Reader, you may not be a cricket fan. But stick with me. The tale is worth it.
A full 25 years separated the 1996 World Cup—the first cricket games I really watched—and my first chance to read the best book about that tournament. Through the lockdowns in 2020-21, I’d fallen back for comfort on cricket books: books like Christian Ryan’s Feeling is the Thing that happens in 1000th of a Second, or Ram Guha’s The Commonwealth of Cricket, or Gideon Haigh’s Stroke of Genius. (This last was heartily recommended by Ram himself, last December. “You have to read it, it’s about that famous photograph of Trumper,” he said, and then leaped out of his chair to model the pose.) Mid-pandemic, cricket lit. provided visions of idylls: of fresh air and cricketers bursting with vigor and crowds—crowds!—in communion with each other. And it also provided a window for regression—in my case to my late teens and early twenties, when last I read this hungrily about the game—and that nostalgia was comforting too.
The book I’d never read, strangely, was War Minus the Shooting. Strangely, I say, because Mike Marqusee’s book dealt with the very tournament that ignited my love for the game. I remember the games televised in 1996 in diamantine clarity—far better, in fact, than I remember Test matches I watched in person earlier this summer. Marqusee’s book had been published in 1997, and I hadn’t managed to read it then; after that, it went out of print, and copies were impossible to source. Earlier this summer, though, a resourceful friend sent me a pdf, and I inhaled it in two days. Here it all was, again: my memories neatly overlaid upon Marqusee’s memories, the very names and strokes and images and anxieties that eaten their way into my soul in 1996. But more on this in a while.
Not long after I read the book, I was standing in the kitchen early one morning, texting my friend Siddhartha. I was making coffee; it was late night in Seattle, where Siddhartha lives, and where he works at doing many things including hosting and producing the “81 All Out” cricket podcast. We were discussing War Minus the Shooting, and he mentioned that he’d done something astonishing. He’d asked Penguin Books, in India, if they were planning a 25th anniversary edition of the book; when they said they were doing no such thing, he tracked down Marqusee’s wife Liz Davies, a barrister in London. (Marqusee himself passed away of cancer in 2015.) Would she, Siddhartha wondered, ask for the rights back and sell them to him, so that he could publish a fresh edition? Liz did just this, and Siddhartha and his friend Mahesh set up a company to publish the book.
This excited me no end, not just because of Marqusee’s book but also because of the spring of cricket reading I’d just completed. It reminded me of all the excellent books that were out of print and impossible to find. Maybe there was a way, Siddhartha and Mahesh and I realised, to not have War Minus the Shooting be a one-off, but to publish one or two such books a year.
Happily, once I begged to be let into this enterprise, they agreed. We cleaned up the manuscript. We asked the noble Gideon Haigh for a foreword, which he wrote in a matter of days and for no fee at all. We asked Mike Atherton, England’s captain in that 1996 World Cup and now an acclaimed commentator on the game, for a blurb, which he sent within a day. (Mike, if you’re reading this: Thank you!) We had a new cover designed, for which we had to buy the rights to a photo. (Our cover designer, Vinayak Varma, lives in Bangalore; our photographer, Kamal Julka, lives in Jaipur.) The volume of global goodwill this project elicited was astonishing. The result is this fresh edition of War Minus the Shooting: available as a Kindle download in India and as a Kindle download and paperback (courtesy Amazon’s print-on-demand service) in the US, the UK, Australia, and elsewhere.
The question of what makes War Minus the Shooting so good is particularly easy to answer if I compare it to Beyond A Boundary, that other masterpiece of analytical cricket writing by C. L. R. James, the Marxist historian who was born in Trinidad & Tobago and who died in a Brixton apartment the windows of which I can see from my own flat. James used cricket to deconstruct class, race, and colonial history; Marqusee uses the 1996 World Cup to deconstruct globalisation, commerce, nationalism, and power. His observations were prophetic. Read him, for example, in the aftermath of the semi-final in Kolkata. India had beaten Pakistan in Bangalore in the quarter-final, but as they started crumbling in Kolkata, groups of fans in the stands hurled bottles and lit fires. The game had to be abandoned and awarded to Sri Lanka, the tournament’s eventual winners. Marqusee deplored anyone who thought the entire affair was emblematic of India, because he believed that the hooliganism and violence attending football matches in England were far worse. But, he wrote:
In one sense, the events at Eden Gardens did ‘shame the nation.’ The very idea of nationhood as projected in the World Cup had proved psychologically and politically untenable. Add together Bangalore and Calcutta, and the reactions and counter-reactions in India and Pakistan, and you have a demonstration of the weirdly sado-masochistic character which nationalism in both countries has taken on in recent years. As globalisation strides forward, the search for national identity becomes ever more desperate and ever more dominated by hostility to perceived national enemies, both within and without the country’s borders. Thus the carnival of globalisation turned into an orgy of nationalism. Those who sought its roots in some subcontinental sub-consciousness, who saw ancient prejudice spilling through the cracks in the modern veneer, missed the essence of the World Cup. The nationalism that disﬁgured the tournament was of the up-to-the-minute, satellite television-age variety, more the child of globalisation than its antithesis. It was a nationalism manufactured by politicians, multinational corporations and media moguls, and not everyone bought it.
This was pretty sharp thinking and writing even then, when globalisation was still playing itself out. But it’s especially illuminating to read now, in the aftermath of the T20 World Cup in the UAE, when India lost to Pakistan in a league match, only for the team’s Muslim players to be mocked, threatened, and harassed online, and for their patriotism to be called into question. If, in treating people as consumers or voters, you try to rouse their worst nationalistic instincts—as advertisers were doing during that World Cup, as politicians do today—you must expect those instincts to deform and mutate into ugliness and violence.
None of this is to say that Marqusee was a scold. Far from it. The book is a travelogue by a man who adored the subcontinent. It’s a love letter to the game, to Tendulkar and Warne and Aravinda. (Of Aravinda’s 66-run fusillade in that semi-final against India, Marqusee wrote that it was “an exhibition of applied trigonometry.”) Here he is again, elegantly capturing what it meant to be Indian in the 1990s, watching Tendulkar bat with both admiration and sweaty nervousness:
The stadium reverberated with the roar of ‘Sachin! Sachin! Sachin!’ Each stroke was like a shot of adrenalin, yet each was accompanied by fear and trembling. There would be one too many daring shots, and it would all end, suddenly and catastrophically. For the partisan, which is to say for several hundred million people in India, there is a special nail-biting, hair-tearing drama to a Tendulkar innings. Where Mark Waugh was serene, playing all the classical strokes, and never seemed in danger, Tendulkar was impudent and experimental, and never seemed out of danger. To the technical orthodoxy he had inherited from the Bombay school of batsmanship, he added a new dimension of improvised but clinical power-hitting, developed to meet the demands of the one-day game. Critics had long urged him to curb his attacking instincts. They told him that if he played fewer risky shots he could emulate Lara, occupy the crease for hours and make huge scores. They wanted a second Gavaskar, but Gavaskar himself was wise enough to urge Tendulkar to perfect his own style.
What remains to be said, except: Please buy the book! Support independent publishing! (I can now say this.) We have schemes and strategems for our paltry list next year, but ideas for long-forgotten, long-lost gems of cricket literature that we ought to republish are always welcome. If things go well for all of us, the pandemic won’t be around any more in 2022, but I’m not planning to take myself off my prescription of cricket books for a long time to come.