Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the content
Legend of Pradeep Mathew
Legend of Pradeep Mathew
Shehan Karunatilaka
Graywolf, 2015
414 pp., 17.34

Buy Now

Alister Chapman

The Subtleties of Spin

Cricket and the aftermath of colonialism.

In 1989, the Derbyshire county cricket team played a local high school. Think Red Sox against Greenfield High. The professionals batted first, scoring a formidable total in a game where each side would bat one inning. (In cricket, runs are more easily come by than in baseball, and a team bats until all but one of the players are out. Scores of 300 or more are common.) When the school came out to bat, all eyes were on Derbyshire's Michael Holding, a fast bowler who played for the world-beating West Indies. In a game where there is no equivalent of the pitcher's mound, fast bowlers will run in before they bowl, gathering pace for thirty yards or more before hurling the ball towards the heavily padded batsman. That the ball typically bounces before it reaches its target makes things even more interesting, with bowlers like Holding able to bowl the ball short and make it fly up toward their opponent's head. Holding had mercy on the schoolboys, however, trotting in and sending down very playable balls.

It wasn't long before Derbyshire had dismissed the school's best batsmen, and the tail-enders were coming in. Last of all came the youngest and smallest of the lot. He was in the team as a bowler, but one very different from Michael Holding. For while Holding used speed and power to beat the batsmen, the boy used guile. He was what is known as a spin bowler. Spin bowlers take just a few steps before they release the ball, but a variety of grips on the ball and a flick of the wrist can make for surprising results once the ball is in the air and especially after it has hit the ground. Spin bowlers are cricket's artists.

On that particular day, this young spin bowler had claimed the most famous scalp of his career: Michael Holding. But when the boy came in to bat, Holding saw who it was and decided to play with him. He walked all the way to the back fence and steamed in to bowl. The ball he released was, in the end, just as gentle as those he had been serving up all afternoon. But I doubt it was as much fun for the boy as it was for Holding.

Those who were there that day could see precisely what was going on. But, as in baseball, a lot of what happens in cricket happens so far from the crowd that they have little idea. The subtleties of spin are almost always lost. People can see that there is a contest between the one who throws the ball and the one who has to hit it, but that's about all. Cricket is a different kind of spectator sport from, say, basketball. The game is important, but the experience of being there just as much so.

In England, cricket is a game for watching on a lazy afternoon. You can turn and chat to your neighbor without worrying that you'll miss too much. Or you can sit quietly and watch the players run back and forth, white on green, and absorb the atmosphere. Nostalgia comes easily, with memories of the peaceful green spaces of youth. Prime minister John Major once mobilized anxiety about European integration by painting a picture of an unchanging Britain of "long shadows on county grounds [and] warm beer."

But where Michael Holding grew up, things were different. Cricket had been introduced to the Caribbean by English colonizers, who cast themselves as gentlemen but ran slave plantations. For the black population of Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad, and Tobago, cricket offered further English discipline and English fair play. The play, however, was not always fair. Colonial clubs operated color bars. International teams had quotas for whites. With the dawn of international cricket, rules were made in England and sometimes for England. In Kingston, cricketing memories were sour as well as sweet. And as cricket spread throughout Britain's empire it became a tool of local discrimination too, with princes in India lording it over the Indian game just as the English elites did back in England

Eventually, the colonials beat the conquerors. First were the Australians: the most famous trophy in cricket is a tiny urn containing the ashes from a wicket ceremonially burned after the Australians won in London in 1882. But then it was the turn of India, South Africa, Pakistan, the West Indies, New Zealand, and Sri Lanka. Cricket became a matter of national pride. The rivalry between Pakistan and India is immense. In 1990, the sport caused ethnic and political tension in England when a government minister suggested a "cricket test" of national loyalty: immigrants who continued to support the team from their country of origin rather than England were to be deemed insufficiently British.

