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“Activist for the epic game”

The Mercury, Durban, South Africa
Monday February 28 2011

With the 10th World Cup now under way, 50-over cricket and the event itself are on trial, says one of the game’s most provocative, passionate and analytical followers, Mike Marqusee. Patrick Compton spoke to him.

THE famous dictum of historian CLR James: “What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” certainly finds its place in the person of Mike Marqusee – scourge of the England cricket establishment and the author of two of the most impressive cricket books in recent memory.

The first, Anyone but England: Cricket and the National Malaise (1994), exposed some of the myths at the heart of English society and its cricketing establishment. The second, War Minus the Shooting: A Journey Through South Asia During Cricket’s World Cup (1996), was a fascinating trek through Indian society, politics and its greatest addiction, cricket, during the first World Cup on the subcontinent.

Marqusee was never the likeliest of converts to the game. Born in New York in 1953, he emigrated to England in 1971 to study English. The author of two books on Bob Dylan, one on the Labour Party and another on his travels as an anti-Zionist Jewish person, it can safely be said that he is a long way from being the stereotypical MCC member from Tunbridge Wells, dozing in his bacon and eggs tie in the watery sunlight at Lord’s.

Marqusee first fell in love with the game in the summer of 1976 when Clive Lloyd’s West Indies blew away Tony Greig’s England. He appreciated some of the commentary on the famous radio programme Test Match Special, particularly that of John Arlott who had “somehow found his way into the heart of the English establishment, combining love of tradition with hatred of injustice”. Writing in Anyone But England, Marqusee acknowledged Arlott’s influence: “I am grateful still that through his rigour and his sympathy, his mastery of light and shade, he helped me to see and enjoy the epic nature of Test cricket.

“On first acquaintance, it is almost impossible for a newcomer to the game to get hold of the ever-shifting rhythms of a five-day struggle. Arlott’s commentary helped me see the whole, not just the parts.”

As he continued to learn about the game, and his social and political environment, he began to identify some of the parallels between the performance of the drooping national cricket team and the society around it. The result was a book that went “where no cricket book had gone before” as Marqusee clinically dissected the England cricketing ethos, including a particularly revealing account of South Africa’s exclusion from world cricket and the English cricket establishment’s collusion with apartheid.

Marqusee revealed this week that he first visited South Africa in 1993 while researching the book. “I had a fascinating chat with the late Khaya Majola in Joburg. The sports boycott of South Africa in the 1970s and 1980s was very much my grounding in the politics of sport and without that experience, I never would have written on cricket as I’ve done. It got me thinking about the relations between sport and social justice and about the politics of popular culture (which became the subject of a lot of my writing). In cricket in England, the boycott marked the opening up of a fissure between the people running the game (imbued with imperial ideology) and many of those supporting it (who lived in a modern, multicultural world). I wanted to write something for the latter,” he said.

Spreading his net wider, Marqusee attended and then wrote about the first World Cup in southern Asia in 1996. “Following that event was one of the most enjoyable and stimulating experiences of my life,” he recalled. “It brought together two longstanding personal interests – south Asian society and cricket – and I found that during the World Cup, one constantly led back into the other. There was some great cricket, but also innumerable chances to see what the cricket meant for people in various walks of life. Exploring the game and the places it was being played in became one and the same activity, and it was a blast, though much of what I found was disturbing.

“The event was very much a statement of ambition for Indian cricket and for the Indian economy: the aim was to present themselves as major players in a globalised stage and, in that respect, it proved a harbinger,” said Marqusee. “It was also a foretaste of the huge commercial behemoth Indian cricket would become, and the multitude of problems that would arise from that.”

Now, 15 years later, much has changed. An avowed sceptic about 20/20 cricket and especially the Indian Premier League, Marqusee hopes the tournament will signal a kind of rebirth of the 50-over game. “I’d like to see the World Cup live up to its name, spring some surprises and show that there’s still life in the 50-over format. But I wonder if this 2011 instalment will have the same kind of popular resonance in south Asia that the 1996 event had,” he said. “The stadiums are more comfortable (where they’ve been finished on time) but the gap between the spectacle and the spectators has widened, in all sorts of ways. It’s sad that, unlike in 1996, Pakistan is not one of the host countries. It’s also sad to note that India-Pakistan relations – one of the main themes of my book – are once again in terrible shape. Cricket’s played a complex role in that story, sometimes serving as a bridge, sometimes as a weapon.”

Looking ahead, Marqusee says that corruption is the biggest danger, but not the “marginal” instance of it revealed in the recent Pakistani spot-fixing scandal. “What I’m talking about is the nexus of vested interests revealed by the IPL scandals. Lalit Modi went overnight from talisman of the 21st-century game to disgraced outcast, but no one is looking at the system that produced and embraced him. The corporate-media-political nexus which governs cricket in India and elsewhere chews the game up and spits it out, and is indifferent to the welfare of the public or the future of the game.”

Looking back fondly on great ODIs he had watched, he singled out South Africa’s World Cup semifinal against Australia at Edgbaston in 1999, describing it as “one of the best days of cricket I’ve ever had the privilege to watch. It was also one of those times I’ve been very glad to be a neutral. The tragicomic finale was best appreciated if you could take a mental step back.”

And who does he think will win the World Cup this time around? “I’d pick India, except for the home side jinx. I’d like to see Pakistan do well, just because the fans back home have had to endure such misery in the last year. And when Sri Lanka are at their best, it’s always great cricket to watch. I’m still not an England supporter – though I have become a citizen!

“The current group of English cricketers include some excellent performers (watch out for Swann), and in general the team seems affable, unpretentious and hard-working. But they’ll never be my team.”

Marqusee, who lives in Hackney in north London, says that cricket has been a great comfort to him in recent years while he battles against multiple myeloma (cancer of plasma cells in bone marrow). “In some of the worst periods of my illness, I found cricket coming to my rescue. There’s no better way to get through the long hours of weakness and immobility than in the company of a telly and a Test match,” he said.

Thanks to the game, and what he describes as “Britain’s glorious National Health Service”, he’s still alive and kicking and “still able to write, travel, and take part in demonstrations against the cuts in the health service being made by our coalition government, which threatens to do even more damage to the country than Thatcher did”.

From a South African perspective, it’s good to know that he hopes to return later this year to spend time with friends and explore more of the country. “I feel I’ve only had a glimpse of the country and I’m hungry for more. It’s gripping to see a society in many ways still discovering itself and its capacities, still hotly debating the difficult way forward,” he said.