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Asgiriya, 10/51: The Unreliable Authenticity of Shehan Karunatilaka’s ‘Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew’

Asgiriya, 10/51: The Unreliable Authenticity of Shehan Karunatilaka’s ‘Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew’

“…fancy being done by a bloody Chinaman.”
– Walter Robins about Ellis Achong, England vs. West Indies, Old Trafford, 1933.

“What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?”
Beyond a Boundary, C.L.R. James.

“The term ‘konde bandapu cheena’ means a ‘ponytailed Chinaman’ and is a Sinhalese expression for someone gullible. ‘Go tell that to the konde bandapu cheena.’ The implication being that the said oriental will believe anything. ‘You think I’m a Chinaman with a ponytail?’” (Karunatilaka, 224)

In 2018, Wisden changed the terminology to “slow left-arm wrist-spin” or “left-arm unorthodox spin” to signify the bowling technique that had been previously termed as the “chinaman”. The racially offensive term emerges from a conversation between Walter Robins and Ellis Achong, where the latter bowled a delivery which took an unexpectedly sharp turn towards the batsman, instead of moving away from him. According to the lore, this is the first recorded instance of the slow left-arm wrist-spin, and the first recorded use of the term, which hinted at Ellis’ mixed racial ancestry. Pradeep Mathew is the greatest bowler of all time, the narrator of Karunatilaka’s novel tells us. The narrative moves and meanders among the testimonies of the people who confessed that they knew him, but there is a catch: every confession intensifies the enigma around this figure who has mysteriously disappeared. There are rumours about his involvement with a terrorist organisation, a gossip about his debts to the upper echelons of the Sri Lankan cricket administration, and more frequently, the narrator arrives at the conclusion that his subject is dead. Pradeep Mathew is Wije Karunasena’s obsession and it is an obsession that can be a lie, or a red herring.

This obsession that becomes the final quest of Wije Karunasena’s life develops into the crux of Shehan Karunatilaka’s Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew. To the novel’s protagonist and the primary narrator, Wijesundara Gamini Karunasena and his friend, Ariyaratne Byrd, the enigma emerges out of a single unrecorded fact in the annals of cricketing history: a Sri Lankan holds the record for the best one-day bowling. Mathew’s feat lies unrecorded as his magical spell of ten wickets at the expense of fifty-one runs is declared null and void, due to a decision that is announced at the end of the second test at Asgiriya in 1987. This particular incident lies at the heart of the quest, and this is supplemented by a heated discussion in the wedding of one unnamed yet esteemed Sri Lankan cricketer, named GLOB or the Great Lankan Opening Batsman: as the journalists and archivists gather around a table consuming biryani and drinking, a debate emerges about the decision to place Pradeep Mathew as a member of the greatest cricket team of all time.

There is a dual layer when it comes to the usage of the word ‘chinaman’ in Karunatilaka’s novel: in the context of the novel and the investigation that Karunasena engages in, the term is a reference to the bowling action that Pradeep Mathew excelled at. If one digs at the surface of the narrative however, the Sinhalese expression mentioned at the beginning of this article is the secondary meaning. The reader is presented with the story of a bowler, an ambidextrous bowler with the ability to bowl pace (fast bowling) and spin (slow bowling) and like Karunasena, one is drawn into the legend of Pradeep Mathew, with a suspension of disbelief. Yet, this strange trope of forcing us to believe that these superhuman feats are not new in the literature of the subcontinent: one can find them scattered across the various short stories of Moti Nandy or Shaktipada Rajguru that focus on a group of young men in urban and suburban Bengal who are engaged in a game of sport. While the tradition of tall tales is not unknown in the literary framework of Bengal, the asharey goppo tradition resonates in the tales of supernatural experiences and strangely enough, in the genre of sport narratives. The true essence of these stories thus emerges from this strange blurring of myth and reality, and a coalescence of fact and fiction. However, to locate a reason behind this particular trend requires a closer introspection into the colonial origins of the game: cricket has always been a game of the coloniser and the way it unfurls itself in Shehan Karunatilaka’s work often seems like a counter-argument to the English writings about cricket.

In reading Karunatilaka’s work, one encounters an increasing problem when it comes to the veracity of sources. Records about Pradeep Mathew are not existent, and the information that one receives about him through other people, with Karunasena serving as the conduit, makes it even more difficult for one to believe in the veracity of Mathew’s records. This skepticism about Mathew’s talent and the reluctance of the authorities who throng a major part of the narrative, points to an important problem about what one can consider as a true ‘source’. “The problem of sources is even more pronounced for sports historians because sports and its related body or movement cultures are so mundane as to be reported/recorded” (MacLean, 107). In his short story “uMPiring”, Moti Nandy writes about the annual match between the villages of Atghara and Bakdeeghi, which is infused with a humorous tale about a Member of the Parliament, Gopinath Ghosh, who is coerced to become an umpire. The concluding scene of the story shows how the two batsmen has collided among themselves and run straight into the fielder who had managed to come between them. Nandy writes, with his typical flair for comedy:

“Out!” said Mr. Ghosh again.

“Why?” asked Mishirji, once more holding the bat like a sword.

“For obstructing the field”, replied Gopinath Ghosh and to everybody’s astonishment, proceeded to recite Rule Number 40. This made no sense to Mishirji who did not understand a word of English. Bewildered, he stared at Atul.

“Okay”, said Atul who happened to be an MA in English, “If that’s what the rule says that’s what it must be. But”, he added in a doubtful tone, “who is out?”

Silence. The players and the spectators gaped collectively at Mr. Ghosh. But Gopinath Ghosh was silent too. He had memorized all the rules of cricket but the book [1] had not taught him what to do if such a complex situation arose. Both batsmen have collided and fallen on top of a fielder. Who then was responsible for the obstruction?
Mr. Ghosh used to taking quick decisions, now took a quick one.

