Chinaman opening chapters


(Published by Random House India/Jonathan Cape UK. Winner of Gratiaen Prize 2008)


Excerpts from Chinaman: The Legend of a Pradeep Mathew, the story of a left-arm spin bowler for Bloomfield cricket club and Sri Lanka in the 1980s. Today those who remember Mathew describe him as the most gifted Sri Lankan cricketer to ever walk the earth. Retired sports journalist, WG Karunasena decides to find out what became of Mathew and why he never fulfilled his potential. Here, WG ponders his reasons for going on this quest.


Sport vs Life

My wife asks me why I love sport more than her. More than I do my son and our life together. She asked me this a long time ago, when boys on motorbikes, wielding Das Capital and T-56s, had the nation facedown in the sand. I told her then that she was talking nonsense. But perhaps she wasn't.


When you say it like that it sounds ludicrous. Your wife and family vs the All Blacks vs the Chicago Bulls vs Bloomfield CC. That is not what I'm trying to say. Not exactly anyway.


I admit to being a hack and, in my personal life, to being a tad uncouth. I lay no claims to being a poet or a philosopher or a connoisseur of anything other than old arrack. But beauty, who has not an eye for that? Even the gemba  on the lotus notices the butterfly.


Some people gaze at setting suns, sitting mountains, teenage virgins and their wiggling thighs. I see beauty in free kicks, late cuts, slam dunks, tries from half-way, and in balls that turn from off to leg.


When the English toured in 1993, their supporters arrived in droves and formed a jolly, beer sipping troupe called the Barmy Army. A T-shirt of theirs read as follows: "One day you will meet a goal, that you'll want to marry and have kids with."


Anyone who saw Maradona against England in '86 will agree that the T-shirt speaks truth. To be in the right place at the right time and to watch a gifted athlete in full cry is one of life's true pleasures.


There is more drama in watching Miandad hit a 6 off the last ball or in Jonah Lomu skittling British bulldogs than in anything that has ever won an Oscar or played on Broadway. Granted, I have only been to the Lionel Wendt and I hardly visit the Savoy. But I willing to bet everything I owe on this.


Like me, Mr Jonah had faulty kidneys, though unlike me, his were not his fault. If he had played till his 30s, we would be speaking of him as we now speak of Babe Ruth. Whether I play till my 90s or even to my 100s, I may not get the same reception.


In sport, has-beens can step onto a plate and smash a last ball into oblivion. A village can travel to Manchester for a Cup tie and topple a giant. Villains, can heroes become. The slow one now can later be fast.


In 1996, subcontinental flair overcame western precision and the world's nobodies thrashed the world's bullies.  60 years earlier a black man rebuked Nazi ideology with 5 gold medals in Berlin before Mein Fuhrer's furious eyes.


In real life, justice is rarely poetic and too often, rarely visible. Good sits in a corner, collects a cheque and pays a mortgage. Evil builds empires.


Sport gives us organisms that attack in formation. Like India's spin quartet or the 3 Ws from the Caribbean. Teams that become superhuman before your very eyes. Like Dalglish's Liverpool, Fitzpatrick's All Blacks and Ranatunga's Lankans.


In real life if you find yourself chasing 30 runs off 20 balls, you will fall short, even with all your wickets in hand. Real life is lived at 2 runs an over, with a dodgy lbw every decade.


In real life, as Sri Lankan cricket grows sweeter, your wife will grow sourer. The All Blacks may underachieve for 2 more decades, but your son will disappoint you more. I hope you read this Garfield. I hope you forgive.


The answer to my wife's question is of course a no. I would go down in a hail of bullets for her and for Garfield many times over. And while Aravinda de Silva has delighted me on many an occasion, I wouldn't even take a blister for him.


But the truth, Sheila, is bigger than both of us, whether it be written on the subway walls or on the belly of a lager lout's T-shirt. In 30 years, the world will not care about how I lived. But in 100 years, Bulgarians will still talk of Lubcek and how he expelled the mighty Germans from the 1994 world cup with a simple header.


Sport can unite worlds, tear down walls, and transcend race, the past and all probability. Unlike life, sport is eternal. Unlike life, sport matters.


