Illustration for <i>Slow Turn</i>
© Jeffrey Phillips

By the book

Madras machinations

Mike Marqusee's only cricket novel isn't as fine as his non-fiction works, but with murder, political intrigue and romance thrown into the mix, it's entertaining

Benjamin Golby |

In Madras the umpire was murdered and it made us all uneasy. If this was the sort of place where umpires got murdered, then what chance had a handful of foreign cricketers? And without an umpire, who would enforce the rules? Who would give people out or let them stay in?

Foul murder is a constant delight of cricket's fiction. Ted Dexter's ghostwritten Testkill has a left-arm Australian bowler crumple dead mid-Ashes delivery. Carolyn Morwood's female first-class cricketer sleuth, Marlo Shaw, relaxes with a net mid-murder investigation. Jock Serong's The Rules of Backyard Cricket, from 2016, features a Warne-esque anti-hero bound and gagged in a car boot at the Australian captain's behest.

Slow Turn, Mike Marqusee's political cricket thriller, commences with an umpire's mangled end: his eye pierced, skull speared and brain gouged with a stump in the middle of the night. The novel is set in a fictional mid-1980s Tamil Nadu that is embroiled in political and social upheaval, wracked by grievances against Delhi and inter-party machinations. Madras, awhirl with civic unrest, hosts a five-day fixture between a team of English second-string first-class players and a South India XI. Bumbling between striking masses, figures of power and influence and Chepauk Stadium is a failed county batsman making the most of his seemingly final cricket tour. More Marcus Brody than Jason Bourne, our hero falls into a tangled gauntlet of local and international intrigue to expose a nefarious cricketing plot. It's a taut, twisting story, told in an understated Graham Greene-like fashion.

Marqusee is one of cricket's more intriguing scribes: an erudite journalist born and raised in America, and a Marxist and political activist. He was an eclectic author writing on poets, music, religion, sport and his own struggle with cancer, which culminated in his death in 2015. Whatever the topic, rigorous political and cultural questioning underpinned his inquiry. Slow Turn is presented amid the wider preoccupations of the game 30 years ago, with World Series Cricket reverberating and South Africa's rebel tours divisive. Through the course of the novel Marqusee demonstrates the impossibility of separating cricket from politics, scrutinises the morality of international cricket in apartheid-era South Africa, and expounds that money and commercialism in the game is as worthy of examination as play itself.

Slow Turn is a vehicle for political concerns rather than a Great Cricket Novel

The novel, originally published in 1986, depicts the trudge of a touring player amid the cloistering company of fellow cricketers - some boorish and others boundless in their generosity and goodness. It luridly imagines a corporate-backed, city-franchise-based private cricket league some 20 years before the IPL. Graphic, too, are the fizzing deliveries of the local Chennai hero, a hypnotic sort of legspinning R Ashwin. It's on this theme that the novel opens, with a portrayal of the anxiety in facing a googly bowler:

It isn't the googly itself, it's the thought of it…

In cricket parlance, a googly is an off-break disguised as a leg-break. Imagine a batsman standing at the crease to receive the legspinner's normal delivery. He sees the ball emerge from the back of the bowler's hand and follows it through the air until it lands in front of him and turns away. The turn may be slight, no more than a fractional deviation, but in itself it's more than enough to make the most experienced batsman think twice. More dreaded than the simple leg-break, however, is the legspinner's secret weapon, his rapier hidden but ready to strike at a moment's notice, the googly. Again the batsman follows the ball through the air. Again it lands in front of him, only this time, contrary to all expectations, contrary to all appearances, it turns the other way. No forewarning, no hint in the bowler's action, in the movement through the air, in the line or length - just that split-second turn into the right-hander's body, leaving him with bat outstretched, lunging, more often than not, at thin air. From then on there can be no security for the batsman, no peace of mind. He has seen the ball turn the wrong way, and the slower the turn the more painful it is to watch it roll onto your stumps.

Slow Turn is Marqusee's only novel, and despite its promising beginnings as a compelling cricket thriller, the author's inexperience in the medium shows. Its characters make a neat ensemble: a martinet, Jardine-esque patrician child of the Raj captains England; a wristy, charismatic Indian allrounder gives away international cricket for a political career; a female Kollywood cast-off plays a love interest while doubling as a pugnacious journalist; and unscrupulous businessmen from all nations foul the waters. However, they lack human depth and are exposed as wooden stereotypes. The plot, too, proves alternately melodramatic and leaden. While the convivial denouement sees a padded batsman emerging onto the ground arm in arm with the girl of his dreams (having battled goondas in Chepauk's garden shed and foiled a kidnapping), it fails to tax the reader's intelligence. Slow Turn is a vehicle for political concerns rather than a Great Cricket Novel.

It was also Marqusee's first published book and announces themes he later developed in two works of non-fiction on the game: one exploring race and class in cricket, and the other a study of South Asia on the occasion of the 1996 World Cup. Slow Turn is a lesser work than those fine volumes and, in this, displays a trait of cricket's fiction. The game enjoys an extraordinary canon of non-fiction with a breadth that dwarfs the literary scope of any other sport. Were our species to disappear, cricket's non-fiction could demonstrate a fairly expansive reach of human experience. It is one of the great achievements of the game. In comparison, cricket's fiction is a strange camp at the boundaries. It has some fine moments but is essentially a curiosity in the game's literary canon, difficult to commend to those without interest in the sport.

© Penguin India

Although Slow Turn's political and cultural discourse is engrossing, as a novel and a book of cricket it has limitations. For a cricket fan (and possibly for one who's not) it's a pleasant companion for a commute or a park bench. By all means keep an eye out in the second-hand shops, but before fossicking too hard, look for Marqusee's recently reprinted Anyone But England or War Minus the Shooting.

Extract:

Chaughiri brought himself on. You could feel the crowd's anticipation. He set his field meticulously, threateningly, with close catchers on either side of the wicket, back and front, symbols of his uncanny ability to turn the ball either way without warning. That was his mystery. He combined probing control of length with one of the most well-disguised googlies the game has ever seen - or not seen, as was more often the case. The long arm swung over from behind the back and with a flick of the wrist he sent the ball spinning like a top through the air. It was enough to set the nerves on edge. And on opening day, in front of fifty thousand people, they were already frayed.

Soon enough he had Walker trapped lbw. Ironically it was to a ball that did nothing, just landed on middle stump and kept going straight through. But the batsman, circumspect as ever, was playing for all kinds of turn that never came and finished with bat flailing humiliatingly toward midwicket.

The funny thing about this kind of spin bowling is how hostile it is. Its gentility, its sheer artful slowness, disguises aggression and violence. When you bat against it you are under a very personal form of attack, in which any weakness you might have ever displayed will be used against you. The bowler wants you and no one else ; he wants you removed from the field of play and he is willing to lie, cheat and flatter to get it.

The difficulty of 'reading' Chaughiri was one of the game's shibboleths. And he had an even, unchanging, neutral demeanour to match. Watching him bowl, I was reminded of things I'd already seen in India - apparently passive, static on the surface, while underneath…

Benjamin Golby is a pre-school music teacher and roulette croupier. Jeffrey Phillips is a Melbourne-based artist

 

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