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Cricket And A Shot Of Arrack

Even if you detest cricket, you will love Chinaman - The Legend of Pradeep Mathew by Shehan Karunatilaka.

A novel about cricket and Sri Lanka and of Sri Lanka through its cricket. That’s what you will find if you pick up this book. If, like me, you’re not interested in cricket, your instinct may be to skip Chinaman - The Legend of Pradeep Mathew, the debut novel by Sri Lankan writer Shehan Karunatilaka, Don’t give in to your instinct. Cricket may be the central theme of Chinaman, but it’s a story that goes beyond cricket. Washed-up sports journalist, Wije is on a mission to write a book about Sri Lanka’s greatest cricketer, Pradeep Mathew. But here’s the problem. There is no trace of Mathew in the official records. It’s as if he didn’t exist. But Wije has seen him play. Wije knows he exists. Wije wants to tell Mathew’s story. But for that, he must find Mathew first. And Wije’s quest is captured in Chinaman.

Now for my pitch to the cricket fans (pardon the pun). Try and construct “the world’s greatest cricket team”. Here’s what Wije and friends came up with in Chinaman.

Openers

Jack Hobbs (Eng-20s)

Sunil Gavaskar (Ind-80s)

Middle Order

Don Bradman (Aus-40s)

Viv Richard (WI-80s)

Allan Border (Aus-80s)

All-rounders

Garfield Sobers (WI-60s)

Wasim Akram (Pak-90s)

Wicket-keeper

Denis Lindsay (SA-60s)

Fast Bowlers

Sidney Barnes (End-10s)

Dennis Lillee (Aus-70s)

Spinner

Pradeep Mathew (SL-80s)

If lists like this have you cheering in delight or frothing at the bit, then Chinaman is a must-read. If you’re the type to forward this list to your friends and generate a heated debate in the process, then Chinaman is for you. Reading this book is like diving into the world of Sri Lankan cricket – the talent, the rivalry, the politics, the bureaucracy, the money, the fame, the obscurity and the corruption that make up the game.

As Wije and Ari Byrd (cricket statistician, mathematics teacher and Wije’s neighbour and best friend) undertake Mission Pradeep Mathew, they cross paths with the likely and the unlikely. Control-freaking Sri Lankan Cricket Board officials. Television producers focused on sponsorship. Girls who only date cricketers. An LTTE warlord who makes money through match-fixing. A midget cricket-ground keeper with secret recordings of all conversations on the field.

Then there is the mystery at the heart of the book. Why has no one heard of Sri Lanka’s greatest cricketer? “Wrong place, wrong time, money, and laziness. Politics, racism, power cuts and plain bad luck.” As you follow the mystery, you understand the role that each phrase/word has played in Pradeep Mathew’s life.

I can see a natural audience for Chinaman in the cricket-crazy Indian sub-continent. Perhaps even in Australia, England and every other cricket playing nation. But what about the rest of the world? How many Americans even know how cricket is played? The author, Shehan Karunatilaka, seems determined to cross that hurdle. In some ways, Chinaman is like the Dummies Guide to Cricket. Definitions and diagrams pop-up throughout the book.

Wicket. The word wicket can refer to the three stumps that the bowler attempts to hit (with diagram).”

Willow and Leather. The ball is made of leather with a hard seam running its circumference. The bat is made of willow. The sound of one hitting the other is music (with diagram).”

Pitch. The battleground. 22 yard, punctuated at either end by three stumps. If the pitch is grassy and moist, the ball whizzes through. If it is wet or bone-dry, the ball will spin. The pitch serves as a scapegoat for many failures, though it is seldom referred to by those celebrating success (with diagram).”

And if you’re wondering why on earth this book is called Chinaman – considering that China is not a cricketing nation (yet) – this may help. “A ball turning in from a left-arm bowler is not considered as dangerous as one that turns away. The logic being that it is not difficult to combat something that moves towards you. Mathew bowled two variations of the chinaman. One with cocked wrist and one with rolling fingers. He could drift it to wide outside the off-stump, giving it the appearance of a wayward delivery, and then rip it in at awkward angles. The chinaman accounted for most of Mathew’s early wickets and remained his stock delivery throughout his career. It can be difficult to combat something that moves towards you, if it arrives unexpectedly (with diagram).”

Enough about cricket and Pradeep Mathew. Chinaman is also, in equal measure, about Wije. I introduced Ari Byrd as Wije’s best friend in the book. I’m not sure about that. It may be a bottle of arrack that’s Wije’s best friend. As Wije says, “alcohol has enhanced my life and the world I inhabit. It has given me insight, jocularity and escape. I would not be who I am without it”. Wije pays the price for his addiction – a tumultuous marriage, a son who is distant and a sketchy career. Finally, Wije has to choose between life and alcohol. He chooses the latter and pays the ultimate professional price – an unfinished book on Pradeep Mathew.

So, does Pradeep Mathew actually exist? I got my answer 500 pages into the book. And each page was a thoroughly enjoyable one.

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