Marqusee, a champion for essential justice

Sharda UgraThe news that Mike Marqusee was gone came late on Tuesday and left the written word without one of its boldest and bravest. To those unfamiliar with his work, Marqusee was a London-based American writer and active political campaigner who wrote on geopolitics, culture and sport and the interlinking of the three.

His books and writing covered a range that reflected his view of a myriad world - encompassing the British Labour party, left-wing politics, the futility of war, American imperialism, Palestine, cricket, Carnatic music, Muhammad Ali, Bob Marley, as well as two books of poetry. Through the course of his cricket writing, Marqusee re-defined how cricket looked at itself. A review of Anyone But England (1994), his most famous cricket book, called it “the most perceptive, challenging and irreverent book on cricket since CLR James.”

Mike Marquesee outside the Lord's Cricket Ground in London during the 1997 Ashes. Pic/Mark Ray
Mike Marquesee outside the Lord's Cricket Ground in London during the 1997 Ashes. Pic/Mark Ray

Everyone who knew Mike, knew he had been battling multiple myeloma, a bone marrow cancer for the last seven years, enduring endless rounds of chemotherapy, radiation, stem-cell surgery. During these seven years, often after weeks of silence, his writing would suddenly turn up - in The Hindu or the Guardian or a Facebook post or his website or a group email, and you would hear him again. Energetic, argumentative in his forceful voice with its distinctive lilt and accent.

My response to those readings and sightings was purely selfish: there’s Mike, he’s still strong, still showing the world its flaws, richness, failings and possibilities. The writing became a reaffirmation of the life force that Mike himself was; a champion for essential justice, fundamental decency and non-negotiable equality. It was what he lived by and stood for - from age 14, when he organised a walkout of his school against the Vietnam war, until the day he passed away.

Mike’s influence on many lives is found in the tributes following his passing. On his Facebook wall, he is ‘comrade’, ‘brother’, a ‘good man.’ One said, “We have a shortage of thoughtful, decent people with a public platform, and frankly couldn’t afford to lose him.” Dave Zirin, the American sports writer called him, ‘irreplaceable’ and said that losing him was “like losing several pints of blood.” Like waking up one morning and finding that a mooring in your life has come loose and slipped away, leaving you adrift and bereft.

I met Mike more than 20 years ago as a reporter at The Hindu when he came to the Wankhede Stadium to watch a domestic game. Anyone But England had made him famous in the cricket world but he was astonished to find that his first book Slow Turn, a cricket novel, had reached India and even been read there. Of all the people, a fellow Springsteen fan.

Anyone But England was a tectonic plate-shift of a cricket book. With a staggering depth and width of historical research and analysis, it challenged the English (and through it, the world) game’s establishment and the conservative, controlled narrative of its history. It was like someone had taken over the PA system of an entrenched, enclosed space featuring Cardusian views and Test Match Special cakes and buses and said, “Excuse me?” - at top volume. Backed by two decades in political activism, the desire to question assumptions, an uncluttered, baggage-free view of the game and the ability to spot historical fakery, only Mike could have produced such a polemic.

He was however, more than the sum of the content of his books. Mike had an expansive, inclusive world-view, an open heart and an English sense of humour. On my way to work this morning, switching between being grateful for his release from pain and dealing with the personal loss of a friend, I stumbled upon his last few articles on cricket.

The first was his piece written for the Wisden India Almanack 2014, which tried to explain why we love cricket in its sheer pointlessness. In it, he reminded me of everything bewitching about the game, which can get forgotten in the churn between “profit” and “process.” The second was his last website post on cricket, talking about the Mankading of an English batsman versus Sri Lanka, leading to ill will and what the England captain Alastair Cook called ‘spice’ between the two teams. With a straight face, Mike asked whether England would, “Look any less miserable than they did through the long winter months. Maybe Cook thinks the ‘spice’ of ill-feeling will do the trick, in which case he has an even duller imagination that I suspected.” With that, he made me giggle.

The subject of a group email he sent in September 2013 said: “Surprisingly, I’m still alive.” He wrote of his illness, the treatments, life and surviving, the beauty of Britain’s NHS and finished with a paragraph about the high costs the pharma industry extracted out of public health services. His mail finished with this line: “One of the reasons I’m glad to be alive is that I can have a go at these bastards.”

Mike Marqusee’s fearless humanity is already missed. At the moment, he is no doubt, having one hell of a conversation with CLR James.

Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo in Bangalore

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