Vic Marks on England’s 1984-85 tour to India, his TMS debut in Delhi, a World Cup record and his memoir
Vic Marks (right) bowls at the Feroz Shah Kotla nets in 1984. © Getty

LONDON: It would be an understatement to say that 35 years ago, Vic Marks‘ introduction to India was dramatic. Within hours of the touring England cricket team landing in New Delhi in 1984, India’s then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated. David Gower‘s team was then shuttled down to Colombo for ten days, only to return when the Indian government assured British authorities that it was safe to proceed with the tour.

Then, the day before the start of the first Test in what was then known as Bombay, the UK’s Deputy High Commissioner was assassinated. The same man, Percy Norris, who the prior night had hosted Gower’s team for a private dinner at his south Bombay residence.

Then, as the first Test was on, the Bhopal gas tragedy – considered as the world’s worst industrial disaster – happened. Later, between the second and third Test matches, was the Indian general election which took place virtually immediately after Indira Gandhi’s assassination and saw the Congress party claim a landslide victory with Rajiv Gandhi the new PM.

Amid all this, Gower’s underdog English cricket team rallied from being 0-1 down to beat India 2-1 to claim the Test series.

“Quite a busy tour,” Marks, who played six Tests and 34 ODIs for England and is now a beloved voice on the iconic BBC radio programme Test Match Special and a highly regarded cricket writer, tells CricketCountry of that tour to India in 1984. “It is one that everyone remembers, who went on it, both press and players, because there was so much going on. It was quite a unifying tour. Everyone who was there kind of remember it with great affection. Quite a lot of terrible things happened to India, but for us outsiders it bound us all together. It was a peculiar feeling.”

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By the time England arrived in India, Marks had played the last of his six Tests, though he did not know it at the time. He and his team-mates were scared, he says, because of all that was happening around them in New Delhi.

“We landed in India six hours before Mrs Gandhi was assassinated, and when we awoke in our hotel, tucked off in some posh area of New Delhi, it was surreal,” he recalls. “We weren’t exactly imprisoned, but we could see riots and unrest and smoke going up in the middle of Delhi. We had almost a week there, and we sort of thought that were going back, but everyone was very keen that we stay back. We went to Sri Lanka for about ten days, had a couple of impromptu matches as a sort of safe haven, and then came back to India and a slightly restructured schedule and much heavier security.”

The BCCI staff and government officials were “very pleased” that Gower’s team had returned to New Delhi, because they wanted to demonstrate that everything back to normal. But that was from the real picture.

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Later in the tour, just before the first Test match, the England team were invited to a party hosted by Deputy High Commissioner Norris, who happened to be an avid cricket fan. The very next day, Norris was assassinated while on the way to work by two unidentified assailants near this south Bombay office.

“This was literally on the eve of the Bombay Test match,” recalls Marks. “We all thought we were definitely going home now. But to our slight amazement, it was decided that we were staying. We played the Test match, lost it, and ended up winning the series.”

Marks points out that was a remarkable achievement from all aspects, not just because of the turmoil all around but because Gower’s team was not given much of a chance. “No Botham, and a slightly unlikely-looking team,” he says.

That tour of India in 1984-85 was Marks’ last with the England cricket team. But vitally enough, in a curious twist of fate, it was after a day’s play during the Feroz Shah Kotla Test match in Delhi that he was called into the BBC Test Match Special commentary box for a brief stint as summariser of a day’s play, and where he would get to know Peter Baxter, the show’s producer.

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“In those days, and on that tour especially, because so many things had happened, the press and the players were incredibly closer then than now,” says Marks. “We all stayed at the same hotel, we went to the ground in the same bus. Peter Baxter, who was producing TMS at the time, would knock on the dressing room door and ask ‘is anyone around?’ and one of us would raise a hand.”

During that tour, his then England team-mate and future TMS colleague Jonathan Agnew was flown out to India as replacement for Paul Allott. Graeme Fowler was also part of that tour. And after seeing Marks summarising the Test in New Delhi, Baxter later got all three together to do “bits and pieces” while the three were still active cricketers for TMS. Marks recalls a feature called County Talk, on which he, Agnew and Fowler would update listeners on what was happening on the county circuit. Occasionally, Baxter managed to get all three to commentate during County Championship semi-finals and finals.

“It gave us a chance to become familiar with Peter, which then helped Agnew become the TMS pundit and got me and Graeme Fowler quite a bit of work on the program over the years,” says Marks.

Jonathan Agnew Vic Marks TMS
The voices of TMS: Jonathan Agnew and Vic Marks. (Image: Twitter/@bbctms)

Curiously enough, the same person that commissioned Marks’ first stint in the TMS commentary panel was the one who nudged him to write his recently published memoir of a career made playing cricket and later calling it and writing on it, Original Spin: Misadventures in Cricket.

“There a curious link between this book and that first stint on commentary in New Delhi in 1984. I call it the sequel, really, except it’s come 34 years late,” says Marks with that laconic ease that has won him countless admirers. “I hadn’t seem him for ages, and he got in touch and suggested I did this book, so that sort of the trigger, really.”

