August 09, 2020
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More Than Cricket

A look at the subcontinental psyche through the World Cup

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More Than Cricket
War Minus The Shooting
By Mike Marqusee
Mandarin Pages: 292; Rs 145
WHEN Sri Lanka won the World Cup last year, cricket fans all around the world welcomed it—except for Australia, the defeated finalists. It was also greeted with rapture by Mike Marqusee who relished the perfect ending to the greatest cricket circus on earth. His latest book, War Minus the Shooting, is an entertaining and controversial account of the tournament—but can't be described as being the archetypal cricket book.

Marqusee uses the World Cup as a takeoff point to examine national identity, social values, corporate giants, advertising—symbolising the increasing global intrusion on cricket. Through his three-month tour of the three host nations, Marqusee analysed issues thrown up by the World Cup and the effect it had on South Asian people and politics.

"It is in the subcontinent that the one-day game—an attempt to squeeze cricket's amorphous pre-industrial sprawl into its designated niche in the modern marketplace—has been most ruthlessly exploited by nationalist and commercial forces. I knew from experience a one-day international in the subcontinent could be many things: a popular festival, a global media event...a political platform, a gladiatorial contest, an aesthetic delight and a nationalistic jamboree. The 1996 World Cup was bound to bring out the best and the worst in South Asian cricket. I had to be there."

At 23, American-born Marqusee was a relative latecomer to cricket, and shortly afterwards visited India for the first time. It proved the ideal foundation on which his love for subcontinental cricket—and knowledge of Asian politics—developed. As a London-based, far-left activist and political writer for the last 18 years—the sort which nowadays gives Tony Blair nightmares—he has been treated with suspicion and contempt by most English cricket writers. Perhaps that explains the scathing attacks that have been mounted against his book.

"He dismissed England's performance in half a page," complained one writer. Many others, in their reviews, dismissed it as boring, irrelevant and biased. They all seemed to miss the essential point: War Minus the Shooting is not a statistical, ball-by-ball documentation of every match and team. Neither is it about the English cricket team. Instead, as his journey unfolds through the tournament, Marqusee interweaves in his account a host of social, political and historical issues.

For instance, the chapter titled Nothing Official About It is devoted to the Pepsi-Coke ad war. Marqusee, through his painstaking investigations with the help of environmentalist and far-left organisations, launches a scathing attack against both Pepsi and Coca-Cola, revealing the hypocrisies of their empire-building practices in South Asia. In his life, politics and work, Marqusee has always challenged injustices against the downtrodden.

In this book, the downtrodden are the OCF (ordinary cricket fan)—the victims kicked in the face by corporate hospitality and the VIP syndrome. He launches a fierce attack on the heavy-handed treatment of fans at the Feroz Shah Kotla ground during the India-Lanka tie, and was outraged at the lack of organisation, fairness and justice dealt from the DDCA. In the chapter titled Nest of VIPers he begins with the sentence, "I knew the tie at the Feroz Shah Kotla would be a disaster when I met Sunil Dev..." and later "...from what I had heard, everyone in the BCCI knew Sunil Dev and most of what they had to say about him was unprintable. The DDCA is reputed to be the most faction-ridden body in sub-continental cricket. Composed of a network of banks, businesses, government departments and exclusive social clubs, it had over the years become a honeypot for status-seekers and influence-peddlers."

But should you be discouraged by the prospect of solid leftish propaganda, Marqusee has revealed himself to be, quite simply, a cricket sentimentalist. His chapter on the Friendship Match in Colombo (the hurriedly arranged match with a joint Indo-Pak side against Lanka) is a touching portrayal of the unique camaraderie of that match. The account of Kenya's victory over the Windies is equally humorous sans the sporting cliches that usually emerge at such shock victories.

One wonders how the book would have read had England or Australia won. Marqusee freely admits the World Cup provided him, on a plate, the perfect plot: the drama of the Lanka boycott, the Kenyan 'giant-killers', the lathi-charges at Delhi's match, the bottle-throwing at Eden Gardens and the grand finale of Lanka's win.

"As for me, I loved the World Cup. In spite of self-serving officials, vulgar profiteering and ugly zealotry, the tournament had proved a success—a giant, subcontinental festival of cricket whose impact could be locales where the "unofficial" culture of cricket is forged. I felt privileged to have enjoyed such a wide-angled view of this epic saga."

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