Episode 83: A classic cricket book republished for a new generation

Cricket authors (and obsessives) Peter Oborne and Richard Heller launched a podcast early in 2020 to help deprived listeners endure a world without cricket. They’re no longer deprived of cricket, but still chat regularly about cricket topics with different guests each week – cricket writers, players, administrators and fans – hoping to keep a good line and length but with occasional wides into other subjects.

The late Mike Marqusee, who described himself as a “deracinated New York Marxist Jew”, wrote two of the most daring and important cricket books of modern times. The second, War Minus The Shooting, was long out of print. The distinguished cricket journalist Siddhartha Vaidyanathan explains why he republished it and what it has to say to a new generation, as the guest of Peter Oborne and Richard Heller in their latest cricket-themed podcast.

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He begins by reacting to the newly announced set of Laws introduced by the MCC to take effect from October. The most contentious are the one confirming a bowler’s right to run out without prior warning a batter backing up too far and the one removing the ability of non-striker to cross and change ends when the striker is caught and the ball is still in the air. 1-8 minutes The three also discuss the new provision for a dead ball when a dog (or some other outside force) interferes with play. They agree that this may be logical in senior cricket but might have a very different impact on village cricket. On this and many other issues, village and social cricket may need its distinct set of Laws, by a separate law-making body from the MCC. 10-11 minutes

Siddhartha profiles Mike Marqusee and explains his conversion from baseball to cricket. His outsider’s perspective gave him unique insight into the relationship between cricket and English history and English life. This had informed his first classic cricket book, Anyone But England, published in 1994, which lit a fire under the English Establishment. It subverted almost all the conventional history and ideology of English cricket and foreshadowed most of its present problems of race, class and unchecked commercial forces. 13-16 minutes

Two years later he applied the same clarity and prescience to international cricket in War Minus The Shooting. It was a rich travelogue and tour diary of the 1996 World Cup in India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka – the most widely spread single sporting event in history. Marqusee had a special gift for seeing cricket through the eyes of local fans and understanding what he called the “unofficial l cricket culture” of the host countries. He was able to engage with other cricket writers across the political spectrum and from different countries. His book anticipated the rise of Imran Khan as a politician and even more so the rise of Hindu chauvinism in Indian politics. It also conveyed the transition of the Cricket World Cup into its present dimensions as a commercial and media event. 16-23 minutes

That tournament was a collaborative effort between India and Pakistan which is now unimaginable. One of Marqusee’s most powerful sections described the special improvised cricket match in which the two sides combined to support Sri Lanka. One entry on the scorecard read Kaluwitharana caught Tendulkar bowled Wasim Akram. 24-25 minutes

Siddhartha also describes Marqusee’s entertaining profile of the Pepsi executive who brilliantly exploited his company’s failure to become the official soft drink of the World Cup. He made it appeal to young fans (the biggest consumers) with the slogan “nothing official about it.” Marqusee admired this coup but also, as a Marxist, saw it as an example of the cynical exploitation of cricket fans by commercial interests. 25-27 minutes

Siddhartha discusses Marqusee’s place in the radical pantheon of great cricket writers alongside C L R James, another Marxist, and the eccentric anarchistic Major Rowland Bowen. He would certainly consider Bowen’s sweeping iconoclastic history as another candidate for republication. He draws out Marqusee’s unique approach. 27-32 minutes

Marqusee’s remedy for all the ills he analysed was democracy: in cricket this meant restoring the power of fans over the game and resisting the commercial forces which were turning them into passive consumers. But he was often sketchy as to how democracy was to be achieved. 32-37minutes

At the end of his book, Marqusee describes the ambitions of Indian and Pakistani promoters to bring the game to North America. Siddhartha analyses their failure and contrasts them with the current efforts to promote cricket in the United States, especially in his current home city of Seattle by the CEO of Microsoft, Satya Narayana Nadella. 43-46 minutes

Finally, Siddhartha explains the origins of his publishing house, derived from his blog, 81 all out, both named for a famous Indian batting disaster. 13, 38-41 minutes Besides Major Bowen’s work, he identifies some other targets for republication. 47-48 minutes

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Peter Oborne & Richard Heller

Peter Oborne has been the chief political commentator for the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail, a maker of several documentaries and written and broadcast for many different media. He is the author of a biography of Basil D’Oliveira and of Wounded Tiger, a history of Pakistan cricket, both of which won major awards.

Richard Heller was a long-serving humorous columnist on The Mail on Sunday and more briefly, on The Times. He worked in the movie business in the United States and the UK, including a brief engagement on a motion picture called Cycle Sluts Versus The Zombie Ghouls. He is the author of two cricket-themed novels A Tale of Ten Wickets and The Network. He appeared in two Mastermind finals: in the first his special subject was the life of Sir Gary Sobers.

Oborne & Heller cricketing partnership

Jointly, he and Peter produced White On Green, celebrating the drama of Pakistan cricket, including the true story of the team which lost a first-class match by an innings and 851 runs.

Peter and Richard have played cricket with and against each other for a variety of social sides, including Parliament’s team, the Lords and Commons, and in over twenty countries including India, Pakistan, the United States, Ireland, Spain, Portugal, France, Greece, Australia, Zimbabwe, New Zealand and Morocco.

The Podcast is produced by Bridget Osborne and James Willcocks at The Chiswick Calendar.

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