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Shehan Karunatilaka: Chinaman

A few pages into this book, the narrator, the alcoholic sports journalist, W G (Wije) Karunasena, states If you’ve never seen a cricket match; if you have and it has made you snore; if you can’t understand why anyone would watch, let alone obsess over this dull game, then this is the book for you. Wije is, of course, an unreliable narrator and his statement is not true. While you almost certainly could enjoy this book without knowing about cricket – not least because it is hilarious and anarchic and about much more than cricket – a knowledge of cricket would be a great help. For example, the title has nothing to do with a male from China but is a type of left-hand spin bowling used by Pradeep Mathew, Wije Karunasena’s hero. Wije conforms to the stereotype of the journalist – alcoholic, somewhat dishonest, not a good husband or father and quite lazy. He has one obsession – cricket. Part of the novel takes place in and around 1996, which is a very key year for Sri Lanka as the country improbably beats Australia in the final of the cricket World Cup. This is naturally a cause for great celebration by Wije and the entire country of Sri Lanka. Wije and a couple of friends are subsequently asked to do a TV programme on the eleven best Sri Lankan cricketers by position. Controversially, he picks Pradeep Mathew. (Even more controversially, in an informal discussion, he has already picked Mathew as the spin bowler for an all-time world-wide best eleven.)

Pradeep Mathew is a fictitious cricketer. Nevertheless, you will find references to him at Cric1nfo as well as special sites devoted to him – such as this one and this one. If you check all the sites, you will find that they only have the one page – that devoted to Pradeep Mathew. Part of Wije’s problem is that firstly Mathew did not actually play all that many games for Sri Lanka and, when he did, he took wickets but also gave up quite a few runs. But the wickets he took were, in many cases, from great cricketers and he saved many games for his country. Moreover, Wije claims that Mathew took more wickets per game played (a statistic rarely considered) than anyone else. Wije’s second problem is that Mathew seems to have disappeared. The Sri Lanka Cricket Board has disowned him as he seems to owe them a lot of money. No-one else knows where he is. Finally, few people share Wije’s enthusiasm for Mathew and there is a move to have someone else replace him in the programme, which is, in itself, under a certain amount of pressure.

But Wije is determined not only to produce his TV programme but also write a book on the great man. Much of the book is a mixture of the latter days of his life – he is clearly dying from his alcoholism and general far from healthy lifestyle – but also of his hunt for Mathew. Is he alive or was he killed in a car crash in Australia, as his sister (if she is his sister) says? Why are so many in the cricket establishment opposed to him? And could he really bowl in virtually any style with either arm? Karunatilaka gives us a superbly funny book, as he mocks everyone, particularly those in the cricket world, with many of the contemporary world-wide greats being shown up as very fallible humans. But he also delves into the murky world of cricket (and, by extension, Sri Lankan politics), with his exposure of all sorts of dirty dealings, including blatant cheating and corruption as well as anti-Tamil racism. He livens up the book with a wide range of anecdotes, facts and statistics, some of which may even be true, many of which border on the obscene, such as Brain Johnston’s famous comment The bowler is Holding, the batman’s Willey, referring respectively to a famous West Indian and English cricketer.

There is not a great cricket novel, the way there are several contenders for the great baseball novel (and yes, I am aware of Netherland) but this may well be it. It goes into great detail into all sorts of arcane minutiae about cricket. It is hilariously funny but with a very serious side. It links cricket to the world outside cricket. And it has a fascinating plot and interesting characters. Maybe it would help if you knew something about cricket, not least to identify who is real and who is fictitious, as well as about Sri Lankan politics, but even if you know nothing of either, you will certainly enjoy this book.

Publishing history

First published in English 2008 by Random House