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Socialist Review Index (1993–1996) | Socialist Review 180 Contents

Mark Steel


It’s only a game


From Socialist Review, No. 180, November 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Anyone but England
Mike Marqusee
Verso £16.99

Cricket books are generally works of astonishing tedium. They can list every shot in a player’s career but forget to mention he was a close friend of Oswald Mosley and flew in bombing raids with the Luftwaffe.

If you enjoy cricket but despise the stripey tie world of the cricket establishment Marqusee’s book is what you’ve been waiting for. Its beauty and originality is its insistence that it is possible to love the game while understanding that it is a game, nothing more or less.

The belief of the cricket establishment, whether in the form of the MCC, counties, publications or commentators is that cricket is much more than a game. Indeed it’s a symbol of a time when English values of fair play and tea in the afternoon ruled the world. We kept the natives as slaves and in return taught them Christianity and cricket. What could be fairer than that?

Even Marxist cricket lovers have seen the game as embodying a moral superiority. C.L.R. James in Beyond a Boundary cites W.G. Grace as a heroic leader of forward-looking Victorian Britain. And claiming that cricket is not a sport but an art he makes statements like ‘the modern angular jerk through the covers off the back foot is not alien to a generation that has experienced Cubism.’ Seeing cricket as occupying an almost spiritual high ground he backed tours to apartheid South Africa and praised the aristocratic system of amateurs and professionals.

Marqusee, however, portrays the English game’s rulers as ‘a mirror of the country’s ruling class’, whose agenda is clearly more than just sport. Lord Harris used the playing fields of Eton to prepare an officer class for the ‘more dangerous pitches abroad’, while today some of the game’s most influential posts are held by a field marshal, a governor of the Bank of England and a founder of the National Association for Freedom.

He charts the process by which English cricket authorities tried to undermine the boycott of South Africa, quoting apparently affable old sticks like commentator Trevor Bailey: ‘Socially the most enjoyable of all cricket tours were those to South Africa. The hospitality was unequalled elsewhere.’

He analyses cricket’s place in the world as a history of empire. For instance America’s rejection of the English game following Lord Palmerston’s support for the South in the civil war.

But most striking is that in a sport whose writing is dominated by snobs like Christopher Martin-Jenkins here is something for the supporter on the bench, not the executive box.

If you just take cricket at face value you’re left with a pointless game. But surely the whole point of being socialists is that one day we may live in a world where the essential is attained easily, while for most of our lives we’re free to pursue the pointless. And there’s little more wonderfully charmingly pointless than cricket.

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