Books: All overs bar the shouting

Harry Pearson looks back on the cricket World Cup
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
On 31st January 1996 a suicide bombing in Colombo killed over 80 people. Meanwhile in Lahore the local authorities were brightening up their city by placing thousands of gaily coloured papier mache mushrooms along roadside verges. In Delhi Rupert Murdoch's men were locked in a protracted battle for satellite TV rights. Over in Calcutta the Peerless Hotel offered a special cricket menu featuring "Malik's Fishy Bribe".

Somehow in the midst of all this violence, high finance, scandal and surreal hype a major cricket competition managed to get played. The winners, joyfully, were the Sri Lankans in whose war-torn country the beaten finalists, Australia had steadfastly refused to play. Shane Warne, the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister had opined of the Australians' star bowler, is a sissie.

The 1996 World Cup in all its mad, multi-sponsored splendour is the subject of a pair of illuminating and entertaining books, Robert Winder's Hell For Leather and War Minus The Shooting by Mike Marqusee. It is a measure of the breadth of the tournament and the very different approaches of the authors that there is remarkably little overlap between the two. Marqusee, an American socialist who developed a passion for the game when visiting India in the 1970s tries to "find out about cricket and what it meant to particular people in particular places", with the added proviso of avoiding watching England at all costs, sensible chap.

Winder, as a cricket writer for this newspaper, was, on the other hand, following the team which Sunil Gavaskar would, with cruel accuracy, characterise as "the competition's sacrificial goats", and understandably therefore, takes as his main theme the parlous state of the English game.

Mike Marqusee has a detailed knowledge of the politics of the sub-continent and War Minus The Shooting (Heinemann, pounds 12.99) - the title comes from George Orwell's jaundiced comment on the nature of international sport - serves as a useful and eye-opening primer. The book attempts to place the World Cup within its social framework while at the same time highlighting the way its financial power served to bolster the cause of economic globalisation. It is an aim which might have set lesser writers down a path towards earnestness, but Marqusee's keen ear for the absurder aspects of corporate-speak (after the horror of the Colombo bombing an official from World Bank was moved to comment: "We hope Sri Lanka will come through this difficult period by adopting correct financial policies"), his zest for cricket and his obvious love for the countries through which he is travelling ensure that this is a journey which is educational but never dull.

Reports on matches are interspersed with wide ranging chats and interviews with everyone from schoolchildren to high officials. Best of all is a meeting with the venerable Pakistani cricket commentator, Omar Kureishi, who tells the author: "Only two things really bind this country (Pakistan) together. One is war and the other is cricket". It is to be hoped that, if nothing else, War Minus The Shooting will serve finally to disavow anyone still innocent (or indeed cynical) enough to espouse the view that sport has nothing to do with politics.

Unlike Marqusee, Robert Winder was experiencing sub-continental cricket for the first time. Where War Minus The Shooting ricochets off events at various unexpected angles, Hell For Leather: A Modern Cricket Journey (Gollancz, pounds 17.99) tends to meet cricket with the centre of the bat and is none the worse for it.

Winder spends much of the early part of the competition with the England team and provides a vivid account of their unsteady progress through a string of disastrous performances and diplomatic gaffs. The author is broadly sympathetic to the players, commenting, acutely and accurately, that years of playing cricket has left them "institutionalised by the game".

But along with empathy there is wry humour too, particularly when England's cricket supremo, Ray Illingworth, hoves into view with his matchless mix of bluffness, bafflement and buck-passing - "That was Mike's decision" seems to be his catchphrase. The account of the shambolic opening ceremony and it's aftermath - organiser Gianfranco Lunetta should, wrote one Indian newspaper, "be tied with a rope and detained in Calcutta" - is a comic gem.

That something has gone seriously wrong with English cricket is undeniable. The poor state of our national summer game is perhaps best summed up in Winder's account of a meeting before the South Africa-England clash between the South African High Commissioner and Dennis Silk, Chairman of the TCCB. "May the best team win," the South African says. "I hope not," Silk replies.

Winder outlines the problems of English cricket with clarity and concision and details possible far-reaching solutions to them, too. Whatever becomes of the game on these shores, however, both authors agree that the centre of the cricket world has now shifted from Lords to South Asia. With the zest and passion for the game that exists there, that is surely no bad thing.