The global home of cricket is now the Indian subcontinent. London's Guardian reported that a billion people watched the India-Pakistan semi-final in the 2011 world cup. Tens of millions watch the Indian Premier League, which has adopted a shorter form of the game where matches last less than three hours. The crowds are not sipping tea and listening to birdsong. Advertisers compete to sponsor teams, with logos emblazoned on multi-colored shirts. Players make more per week than in any league except the NBA.

It is appropriate, then, that the latest important contribution to the literature on cricket comes from this part of the world. Shehan Karunatilaka is a Sri Lankan living in Singapore. The Legend of Pradeep Mathew, his first book, tells the story of a journalist's desire to write a book on Pradeep Mathew, a fictional Sri Lankan spin bowler. The journalist, W. G. Karunasena, is an alcoholic. His work on the book is a race against liver failure.

Karunasena saw Mathew's brilliance while reporting on Sri Lankan cricket, but was puzzled by how few games he had played for his country—and by his mysterious disappearance. The book is a quest to uncover the mystery. It is not a happy story. Mathew left the game and went underground after extorting money from a corrupt official—a nod in the direction of the gambling that has tarnished the image of the game, not least in the Indian subcontinent.

Just as sad is the ethnic prejudice that runs through the book, with Mathew facing opposition as a Tamil from the Sinhalese who dominate cricket in Sri Lanka. Karunatilaka highlights England's sins—"England will spend centuries working off their colonial sins by performing miserably at sport"—but Sri Lankans don't come off much better. Tamil terrorism forms part of the backdrop for the story.

Yet the book is also filled with humor and warmth. Karunasena's friends are kind, quirky, and often witty. His wife is devoted, and even his estranged son returns home. Beauty comes from cricket. Karunasena loves his family and friends, but sport is less complicated and offers more moments of perfection and rapture. In a crude paragraph early in the book, Karunatilaka tells his readers that if they have never seen a cricket match or have and wish they hadn't, "then this book is for you." But people outside the cricketing commonwealth will find it hard to put the pieces together. References to Botham, Boycott, Bradman, Khan, Muralitharan, Tendulkar, and Warne will be lost on readers who didn't grow up spending happy hours watching the game on TV. Anyone who enjoys sports, however, will be able to appreciate Karunatilaka's delighted descriptions and diagrams of spin bowling. The floater, leg break, googly, flipper, armball, lissa, carrom flick, and (most special of all) the double bounce ball are all here, explained with awe and wonder. Mathew can behave like an idiot, but he bowls like a god.

And that, for Karunasena at least, is life. Answering the question of whether sport has any use or value, he says:

Of course there is little point to sports. But, at the risk of depressing you, let me add two more cents. There is little point to anything. In a thousand years, grass will have grown over all our cities. Nothing of anything will matter.

Left-arm spinners cannot unclog your drains, teach your children or cure disease. But once in a while, the very best of them will bowl a ball that will bring an entire nation to its feet. There may be no practical use in that, but there is most certainly value.

Or, as the dying journalist puts it near the end, "Unlike life, sport matters." Karunasena becomes a picture of human existence. He gives up drink for a while, but then gives in. His book is unfinished; the mystery is solved only after his death.

Many will enjoy the rich picture of modern Sri Lanka that emerges in The Legend of Pradeep Mathew, despite its sad anthropology. But if you want to learn about cricket, you might do better to pick up the Duke University Press edition of C. L. R. James' 1963 classic Beyond a Boundary, which comes with a three-page explanation of the game at the beginning. James was raised in Trinidad, where he experienced both the joy and the injustice of cricket. He excelled with ball and books, moving to England where he became a cricket correspondent for the Guardian and a left-wing social critic. Beyond a Boundary tells his story and that of West Indian cricket. There is much to lament. But there is hope, too, the final page relating the story of a quarter of a million Australians taking to the streets to bid farewell to a touring West Indian team. The vision of cricket as a force for international good was warped but not all wrong. The dying Karunasena recognized that, too.

Alister Chapman, associate professor of history at Westmont College, is the author of Godly Ambition: John Stott and the Evangelical Movement (Oxford Univ. Press).

Most ReadMost Shared