“Both”, he said, gravely raising two fingers.”
(Nandy, 13 -14)

It is a rule in cricket, that one cannot dismiss two batsmen from the pitch at the same time. The humour from this particular scene emerges from the ability of an Indian to modify the rules of the game which had been set forth by the Britishers i.e. the coloniser, in order to arrive at a quick decision. However, it is not only the rules of the game that the population of the subcontinent has ‘inherited’ from their erstwhile coloniser, it is also a certain degree of elitism and erudition associated with the game that has seeped into the gentleman’s sport particularly in the early years of the game. With reference to the Indian context, keeping in mind that early Indian cricketing greats included members of the royal family such as Ranjitsinghji of Jamnagar or Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, Scyld Berry writes:

In India, the Parsis of Bombay wanted to play cricket against British soldiers or civilians. Partly, the game was fun – and it really is fun playing on a green field amidst Mumbai’s buildings and sea breezes – and partly it was jolly useful networking. Brits awarded Parsis the local contracts for dealing with the natives.”

In the context of Sri Lanka and especially in the context of the early years of the mysterious Pradeep Mathew, one must remember two important years: the year 1975, when Sri Lanka played the first World Cup and the year 1996, when Sri Lanka under the captaincy of Arjuna Ranatunga won the ICC Cricket World Cup. Keeping these two years as parameters to study the history of the game in Sri Lanka :

…importantly, the two teams were classed and gendered differently. In the 1970s, the Sri Lankan side was composed almost entirely of upper-middle-class Sinhala males from two exclusivist Colombo schools men who were not paid to play. In the 1980s, after test status, these “amateurs” gradually stopped making the team. Today, it comprises rural and urban, working- and middle-class men from a variety of schools in the Sinhala-dominated parts of the island, and the new players are all professional. Hanif Markar has written of the transition: “the ‘gentlemanly’ cricketer has disappeared from sight. It [now] matters not how you play the game but whether you win or lose.” Thus my contention that the masculinity staged and perhaps at stake in these two periods is radically different.” (Ismail, 35).

 About these “exclusivist” schools in Sri Lanka, Karunatilaka writes:

School cricket is what feeds the Sri Lankan national side. We have no counties or Sheffields or shields and earlier, had no academies or strong first-class tournaments. Before the 1990s, two schools in particular fed Sri Lankan cricket, fed Sri Lankan politics and fed themselves from the fat of the land.” (Karunatilaka, 55-56).

A few paragraphs later, the narrator of Chinaman explicitly states down the names of these schools:

“The unwritten school hierarchy is as follows. The top table is occupied by Royal, STC, St. Joseph’s, St. Peter’s, Ananda, Nalanda, Trinity. The next table would seat Thurstan, Isipathana, Prince of Wales, DS, Wesley and Bens.” (Karunatilaka, 56).

The readers are thus presented with a trope that has formed a part of cricket narratives, both in the subcontinent as well as outside it: the notion of old rivalries. These rivalries have now seeped into the parlance of our culture: the East Bengal – Mohunbagan derby, the El Clasico derby between Barcelona and Real Madrid, the Ashes series between England and Australia, the infamous rivalry between Indian and Pakistan on the stage of any world tournament. It is this reflection of the various competitions around us, that has percolated into the world of sports narratives as well: Atghara versus Bakdeeghi in Moti Nandy’s “uMPiring”, the competition between two clubs for the  coveted Manchester Shield in the cult movie Dhanni Meye, the competition between the farmers and their British overlords in Lagaan and so on. In Chinaman, Karunatilaka, with Wije Karunasena as his mouthpiece, utilises another rivalry to illustrate how Pradeep Mathew came into prominence: the Royal-Thomian match of 1983.[2]

Mathew’s rise in the course of this fabled contest, between two of the more elite Lankan schools, was of course illegal, as described by the man who claimed to have been his coach, Satyakumar Gokulanath. The description of Gokulanath is not one that elicits any respect from Karunasena and his friend, Ari:

With Satyakumar Gokulanath, there is plenty not to see. He mumbles and shakes. His face is all jowls and his hair is dyed oily black. He wears a faded Chinese collar shirt adorned with multiple food stains. His slacks are tented over his twig legs and his sandals are covered in Manouri’s[3]compost. He looks like he has spent his whole life painting houses without ever bothering to change clothes.” (Karunatilaka, 75)

Despite their skepticism about Gokulanath’s appearance, he makes two interesting points that make the quest for Pradeep Mathew as important in one’s fundamental understanding of the history of Sri Lanka. The first of these points is the more important one: the constant clash between Tamil and Sinhalese identities. The privilege that one’s Sinhala identity can provide is evident from the letter that Mathew writes to the president of the International Cricketing Council: “I am dropped from the national side due to refusing to cheat during Pakistan series and due to my race which is Tamil” (Karunatilaka, 42) In another part of this narrative, it is revealed that Pradeep’s father was Tamil and his mother was Sinhala. However, it is more important  to note that the Royal-Thomian match featuring Mathew, marked the first time in fifteen years when Royal won the contest. The little twist in this narrative is, Pradeep did not study in Royal but in another school called Thurstan.

The clash between the Sinhalese and Tamil identities is one that has remained at the core of Sri Lanka’s history in modern times. To illustrate this particular binary with respect to cricket, and more aptly in the context of Sri Lankan cricket, one can look at this particular anecdote:

Laddie’s barracking eventually got on Hogg’s nerves. He turned round, looked up, and said, “Why don’t you shut up! Give it a break!”(Verily, reasonable words, and extremely mild ones for an Aussie!) At this, Sinha, too, stood up, shook his  finger at Laddie, and advised him, without abusive language, to call it off.