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A year later, as it turned out, Marks found himself back in India as part of a cricket team from his local church group. One of his friends from university organised the trip and asked Marks to be a part of it. He readily agreed, and saw parts of India he could not have as a Test cricketer.

“Three weeks, we went to places like Coimbatore and played against some of the top Indian players of the time, sometimes in front of about 20,000 people …in a small church associated tour!” he marvels.

After retiring as a professional cricket, Marks took to journalism and broadcasting and since the early 1990s has been a regular feature on the much-loved TMS as a summariser of the game. For 30 years, Marks has been the cricket correspondent for The Observer and now The Guardian as well.

Despite being a prolific writer and chronicler of cricket for three decades, Marks admits that it was not always easy to reflect on incidents, matches and performances down the years when he sat down to pen his memoir, Original Spin.

“I think you have to research slightly less when writing your memoirs,” he says, “but cricket is a funny sport, isn’t it? You can get the bare bones by looking at a scorecard and lovely collections of Wisden here in England, and then you have vague memories of significant matches in which you’ve played in or know of, but it is amazing what a scorecard can trigger.

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“One, it can correct you. I had some completely erroneous memories of certain matches, and even old stories I used to tell. When I actually checked them out, one of the key men whose story I was telling wasn’t actually playing in this game! So you can’t get away with too much if you’re writing about cricket, because it is so accessible. So yes, I had to jog my memory and talk to one or two people.”

Vic Marks Somerset
Marks during his days for Somerset, as he headed into a career as a commentator. (Image: Twitter/@SomersetCCC).

An offspinner by trade, Marks’ 40 appearances for England fetched him 55 wickets (44 in ODIs, 11 in Tests) and in the five-day match he was good enough to score three fifties, with a best of 83. His figures of 5/39 against Sri Lanka at Taunton in 1983 still stand as the best bowling performance by an England player in a World Cup match.

Marks admits having to go to YouTube to watch clips of that bowling effort – “how convenient, no?” – to recall that day in the book and is typically self-deprecating when speaking of that achievement. “Most of them were caught on the boundary edge,” he chuckles. “From a personal point of view, I don’t remember that much about the mechanics of my bowling in that match, but I do remember it because it was Taunton, and the first ever England game there, packed crowd, my home ground, and quite a good game too.

“It was a high-scoring game by the standards of 1983 [England made 333/9 in 60 overs] so I remember it with great fondness. Whether it is the highlight of my career, I don’t know, but it was a lovely day to be able to do well at home. Sri Lanka weren’t a Test nation, really, but they had some very good players.”

Marks ended the 1983 Prudential World Cup as England’s most successful wicket-taker with 13. England lost only two matches in that tournament, against New Zealand in the league stage and then the semi-final at Old Trafford to eventual winners. That loss to Kapil Dev’s team, in Marks’ estimation, was the most significant match of the 1983 World Cup.

“That sort of changed the shape of World Cup cricket,” he says. “Or it helped to, anyway, because it got India to the final and then everything exploded, in terms of how one-day cricket was regarded in India. It transformed. Looking back, with the World Cup going on now, how great it was to play in that World Cup. Not many get to do that, and then you think ‘hang on a minute, we actually played quite well in the early stages’. We didn’t play very well the way we lost to India, in fact we fluffed our chance to reach the final. But that’s ancient history.”

Vic Marks Somerset Dom Bess
Vic Marks presents Somerset’s Dom Bess his first England Test cap in 2018. (Image: Twitter/@BlundellsSchool)

As a Somerset player, more than his own performances what he cherished most was winning trophies. In April 1974, Marks entered the Somerset County Cricket Club setup as a fresh face alongside Viv Richards, Ian Botham and Peter Roebuck. “I was so lucky to get to play with these guys,” he says. “Somerset had never won anything. No one-day, no nothing. We had no trophies. We felt the pressure, because we really were fortunate to suddenly have two world-class players in Botham and Richards. Winning that first trophy at Somerset was a big landmark.”

Marks is matter-of-fact about his England career. “It was pretty modest, really.”

He started his career as a batsman, “unbelievably”, and in what proved to be his final tour – in Pakistan in 1984 – his last three innings at the international level were all half-centuries. In his final three Tests, Marks scored 83 in Faisalabad and 74 and 55 in Lahore.

“I think that’s quite a record,” he says. “To never play a Test after scoring three consecutive fifties. I’m not bitter, because I was supposed to take wickets with my offspin, which I didn’t (in 90 overs across those three Test matches in Pakistan, Marks claimed four wickets). It was a source of some relief, because I’d batted quite horrendously before. By the end, I felt like I belonged in the dressing room, whereas at the start I was sort of thinking I wasn’t really good enough. Lots of self-doubt. So oddly, by the end of it, I felt good and didn’t fret as much about not being good enough.”

Matthew Engel, the former editor of Wisden, once described Marks as incapable of having enemies and recently wrote a review of Original Spin in which he noted that he was “incapable of upsetting anyone”. Having listened to Marks for years on TMS and now with the pleasure of speaking to him in London, I can see why it is easy to believe that is true.