On Mike Marqusee: The Enduring Legacy of War Minus the Shooting

The death of Mike Marqusee earlier this week, after a long illness, has deprived the worlds of sport and politics – not so mutually exclusive, as we shall see – of one of their gadflies. Politically, Marqusee was always a campaigner, fighting for social justice. His sports writing, especially on cricket, contained the same search for what is right. But they also contained enthusiasm and passion. When cricket has reeled after the tragic death of Phillip Hughes, his timely essay reminded me of the humanity of sport, of its appeal to our love of narrative and drama, and “all-too-human” triumph and fragility.

Marqusee was well known for being one of the finest modern cricket writers, despite his atypical background as an American Marxist. He was best known for Anyone But England, his coruscating, enduringly relevant attack on the hypocrisy, prejudice and dysfunction at the heart of English cricket. However, equally fine is War Minus the Shooting, his account of travelling around South Asia during the 1996 World Cup. It is a perceptive and crucial work, notable now for its prescience. Themes it explores – manipulated crowds, globalised advertising, the simultaneous heightening and loosening of national affiliation – can be seen throughout the region. In a World Cup year, it is worthy reading, reminding ourselves of the social and economic forces that shape such tournaments as much as the onfield action. Gideon Haigh was reminded of it at India’s press conference to announce the launch of their World Cup kit: the commodification of cricketing space where “cricket populism was made to serve the interests of the elite”. Marqusee’s acute political senses were adept at detecting hypocrisy and exploitation; we should be thankful he chose cricket as one of his targets.

Part of the beauty of War Minus the Shooting is Marqusee’s ability to use cricket to explore the countries through which he is travelling. It works as travel literature as well as sports writing, providing notable insight into societies unsettled and liberated by the intersections of globalisation and nationalism. As the title suggests, much of the focus is on national rivalry. Marqusee’s enduring question is whether an India-Pakistan match would be worthwhile. Attempts to strip away meaning and enjoy the calibre of the eventual match, a quarter final, are impossible; both before and after the match, the media and politicians use the cricketing analogy for their own narratives and ends. Marqusee astutely notes that India and Pakistan’s cricketing rivalry was stoked by the advent of one-day cricket, the removal of the possibility of a draw doing much to remove the fear of failure that haunted a series of somnolent test matches. India’s victory leads to hubris; Pakistan is cast into doubt and soul-searching. But the mobilisation of populations in support of their team was crucial.

If the nation brought people to the game, then the corporation was the gleeful beneficiary. A tournament of nations was a carnival of globalisation. Pepsi and Coca-Cola fought for the lucrative benefits for capturing the imagination of the viewer, with campaigns that ranged from the bizarre – Dickie Bird as the “final arbiter of Cola Justice” – to the sinister – Pepsi lightened Vinod Kambli’s skin on their billboards. Marqusee argues that the nation and the national tournament are integral to questions of globalisation – the national tournament shares the globalised ideal of nations competing on a level playing field, whereas the nation experiences the tribulations of the experience, the questions of belonging that elevate nationalism. National aspiration is entrenched; “globalisation helped to make a fetish of national victory”. The modern cricketing world is one that has embraced this vision. The IPL may be a tournament that features multinational teams, sponsored by multinational corporations, but it is also the apogee of Indian cricketing dominance, triumphant and commodified.

The new is ever present in War Minus the Shooting, and not just with the spread of new economic models. Jonty Rhodes is the “hyper-modern” icon on the pitch, the vanguard of the fielding revolution, but the Asian World Cup itself creates new methods and norms. As an American, Marqusee saw cricket as an English game; his visit to South Asia convinces him that cricket there is something “new and vital” in world sports. Cricket is ubiquitous, and, as such, performs a remarkable number of social functions. This partly explains the ease to which it is yoked to national destiny, as well as the eagerness of corporations to co-op it for commercial ends. One pernicious abuse of cricketing culture is the change in the crowd, where it is stripped of any spontaneity, the fan becomes a consumer, and the live game becomes secondary and similar to the televised spectacle. The IPL seems to be the logical continuation of this – cricket as a vehicle for endorsements and part of the advertising spectacular.

Yet India appears as more than just a globalised, nationalist power. Marqusee remains intoxicated by the sport and the tournament, across the region. The cricket played in Pakistan now seems poignant; the political machinations darkly familiar. Sri Lanka, Marqusee’s romantic choice at the beginning of the tournament, emerge triumphant, surging on a radical approach to the game combined with English public school values and an utterly politicised administration. Sri Lanka seems to combine the best of the freshness of an Asian tournament and of cricket’s traditional values, free of the finance and chauvinism of India and Pakistan at their worst. Australia’s refusal to play in Sri Lanka on safety grounds is indicative of the First World distrust held many of the teams coming from outside Asia. Sri Lanka’s triumph over them in the final is as close as international sport gets to democratic internationalism.

It is impossible to capture the richness of War Minus the Shooting in a review. His description of Kenya beating the West Indies, his potted histories of Palwankar Baloo and Mahadev Sathasivam, or his investigations into the murky financing of the tournament all deserve discussion. War Minus the Shooting is worthy of continued attention, not just for its prescient analysis, but for its passion and insight. Marqusee reminds us why it is a bad thing that cricket is plagued by corruption and nationalism. Whilst sport can never just be sport, the game, in its allusive nuances of time and space, and its range of skill and strength, is so marvellous, so cherished, that it needs protecting from the rapacious and the chauvinistic. It will, whilst it is followed by so many, inevitably be used for ends beyond the control of the fan, but so much can be reclaimed by the supporter.

War Minus the Shooting captures the richness of the sport, on the pitch and beyond the boundary, and the intersections with society that benefit and bedevil the game. Many fine tributes have been paid to Mike Marqusee, from Dave Zirin, Andy Bull and Rob Steen, amongst others. But the best way to remember him would be to hold power to account, question those who run the game, and keep cricket evolving in the way people want to see it go. And read War Minus the Shooting. How else will you understand a tournament where, for TV, of course, they painted the outfield green in Faisalabad?

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