Laddie remained undaunted. With the supporting laughter of his two companions, he continued his chatter about the Australians, although he did ease up on Hogg. And during an interruption, he looked down at Sinha remarking that he had befriended the Australians. He then wanted to know what Sinha was (I regret that I did not catch his exact words), the implication being that Sinha lacked patriotism. Whereupon Sinha looked up, and staring long, hard, and directly at Laddie, said, “I am a Sinhalese,” and pointed to his chest in affirmation. Laddie then said, “Let’s not go into that,” and left Sinha alone after that. The meaning of this incident arises out of the fact that, to me or any other Sri Lankan, Laddie looked a Burgher, a Lansiya, and, flanked as he was by two comrades who were also “Burgher types,” would automatically be classified as Burgher. So what Sinha had said, in effect, was, “Who are you, Lansi putha[4], to question my patriotism?”
[5] (Roberts, 404- 405)

A statement by Gokulanath points to this inherent discrimination in the schools of Sri Lanka, especially with respect to the Sinhala and Tamil identities: “Tamils have to be twice as good as Sinhalese to be recognised” (Karunatilaka, 78). For Pradeep Sivanath Mathew, this situation was twice as difficult, owing to his hybrid identity between these two opposing factions. For Pradeep Mathew, his career began on an unsettling note: an illegal manoeuver that helped Royal win a match. It is this series of involvements with people having suspect motives that would put an untimely end to his career. The Royal-Thomian match resulted in a victory for the latter side, for the first time in fifteen years owing to the simple fact, and a fact that seems more like an impossible feat in the world of cricketing: a single man enacted the role of all the bowlers in the Royal team. Gokulanath confesses to Wije and Ari:

In the first match he wore a double T-shirt and played the role of the burley pacey Nalliah de Silva. Against Nalanda, he wore a gold chain and mimicked Chanaka Devarajan, de Silva’s new ball partner…In the St Joseph’s match, he masqueraded as star spinner Rochana Amarasinghe, while his namesake recuperated from an ankle sprain.”

The skepticism about one bowler masquerading as the entire bowling attack is also resolved: there was a Closed Pavilion Policy which ensured that no outsider could interact with the members of the Royal cricket team, and this was further complimented with the use of sunscreen and caps to cover the faces of the players, so as to make them indistinguishable.

LONDON, ENGLAND – OCTOBER 17: Shehan Karunatilaka holding the Booker Prize 2022 award for his second novel ‘The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida’ during the winner announcement at the Roundhouse on October 17, 2022 in London, England. (Photo by Kate Green/Getty Images)

The legend of Pradeep Mathew, in retrospect, seems to lie at the core of a narrative about a country that would soon emerge as a formidable force in the sport, subsequent to the victory achieved at the 1996 Cricket World Cup. Karunasena’s dedication towards creating a plausible and authentic biography of Pradeep Mathew is also a strange irony: it was a Sinhala man writing about a Tamil Sri Lankan bowler, as the greatest spinner/bowler who ever lived. It must also be noted that Pradeep had a mixed ancestry, but he was primarily considered a Tamil. In the aforementioned Royal-Thomian match of 1983, the elusive Mathew was able to emulate Sinhala bowlers and in a way, emerge as someone who was better than all of them. Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew is not only a novel about the game of cricket and the many lives that it inhabits, but in retrospect, it is a narrative about the tormentous history of Sri Lanka. In an article for The Guardian, Karunatilaka writes:

“As we made our transition from pearl of the Indian Ocean to war-torn, disaster-prone paradise, our drive for Test status floundered. A rift emerged between the Royal-Thomian brigade and the Sinhala-Buddhist schools. The power struggle between the English-speaking elite and the sons of the soil began to mar selection policy and stunt our cricketing progress.

Off the field, the government’s staunch Sinhalese nationalism, marked by the Sinhala language-only policy of the 1950s, marginalised minorities who struggled to compete for top jobs and university places, and found their voices stifled in courts of law and houses of parliament. Many Burghers, descendants of our Dutch, Portuguese and English colonisers who had previously fed our cricket teams with talent, packed their ‘coffins’ for Australia and Canada. And gangs of Tamil extremists exchanged bats and balls for guns and grenades.”

In the context of these rifts between the Sinhala Buddhist majority and the Hindu Tamil majority, a full scale civil war emerged in the very heart of the island. In the midst of this conflict, Pradeep Mathew emerges, and disappears in the midst of this confusion as well. In 1996, Sri Lanka wins the Cricket World Cup and one of the people responsible for this victory, was a Tamil man who was questioned for his bowling tactics: Muttiah Muralitharan, who would retire as the highest wicket taker in both formats of the game.[6]

Muttiah Muralitharan

The Sinhala-Tamil conflict emerges at various points in Karunatilaka’s narrative, but it stands at the foreground rather than as a historical context, when Innocent Emmanuel Kugarajah enters into the scene. Kugarajah’s importance lies, partly due to his ethnicity (which is never explicitly mentioned but there are hints to suggest his Tamil identity), and mostly due to the match that has made Pradeep so important to Karunasena: the Asgiriya test between Sri Lanka and New Zealand in 1987.

In C.L.R. James’ Beyond a Boundary, James describes a particular player called Mathew:

“But that is not why I remember Mathew. For ne’er-do-well, in fact vicious character, as he was, Mathew had one saving grace—Mathew could bat. More than that, Mathew, so crude and vulgar in every
aspect of his life, with a bat in his hand was all grace and style. When he practised on an afternoon with the local club people stayed to watch and walked away when he was finished. He had one particular stroke that he played by going down low on one knee. It may have been a slash through the covers or a sweep to leg. But, whatever it was, whenever Mathew sank down and made it, a long, low “Ah!” came from many a spectator, and my own little soul thrilled with recognition and delight.”

