventurism of power."

If you want to know about the how and why of a sporting event, rather than merely the who, what, where and when, nobody has done it better. As a prescient guide to the circumstances under which an IPL could flourish, look no further.

From the book
"Like Pepsi's claim to be unofficial, Coke's appeal to the grass roots of sub-continental cricket was paradoxical. The distinctive dress, architecture and even agriculture depicted in the advert would be obliterated in a global marketplace dominated by the likes of Coca-Cola. 'Passion has a colour' ('Josh mein rang hai') claimed the advert, and the colour in question, repeatedly contrasted with the muted tones of subcontinental dust and stone, was the red of sun-ripened chilli peppers and Rajasthani turbans. It was Coca-Cola red, cricket ball red. But there was a snag. The cricket balls used in the World Cup were white. And in the version shown in Pakistan, the image of the Taj was excised. Though built by a Muslim ruler, it was a symbol of India. Even in this hymn to unity and peace, this curious by-product of a global economy, national antagonisms were honoured and ultimately reinforced."

War Minus the Shooting: Journey Through South Asia During Cricket's World Cup
by Mike Marqusee
William Heinemann, 1996

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton