Mike Marqusee’s ‘War Minus the Shooting’, 25 years on, closely mirrors both cricket and the nation as they are today

It is amazing how much the book, now reissued, seems like an augury of both the cricket and the politics of today

Mike Marqusee is that rare writer who both draws you into his intimate world and keeps you at an ‘objective’ distance. There is also the pleasant illusion that he is sitting across, speaking to you in that wise and provocative manner of his, fascinating at all times.

Marqusee’s War Minus the Shooting, reissued for a new audience, is many books rolled into one: there is cricket and history, it is a travelogue, social and political commentary, a treatise on globalisation and its discontents, the story of modern India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, and in the end a damn good read. There is the big picture (the cricket), the bigger picture (south Asian life and politics) and the telling detail that throws light on both (skipper Arjuna Ranatunga pushes the winners’ cheque into his pocket at the final ceremony only to find later that someone had nicked it).

Rereading War Minus the Shooting a quarter century on, it is amazing how contemporary it feels, and how the sins of the past are commonplaces of the present and how many of the attitudes we think are recent had their origins in the 1996 cricket World Cup.

Sri Lankan skipper Arjuna Ranatunga with the 1996 World Cup trophy in Lahore, surrounded by then Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and others | Photo Credit: V.V. KRISHNAN

Many saw Marqusee as the spiritual successor to C.L.R. James, the Trinidadian Marxist who wrote Beyond a Boundary. But I always thought of Marqusee as a latter-day Orwell, passionate and generous as well as detached and compassionate. Orwell had to deal with tuberculosis and Marqusee with cancer, both leading to premature death, Marqusee’s at 61 in a World Cup year, 2015.

Marqusee borrowed his title from Orwell; two years earlier he had published a book with an eminently quotable title, variations of which continue to be used today: Anyone But England. Here he wrote, after racist incidents in the stands at Leeds, “The Yorkshire committee was compelled to acknowledge what others had observed for years: that a Leeds Test could be a nasty experience if you came from the wrong country, were the wrong sex or colour.” The recent allegations of racism within the Yorkshire committee and team by Azeem Rafiq, player of the “wrong colour” seem merely confirmation of Marqusee’s observation then.

Future in the present

This is where Marqusee is closer to Orwell than James. While James looked at the past to explain the present, Marqusee, like Orwell saw the future in the present. The American sportswriter Dave Zirin has pointed out that “James and Marqusee embrace what is beautiful about the games we love while not removing them from their social context.”

Fans queue up for tickets in Bengaluru, 1996 | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

The 1996 World Cup was a turning point in many ways; it is now easy to see that. In War Minus the Shooting, Marqusee acknowledged the seeds that have grown into uber-nationalism, the uber-commercialisation of the game, the conflating of the one with the other, and the further marginalisation of those on the fringes; these are realities we live with today.

There are too discussions on identity and the tension between migrant and indigenous communities, the rise and power of the Shiv Sena (“the takeover of Bombay cricket by the Maharashtrian middle class was mirrored by the rise of a political force that claimed to speak on its behalf”), the changing relationship between spectator and sport, along the American model, which foreshadowed the T20 revolution (“Seeing sport live is made to seem as much as possible like seeing it on television”), and the real battle at the World Cup — the one between Pepsi and Coca-Cola (and their contributions to environmental disasters in India).

Alongside the match reports and travel stories, both personal and historical, runs the story of India at a particularly significant period. These were the early days of the much-touted ‘New India’ of economic liberalisation, where wealth accumulation was no longer looked down upon, and conspicuous consumption was a sign of having made it. For many, the young Sachin Tendulkar, star of the Indian team, symbolised the new Indian: energetic, talented and a magnet for the new money.

Two youngsters with body paint pose in Ahmedabad ahead of an Indo-Pak T20 match in October this year | Photo Credit: VIJAY SONEJI

Six years earlier, in India: A Million Mutinies Now, V.S. Naipaul had already anticipated this new India, the self-assured India with one foot on the world stage but the other still in the wings. Written before liberalisation, there is a sense of impending boom here. Naipaul had foreseen the rise of the new middle-class and upward mobility as a consequence of material wealth and a jettisoning of the old idea of karma. Now, Marqusee was pointing out where lopsided ‘growth’ could take us.

“To awaken to history was to cease to live instinctively,” Naipaul had written after travelling through India. “There had been a general awakening. But everyone awakened first to his own group or community; every group thought itself unique in its awakening; and every group sought to separate its rage from the rage of other groups… there was in India a central will, a central intellect, a national idea…”

Hope met reality when Marqusee came to write of the India he saw later. “Communal sentiments had become increasingly respectable among the middle class,” he wrote after a provocative anti-Muslim jibe at a panel discussion on the World Cup elicited a vigorous round of applause.

Skipper Azharuddin, with Tendulkar and Dravid, greets South African president Nelson Mandela in Cape Town, 1996 | Photo Credit: AP/PTI

Identity and belonging

The buzzword then was ‘globalisation’. There was an energy in a country that believed it was rising to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the rich and powerful, the developed and uncaring. Marqusee knew where the problem lay: “The growth of communal and caste prejudice has been especially intense among those who have most welcomed and most benefited from globalisation: the elite and their middle-class camp-followers…” What he wrote 25 years ago might have been written last week: “Integration into the global economy, in India as elsewhere, had made questions of national identity more acute and more contentious. There was no consensus about who belonged and who did not belong…”

Looking back, it is interesting to speculate just what role cricket and that World Cup played in aligning Indians behind communal forces. “As globalisation strides forward, the search for national identity becomes ever more desperate and with ever more hostility to perceived national enemies, both within and without the country’s borders,” wrote Marqusee, “Thus the carnival of globalisation turned into an orgy of nationalism.”

In the days following the World Cup, the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led BJP government came to power at the Centre. It lasted just 13 days, but the portents were clear. Marqusee, an American who came to Britain when he was 18 and lived there, was conscious of the one element that was missing from most sports writing: context. He set about providing it. When he wrote Redemption Song: Muhammad Ali and the Spirit of the Sixties, the emphasis was on the times, the 1960s and the protests of that period. Likewise, with Chimes of Freedom: The Politics of Bob Dylan’s Art. You can’t understand a man without understanding the context that makes for heroism or villainy.

A giant Coca-Cola bottle is wheeled in with the drinks trolley during a World Cup match in Visakhapatnam, 1996 | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

Nor can you comprehend the full impact of a competition like the World Cup if you limit it to runs scored and wickets taken. Marqusee was no cricket writer (even if his match reports suggested otherwise); he was a writer who also turned his attention to cricket, a sport he loved, to make larger points about life and politics.

Cricket nationalism

When he arrived in India for the 1996 tournament, he wasn’t fully decided whether a book would follow, and was willing to let the events lead him. I spent a part of the tour with him; we had each developed a soft corner for Sri Lanka and admired their cricket and attitude. By the time we arrived in Lahore for the final between Sri Lanka and Australia, the former had been declared winners in the semifinal against India after crowd disturbances caused the match to be abandoned at the Eden Gardens. Two things stood out for me. At the pre-match press conference, Ranatunga told us, “We are not taking India lightly,” a brilliant put-down after years of India (and other countries) saying patronising things about playing Sri Lanka. The other was that the worst of the crowd behaviour was in the more expensive seats.

“The disruption at Eden Gardens was the result of what some commentators have called the lumpenisation of the Indian middle class… it was a perversely logical response to the nationalist hype which preceded the match,” wrote Marqusee, “Impatient with and sometimes disgusted by many of the realities of Indian life — corruption, poverty, inefficiency — they still desire to assert themselves as Indians, and cricket has allowed them to do this. But defeat exposed the hollowness of this compensatory cricket nationalism.”

That compensatory cricket nationalism continues to this day, and is as hollow now as it was then.

Today, we do not react to the walking, bowling, cover-driving billboards our cricketers have become. In 1996, the International Cricket Council (ICC) pulled up Indian players for the size of the logos on their clothing. Here’s Marqusee: “The ICC’s battle was not over either the aesthetics or morality of advertising, but over control of the most prime of prime sites, cricketers’ bodies… globalisation seems to subsume individuals into corporate identities — commercial as well as national and communal.”

In conclusion

Each of the three evils was clear and defined in Marqusee’s mind. When Coca Cola won the race for sponsorship for the World Cup (‘Official drink of the World Cup’), Pepsi ran a campaign with the tag line, “Nothing official about it.” It suggested that ‘official’ was for fuddy-duddies, while being unofficial meant Pepsi was for the young, the rebellious, the irreverent and the non-traditionalist, which every person secretly thought he or she was. It was a massive hit.

Cricket administration too came under Marqusee’s lens: “What the game needs is an accountable and transparent system of governance, in which the interests of those who play and watch (at all levels) are represented, and upheld against sponsors, media and governments. In its absence, cricket fans will be buffeted by the continuing strife between elite factions claiming to represent national (or regional) interests.” We still await such a system of governance.

The cricket itself — despite everything around it, starting with the refusal of Australia and the West Indies to play in Sri Lanka following a bomb blast there — was hugely enjoyable, and Marqusee is able to balance the joy as a fan with his uneasiness as a social commentator. He visits Pakistan and Sri Lanka, the other hosts too, and observes that “the deep crises in all three societies kept erupting from under the glamour and hype.”

A 1996 Amul hoarding pokes fun at Australia and West Indies for pulling out of World Cup matches in Sri Lanka following a bomb blast in Colombo | Photo Credit: Special arranagement

Four years earlier, in Australia, the World Cup had been a worthy tournament with a sensible format; three years later in England, Indian advertisers took over the grounds deciding that it didn’t matter where the World Cup was played so long as it was brought live to Indian audiences with messages from Indian advertisers for Indian products.

A game associated with English villages thus became a television sport. Rather than make it easier, or more comfortable to watch cricket live at the stadiums, Indian administrators focussed on making it more attractive for television. Matches played during the pandemic to empty stadiums incorporated crowd noises and mighty cheers. You can always fake an audience.

Cricket is no longer played over 22 yards, but over 22 inches of the television screen. It didn’t begin in 1996, but that year’s World Cup provided the impetus. Soon, the first series between India and Pakistan was held in Toronto, and the spectator gradually became the least important element of a sporting contest. It all seems so obvious now, but the late Mike Marqusee, activist, author, admirer of Muhammad Ali and William Blake, was the first to notice it and write about it in War Minus the Shooting.

The writer’s book Why Don’t You Write Something I Might Read? will be out this month. The revised and updated edition of War Minus the Shooting is published by 81allout Publishing.

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