Let one compare this with Karunatilaka’s description of Pradeep Mathew’s bowling in Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew, specifically in the course of the Asgiriya test:

Turner taunted the young chinaman bowler by imitating his ungainly action as he tossed the ball back to mid-on. Pradeep, unperturbed, returned to his mark with intent on his face. He adjusted his head. He rolled up his sleeves as if to commit a long premeditated act of violence. He stumbled in to bowl three perfect googlies which Crowe read and avoided. On the fourth ball, Crowe attempted a cut, only to find the ball reversing onto his stumps.”

The use of the words “danced” or “mesmerising”, with respect to Pradeep’s bowling action in other parts of Karunatilaka’s novel, and in a certain way, representative of his narrator, Karunasena’s vocabulary depicts the strange conglomeration of the worlds of art and sport. In the question of sport, the action transpires from one moment to the next, often in the blink of an eye. While the access to modern modes of cinematography and recording has made it possible for us to view these moments with scrutiny and at one’s own leisure, the worlds of art and sports often seem to diverge away from each other.  In the aforementioned extracts from James and Karunatilaka, one is presented with this amalgamation of an aesthetic based entirely upon movement and the physicality associated with the sport of cricket, without taking away the essence associated with the sport. “The notion of sports as art has been a subject for critical and philosophic inquiry, inspiring healthy debate on both sides. Critical discussion has come to a general acceptance that watching sports can indeed be considered an aesthetic experience, one that celebrates concepts such as the beauty of motion, dramatic occurrences (with the potential of a narrative encapsulated in a game or match), and an overall sense of unity derived from a combination of precise movement, impressive performances, or the undeniable mental component of competition. The idea that sports can be a form of art has been met with greater resistance, although clarifying what is being signified as art will help advance the discussion.”(Mellette, 460). According to the OED, art can be defined as “skill; its display or application”, “skill in doing anything as the result of knowledge and practice”,  and “the application of skill to subjects of taste, as poetry, music, dancing, the drama, oratory, literary composition.”  C.L.R. James, who considered cricket as a dramatic art similar to theatre, dance or even opera, mentions two very interesting points. The first of these points are,

“(cricket) is so organized that at all times it is compelled to reproduce the central action which characterises all good drama from the days of the Greeks to our own: two individuals are pitted against each other in a conflict that is strictly personal but no less strictly representative of a social group. One individual batsman faces one individual bowler. But each represents his side.” (James, 192).

The second point that he mentions is:

“The second major consideration in all dramatic spectacles is the relation between event (or, if you prefer, contingency) and design, episode and continuity, diversity in unity, the battle and the campaign, the part and the whole. Here also cricket is structurally perfect. The total spectacle consists and must consist of a series of individual, isolated episodes, each in itself completely self-contained. Each has its beginning, the ball is bowled; its middle, the stroke played; its end, runs, no runs, dismissal. Within the fluctuating interest of the rise or fall of game as a whole, there is this unending series of events, each single one fraught with immense possibilities of
expectation and realization.”
(James, 193).

Taking the first point that James presents to us, in the context of Karunatilaka’s novel, the statement about “two individuals pitted against each other” proliferates and expands to show how cricket has always been linked with the idea of the nation, especially after its introduction in the colonies. During the Raj, any cricket match was a competition between the two distinct identities between the coloniser and the colonised. The heterogeneity of the population in the subcontinent makes it difficult for one individual to be a strict representative of any social group whatsoever. The context of Pradeep’s life presents a different scenario however: during his years as a bowler, he was engaged in a state of conflict with the players of the opposing team, as a Sri Lankan bowler; this was complemented with the conflict that lay within him – his role as a representative of his Tamil minority, among the Sinhala majority. The question about these identities become more complex and confused, if one considered Mathew shedding his Tamil ancestry to emulate the actions and habits of Sinhala bowlers in the course of the Royal-Thomian match of 1983.

C.L.R. James

The cornucopia of contradictions that James raises in the second point about cricket as a dramatic art, features an interesting argument about the sport of cricket as a series of isolated episodes. While the argument is particularly true in the context of any match: the variation that every bowler can produce the technique and the craftsmanship of the batsman as he engages in a tete-a-tete with the bowler, the swing of the wooden ball as it turns due to minor imperfections on the pitch and due to the fingers of the bowler that determine its direction and movement – these are minor parts that contribute to the whole. Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew emerges as an authentic tale about a forgotten bowler (despite the fact that Pradeep Mathew is fictional) because it is a sum of individual parts, that seem entirely disoriented, but seamlessly fit into the bigger whole as the picture comes into focus. One believes that Pradeep is dead early in the novel, but that argument is rejected by Kugarajah. Karunasena is looking for people who can remember Pradeep’s brilliance on the field,  but there are only few who choose to voluntarily talk about it. The reason behind this narrative slowly becoming so personal to the reader, is the sense of hopelessness that pervades into Karunasena as every clue he receives about Mathew seems to lead him into another cul-de-sac. Karunatilaka’s choice of title was deliberate: this is a legend that Karunasena believes in, and there are clues that lead you astray, like a quest that protects a deep secret at its end.

The characters in Chinaman are incomplete without the sport of cricket and the innate sense of fanaticism about it in the minds of these old Sri Lankans. Karunatilaka’s description of the matches, including his long take on the second Asgiriya test of 1987, seems to have emulated the philosophy that C.L.R. James spoke about in Beyond a Boundary:

[Cricket] is an art, not a bastard or a poor relation, but a full member of the community. The approach must be direct. Too long has it been impressionistic or apologetic, timid or defiant, always ready to take refuge in the mysticism of metaphor. It is a game and we have to compare it with other games. It is an art and we have to compare it with other arts.” (James, 196).

This proclamation about the fact that a game of cricket is an art, and a writer who is penning about this game is undertaking an artistic endeavour, is made clear in the very beginning of Karunatilaka’s novel. Using Karunasena as his narrator, he 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.” [7] (Karunatilaka, 27).

In another part of the novel, Karunasena speaks about this art with respect to Pradeep Mathew’s style of bowling,

Left-arm spinners cannot unclog your drains, teach your children, or cure you of disease. But once in a while, the very best of them will bowl a ball that will bring an entire nation to its feet. And while there may be no practical use in that, there is most certainly value.” (Karunatilaka, 24).

The book is about Mathew, and indeed Karunasena’s role as the narrator and one of the primary protagonists seems to wane before the myth of this left-armed spinner, who is reputed to have bowled some of the most technically difficult, and yet aesthetically appealing deliveries of all time. Karunasena analyses and records the feats of this bowler. The novel does have Pradeep Mathew in the title as well as the destination of the narrative, but the question arises: if this is indeed a novel about cricket, why is Karunatilaka’s focus only on the feats of the left-arm spinner? One needs to revert to C.L.R. James again, in order to understand this argument. “For James, art in cricket is tied into the conception of the styles of individual cricketers, with the cricketers themselves viewed in a manner akin to artists. By regarding an individual cricketer’s style as his artistic mantra, as it were, James is correct to refer to cricket as art because it remains in line with his view, although it does differ from that of other critics on the subject. These arguments are not inherently in opposition to each other, however, operating as they are under alternative definitions; instead, they are better viewed as offering a more complex, nuanced perspective in the sports-as-art conversation.” (Mellette, 466).

Cover image of Beyond a Boundary

At the beginning of this essay, two meanings of the word chinaman are offered, with respect to the mis-en-scene of the novel. In the review of this novel, published in The Guardian, these dual meanings are illustrated:

A ‘Chinaman’ in cricket is a particular delivery, a slower delivery designed to fool the batsman into thinking it will bounce in the opposite direction to the one it does. It also, in Sri Lankan argot, is a term indicating gullibility.

The discussion regarding the suspension of disbelief has already been expanded upon in an earlier section of this article. However, it is not too unwise to assume there is another layer pertaining to the narrative when it comes to the word “chinaman”. Like the bowling technique where the ball eludes the batsman by choosing a different trajectory rather than its intended one, the narrative or the storytelling technique in Karunatilaka’s debut seems to bring one closer to the truth only to take one away from it. This trope can be equally frustrating, but this is what makes the novel equally “unputdownable” (if one is to use the word used in The Guardian review): there are a string of narratives and there is no guarantee that every story that we hold onto is the true one. The Pradeep Mathew that Karunasena is looking for, might be dead. It is a deliberate choice of storytelling that is made evident in the epigraph to the novel:

If a liar tells you that he is lying, is he telling the truth?”

This sentiment emerges more prominently in Kamila Shamsie’s review of Chinaman : The Legend of Pradeep Mathew :

But who or what is to be trusted in this unlinear narrative of fragments and fantastically tall tales? Is Wije inventing some, most, or all of it in his inebriation? Are the coaches, players, cricket board officials and Tamil nationalists lying to him? Is Ari inventing stories about Mathew as an act of generosity towards his old friend? Does truth matter when the journey, possibly towards and possibly away from it, is so rollicking?

Admittedly, the relentless back and forth of the narrative can be frustrating, and makes one long for the tempo of cricket, rather than pingpong. It is not without purpose – the dislocations and disorientations mirror Wije’s own life – but for a while it diminishes the pleasure of the book, until suddenly it doesn’t. It’s impossible to say if that’s the writer playing himself into form, or the reader getting her eye in. The structure ultimately becomes a strength – to tell this rambunctious story neatly wouldn’t have been nearly as effective.”

Like the infamous delivery, the narrative deviates and moves away from the reader at certain opportunities. Karunasena, with his alcoholism and short temper, is not an effective narrator either: a sense of anger is a common thread among the author, the narrator, and the protagonist. The author expresses his distaste over the Sinhala–Tamil politics often joking nonchalantly about the corruption that has seeped into the hierarchy of Sri Lankan cricket; the narrator is displeased about his son and towards the political structures that have obliterated any information about Pradeep Mathew and the mysterious left-arm chinaman bowler has always expressed his fury about the Sinhala-Tamil divide and the discriminatory attitudes towards him. It has been mentioned, in an earlier point of this essay, that Pradeep Mathew is a fictional character but Karunatilaka has created an entire narrative about him that seems authentic, despite the unreal nature of the feats, and the very volatile nature of the information that is presented about him.

The narratives about cricket, in particular, often seem to utilise this trope of unbelievable achievements or tales that seem to have no veracity of its own. Moti Nandy’s short story “uMPiring” illustrates, as mentioned earlier, a strange scenario where an umpire dismisses two batsmen from the field at the same time. While the circumstances in Nandy’s story are fictional, one can think of the book by Aif Wilson and Ken Plesse called Bradmans of the Bush: The Legends and Larrikins of Australian Bush Cricket where tall tales about these Australian crickets coincide with real biographical and historical details about the same. Two Sri Lankan cricketers are a testimony to this cult of tall tales, one can almost call these conspiracy theories, owing to their spectacular performances. The first of these, is Sanath Jayasuriya, who was rumoured to have a spring attached to his bat owing to the devastation and the ferocity of his shots against his opposition. The second person in this regard, is Muttiah Muralitharan, whose name has already emerged in the course of this essay. Muralitharan, like Karunatilaka’s Mathew, was a Tamil spinner in the Sri Lankan team and his bowling action came under scrutiny owing to “an unusual hyperextension of his congenitally bent arm during delivery.”[8] These tall tales around the legends of the game have often contributed, in a major way, to the excitement and the fanaticism surrounding this sport : it is an idea that Karuntilaka borrows and expands by talking about an ambidextrous bowler, who was a left-arm spinner but had the uncanny ability to mimic any bowling action in the early phase of his cricketing career. It does seem like a hyperbole, but that is the only way how one could have justified the epigraph to the first part of the novel, which is a quote borrowed from the English batsman, Geoffrey Boycott:

“I think the word ‘great’ is overused. It should only be used for the real legends of the game. We keep saying, “It’s a great goal”, “It’s a great save”, “It’s a great shot through the covers”, when we are talking about orthodox, normal things that happen in every game. I think it denigrates the word.”

The authenticity of this tale also emerges in this strange conglomeration between the real and the fictional. In many a way, the attitude that the writers of the subcontinent present towards the sport diverge greatly from the English writers who have written about the sport, such as P.G. Wodehouse. In Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story “The Field Bazaar”, Dr. Watson is revealed to be a member of a cricketing team. The sport plays a prominent part in Thomas Hughes’ Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1857), and in Siegfried Sassoon’s memoir, Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man (1928): the latter featuring the Butlery flower show match, which depicted a classic cricket match played on the village green. Cricket, becomes a site of satire (as is evident in Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers), or often provides a site to portray slapstick or physical comedy scenarios, which was often the case with Wodehouse’s stories. An interesting utility of the sport, appears in detective fiction, most notably in Dorothy Sayers’ works about Lord Peter Wimsey. There is a literary precedence to infuse comedy with cricket, and also to introduce mystery with the sport, yet Karunatilaka takes these tropes and adapts them for his own purpose: Chinaman’s comedy is one that is full of noise, often brusque, and resorts to cricketing references. The mystery of the novel, arises from Karunasena’s obsession with Pradeep Mathew and his quest to find this man. However, a discussion about cricket in literature in incomplete without the mention of R.K. Narayan’s novel, Swami and Friends. This novel may be classified as cricket fiction, but it is not restricted by this classification as it expands and often diverges away from the genre. One must note that “dense cricket novels of multifaceted meaning and abstraction are only the stuff of this century… cricket in fiction was restricted to works for the young and for mirth and satire.” [9]

The tradition of writing about cricket in the subcontinent is thus, not new. From Narayan to Karunatilaka, the rise of cricket fiction in the subcontinent is matched by the increase in the enthusiasm about the sport that the south-east Asian population is fascinated by: this strange obsession about the sport is more evident in the deification of certain cricketers, or the endless rivalries that are essential to the fabric and the history of cricket in the twentieth and the twenty first centuries. This particular obsession with the sport is one that has a colonial origin. Declan Kiberd writes:

In his classic, Beyond a Boundary, James suggested that the lure of cricket for colonial peoples lay in its notion of a boundary drawn by the white man but breachable by the opponent.”

With reference to the works of Rushdie and Amit Chaudhuri and comparing their works to the  “mastery of cricket by Indian or Caribbean peoples”[10], Kiberd continues,

Yet an even stronger undercurrent in this writing is a sincere admiration for the lost values of English culture and a desire to restore and repair those broken traditions, often very different from the clapped-out codes of Hooray Henrys. It was in Beyond a Boundary, for example, that C.L.R. James revealed that cricket was by no means an upper-class games but one whose nuances of rule and skill were the creation of the working class. Numbed by the routines of factory life, these people invested all their repressed artistry and bodily grace into the sport’s ever-more complex protocols.”

As mentioned earlier in this essay, the Sri Lankan cricketing team in the 1980s and the 1990s was dominated by the Sinhala elite, and typically the boys from upper middle classes who were fortunate enough to be enrolled in one of the schools that were located higher in the supposed hierarchy. Karuntilaka, somehow, returns to the roots of early post colonial writings about cricket and places a Tamil boy with a working-class father as his hero: Chinaman could have been a bildungsroman about the Tamil bowler who was ambidextrous and could bowl any delivery. Pradeep Mathew’s story ends in tragedy: he is forgotten, ostracised, and his name is removed from the pages of cricketing history including his greatest ever spell at Asgiriya, 10 wickets at the measly expense of 51 runs. Chinaman is a strange blend of the improbable and the real: it is more apt to term the improbable as impossible in this regard. In an article about Karunatilaka’s novel, Benjamin Golby writes:

As is often the case with artistry, novelists tackle cricket in a manner one might not otherwise think up. ‘How different would English summers be without slip fielders?’ Jennie Walker’s 24 for 3 contemplates. Arthur Conan Doyle’s Spedegue’s Dropper has a schoolteacher bowling 50 feet upward for the ball to fall vertically onto the stumps. Anthologies of cricket’s gilded writings tend toward literary pedigree, such as All-Muggleton’s jolly trouncing of Dingley Dell in Charles Dicken’s Pickwick Papers. Evergreen in the game too, is celebrating an England of green fields surely more emerald than ever was the case in life.” [11]

In a manner that is eerily similar to the way in which cricket has functioned with respect to the sheer layers of bureaucracy and the dominance of certain countries in the International Cricket Council, Chinaman’s authenticity emerges very highly when one reads the novel and realises the legend of Pradeep Mathew has remained a legend only due to his involvement with those who were supposedly on the wrong side of the line. Karunatilaka, through Karunasena, pays a great deal of attention to the exploitation that emerges when the twin worlds of politics and cricketing bureaucracy collide: his spat with the authorities put an end to a career making him the greatest cricketer who never lived. The Indian cricketing team has often featured tales of such personalities, whose careers often met unexpected ends. Golby writes:

Chinaman is a novel of talent not realised. It’s the story of potentially the greatest cricketer who ever lived proving not to be. Think of those cricketers you have known and willed on who never followed through at the elite level. From recent figures such as Rory Hamilton-Brown, and others doleful, like Richard “Danny Germs” Austin, to those of more parochial standing. Of the latter, Sridharan Jeganathan, Roshan Guneratne, and Anura Ranasinghe, fringe Sri Lankan spinners from the 1980s who all died young and forlorn, are likely familiar. Chinaman amalgamates their obscure fates and a swathe of other half-true stories from Sri Lankan cricket into the story of a left-arm unorthodox and his resolute biographer.” [12]

W.G. Karunasena’s quest remains incomplete, however. His rampant alcoholism and his disregard for his personal health, forms a crucial part of the narrative and his demise leaves the work around Pradeep Mathew incomplete. At this juncture of the story, Karunasena’s son steps in to complete his father’s work despite the fact, that the bond between the father and the son was one that was filled with arguments and bordered on mutual estrangement. As a reflection of his enduring love for the sport, Karunasena had named his son, Garfield – the name being an obvious tribute to the great West Indian cricketer, Garfield or Gary Sobers. The son expresses no enthusiasm for the sport but his interest lies in music [13] and his father’s disapproval towards his lifestyle increases when Garfield decides to join a band, as a bassist. Like a legend that passes on, with its respective set of clues and keys, Garfield decides to carry on with his father’s legacy: an unfinished biography that requires completion. Before one moves into the final stages of Karunasena’s quest, there is a short reference to Anton Rose, the only batsman that Pradeep Mathew was never able to outsmart :

If Pradeep Mathew was one cricketer disadvantaged by the country of his birth, the Zimbabwean Anton Rose was another. The boy from Bulawayo lost his farm and his career to the Mugabe regime. It is another of cricket’s tragedies.
Every skill in cricket can be taught, but timing is a gift from God. To know the nanosecond when the willow should be applied to the leather to bring forth the sweetest music and the most wondrous stroke. Only a few have that. Sathasivam did. Viv Richards did, and so did the great Anton Rose.”
(Karunatilaka, 368)

Garfield Sobers, or Gary Sobers after whom the protagonist names his son

Mathew was a prodigy when it came to bowling, and the great Anton Rose’s capability lay in his extraordinary talent to play five or six different shots for every different ball.  Rose, Karunasena argues, was responsible for Pradeep Mathew’s worst figures in history. It is strange how Pradeep holds the record for the best and the worst statistics in bowling : 10/51 in Asgiriya and 0/218 against Zimbabwe respectively. These statistics do not have a place in cricketing history and surprisingly, the fates of these two cricketers are similar : Anton Rose left Zimbabwe after his wife was attacked, and Pradeep Mathew had to leave Sri Lanka after extorting 278,000 dollars. They were prodigies, who succumbed to the bureaucracy and the political hegemony.

In Karunatilaka’s story, the past and the contemporary present mingle and give birth to legends. Pradeep Mathew is not the hero of this story, or perhaps of any other cricketing story that he is a part of: a deeper look into the story will reveal how Pradeep had to succumb to the forces that surrounded him. In this strange meeting of the past and the present, the coloniser’s game that was soon to be dominated by the colonised in the years to come, Karunatilaka recounts a little story at the end of the novel, another legend if one can call it thus:

“There is a mythical story of two nineteenth-century planters, one Englishman and one Burgher, who would meet on different Ceylon hills on June’s longest day and challenge each other to 5-over games. Each had plantation workers who would field for them. Only the two planters would bat or bowl. Their first game would have been the world’s first recorded limited-overs game, had anyone bothered to record it.” (Karunatilaka, 368)

It is this lack of any canonical historical source that has delegated these legends to the realm of myths or stories: Pradeep Mathew’s extraordinary talent is no more than a tall tale, a legend, a trail that leads nowhere. Garfield Karunasena is the one who completes this journey. At the end of the novel, he discovers Pradeep Sivanathan Mathew living under the assumed name of Siva Nathan in New Zealand – the cricket has not escaped from this man’s persona however; he is a coach and he teaches the young children in his community.

In an earlier section of this essay, the focus had been upon the correlation of cricket and art. In Garfield’s narration, the correlation becomes more prominent, as he links the gentleman’s game to music. To Garfield, who seemed to have retained some of his father’s penchant for recognising the true genius of a spin delivery on the pitch, the son borrows the language of the father, but it does away with the volatile, spontaneous flow of W.G. Karunasena’s prose. In this longer extract from Karunatilaka’s novel, Garfield confesses:

I have seen genius twice in my life. Once was in a garden in provincial New Zealand. The other was on the streets of Covent Garden.

The kid was dark and lanky, almost hunched. He had a weasel face and thick hair. Behind him was a tabla player and an amp. Surrounding him were about a hundred people with their jaws on the pavement.

His guitar spoke languages, spoke sonnets and hypnotised strangers. The Guatemalan kid could push buttons that I could barely reach. I hated him for having a gift I would never share regardless of how many decades I practised.

I think of the Guatemalan as I watch Siva Nathan bowl. I watch the ball become conscious as it is guided by something other than gravity and wind. I give up trying to hit the deliveries and just marvel at the man’s skill. The ball sits in the air for longer than necessary and spins at impossible angles.”
(Karunatilaka, 434- 435)

The appreciation for the sport continues from father to son, just as the legend has passed on from one generation to the next. The title of this essay was to look at the “authenticity” of the story of Pradeep Mathew. While the afficionados of the sport and the pundits will know that Pradeep Mathew is an entirely fictional construction, the reality about his story springs from the time that he lived in, and the dedication of his biographer to bring his story to the forefront. In a classical trope of subverting all the expectations at the end, there is a level of meta-textuality that emerges, which is often a confusing thing to delve into. The publisher suggests that Garfield Shehan Karunasena should change his name before releasing his work, and so the guitarist adopts a new name: Shehan Karunatilaka. In the final page of the novel, a second twist emerges:

See Also

“ “Few things. Have you decided on the main character’s name?”
“Either Vinothan Karnain.”
“How about Charlie Jenganathan?”
“Sanjeewa Amarasinghe?”
“Can’t be a Sinhala name, man!”
“Jurangpathy Jeyarajsingham?”
“Sounds stupid.”
“Pradeep Mathew?”
“Who’s that?”
“I don’t know, I just…””
(Karunatilaka, 439).

In a strange turn of events, the narrator decides to change the name of the ambidextrous, left-arm unorthodox spinner to protect his identity and his calm existence. At this point in the narrative, the ‘authenticity’ of the tale is now questioned. Is the story about a Tamil bowler and his mysterious spinner true? It is an answer that Garfield has decided to carry away with him. The clues lie in the obsessive details about cricket that proliferate throughout the course of his novel. Karunatilaka’s wry sense of humour shines through as he passes the story of the legend from Garfield to the readers. It is now, the reader’s quest, and one that he/she will see to the end.


Berry, Scyld. “Cricket is cutting out whole sections of British society”. The Telegraph. 1 June 2016. Web. 2 May 2020.

Conn Malcolm, “Bending law aided Murali : Gillespie”. The Australian. 13 October 2007. Web. 16 May 2020.

Golby, Benjamin. “Small Wonder”. The Cricket Monthly. January 2017. Web. 1 June 2020.

Golby, Benjamin. “The greatest cricketer who never lived”. The Cricket Monthly. October 2016. Web. 1 June 2020.

Ismail, Qadri. “Batting Against the Break : On Cricket, Nationalism, and the Swashbuckling Sri Lankans”. Social Text 50 (Spring 1997): 33-56. JSTOR (Web). 25 April 2020.

James, C.L.R. Beyond a Boundary. Durham : Duke University Press. 1963, 2013. Web.

Karunatilaka, Shehan. Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew. Minnesota : Graywolf Press. 2011. Web.

Karunatilaka, Shehan. “How cricket saved Sri Lanka”. The Guardian. 12 March 2011. Web. 4 May 2020.

Kiberd, Declan. “The Empire Writes Back.” The Irish Times. 10 Aug 1999. Web. 1 June 2020.

MacLean, Malcolm. “Ambiguity within the Boundary : Re-reading C.L.R. James’ Beyond a Boundary”. Journal of Sport History 37.1 (Spring 2010) : 99 -117. JSTOR (Web). 2 May 2020.

Mellette, Justin. “C.L.R. James and the Aesthetics of Sport”. African American Review 48.4 (Winter 2015) : 457 – 471. JSTOR (Web). 20 April 2020.

Nandy, Moti. “uMPiring”. Trans. Gopa Majumdar. Night of the Third Crescent and Other Stories. Eds. Geeta Dharmarajan and Keerti Ramachandra. New Delhi : Katha. 2001. Web.

Roberts, Michael. “Ethnicity in Riposte at a Cricket Match : The Past for the Present”. Comparative Studies in Society and History 27.3 (July 1985): 401-429. JSTOR (Web). 20 April 2020.

Shamsie, Kamila. “Chinaman by Shehan Karunatilaka – review”. The Guardian. 6 May 2011. Web. 3 May 2020.

[1] The Wisden Book of Cricket

[2]  I believe that the choice of this year was deliberate, primarily due to the fact that the Indian Cricket Team under the captaincy of Kapil Dev would win the World Cup that year. It marks the first time that one of the countries in the South Asian subcontinent had won the World Cup for Cricket.

[3]  Manouri is the wife of Ariyaratne Byrd, Karunasena’s closest friend.

[4] Someone who is of mixed ancestry, often called a Burgher.

[5] The incident in question, took place in a match between Sri Lanka and Australia held at the Sinhalese cricket grounds in 1981. Laddie and Sinha are Sri Lankan members in the audience, and the former is accompanied by two women. Hogg, refers to Rodney Hogg who is a member of the Australian cricket team. The altercations began  when Laddie’s heckling was too much for Hogg, and it was distracting him.

[6] Muttiah Muralitharan’s record stands at 800 wickets in Test Cricket, and 534 wickets in ODIs. It must also be noted that Muralitharan is the only Sri Lankan cricketer to have been inducted into the ICC Hall of Fame. He was also rated as the greatest Test match bowler ever by Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack in 2002.

[7]  In the novel, this particular section is titled “Sales Pitch”.

[8] Conn Malcolm, “Bending law aided Murali : Gillespie”. The Australian. 13 October 2007. Web. 16 May 2020.

[9]  Golby, Benjamin. “Small Wonder”. The Cricket Monthly. January 2017. Web. 1 June 2020.

[10]  Kiberd, Declan. “The Empire Writes Back.” The Irish Times. 10 Aug 1999. Web. 1 June 2020.

[11] Golby, Benjamin. “The greatest cricketer who never lived”. The Cricket Monthly. October 2016. Web. 1 June 2020.

[12] ibid

[13]  This could be a reflection of Karunatilaka’s interests in music.

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