Pradeep Who?
Begin with a question. An obvious one. So obvious it may have already crossed your mind. Why have I not heard of this so-called Pradeep S. Mathew?


This subject has been researched lengthwise and breadth-wise, I have analysed every match our man has played in. Answers, I believe I have. Why, you ask, has no one heard of our nation's greatest cricketer?


Here, in no particular order. Wrong place, wrong time, money and laziness. Politics, racism, powercuts and plain bad luck. If you are unwilling to follow me on the next God-knows-how-many pages, reread the last two sentences. They are as good a summary as I can give from this side of the bottle.


Deadline
I was waiting for my death sentence, when I made my decision. The last months of my worthless life would be dedicated to a worthy cause. Or at least a wordy one. Not world peace or cancer cures or saving whales. God, if he exists, can look into those. No. In my humble opinion, what the world needs most is a halfway decent documentary on Sri Lankan cricket.


It is not unusual that, meal-missing, arrack-swilling, WG Karunasena should expect death in his early 60s. It is a surprise though, that, type-writer-using, cinema-ignorant, WG Karunasena should be thinking about making a film.


Was I bitter? Of course. Was I scared? Perhaps. Was I grateful? If I were a betting man, which I am, I would lay everything I owe on the answer being Yes.


In 1969, I won Ceylon Sportwriter of the Year for my articles on Ceylon's Golden Era of Boxing, because the editor of The Observer needed nine pieces on his desk by Monday. If I had more deadlines in my life, and less arrack, who knows what might have been achieved?


No one knows about this visit to Nawasiri Hospital. Not Sheila who has begun to notice my falling hair, my swollen fingers and the rings under my eyes.  Not Ari who has remarked on how my hand shakes as I pour. Not even Kusuma, the servant, who wakes up every other morning to clean my acidic, blood-stained vomit.


Life in this decaying cage is becoming difficult. The chills, the night sweats, the piggish feeling. There are days when it feels like something is trying to claw its way out of my stomach.
The doctor is younger than my son and has a put-on smile that does not soften the blow, but rather, gives it malice.


"Mr Karunasena, your liver is being destroyed. And it will get worse."
I sigh. "At least I have my heart."
My giggle is as pathetic as my attempt at humour. He ignores and begins scribbling.
"Can't you give me pills?"
"Whatever pills I give, your arrack will drown," says the smiling assassin.


I read in the Daily News that a majority of humans are unhappy with their jobs, their bodies, and the person who shares their bed. If life is essentially disappointment, then all deaths should be embraced and welcomed, no? Is that not what Buddhism preaches?
"I can give you pills for the nausea and the fever. I can also refer you to our alcohol counsellor." The doctor tears off a leaf of prescription paper branded by a pharmaceutical company I have not heard of. "The rest, Uncle, is up to you."


The things they don't teach you at school. How to love. How to die. How to stage a dramatic comeback. Is it possible to hammer 3 goals in extra time after trailing 0-2 for 90 minutes? Or to land a knockout punch at the end of the 12th?


 "How much time?"
I keep my tone even and my eyes fixed, hoping the pup won't see that the old dog is ruffled.
"If you stop drinking and start eating, exercising, Uncle can bat on for another 10, 20 years," he says.


Too late to score at 10 an over and turn a paltry 170 into a magnificent 300?  Too late to turn brick into marble?


In my life I have seen beauty only twice. I'm not talking Tharuniya magazine front cover beauty. I'm talking staggering beauty.  Something so beautiful it could make you cry. Sixty four years, two things of true beauty. One I have failed to cherish, the other I may yet be able to.


Sheila at the Hotel Oberoi 31st Nite Dinner Dance, 1963.
PS Mathew vs New Zealand, at Asgiriya 1987.


"What if I cut down to two drinks a day,?" I ask.
He doesn't look surprised. But at least he lets go of the smile.
"A year or two. Maybe more."


Thus it was settled. I would attempt to do a halfway decent documentary on Sri Lankan cricket. There is nothing more inspiring than a solid deadline.


Sheila
"I don't mind you writing as long as you don't depress people."
My beloved wife is making me sweep the kitchen. The last time I held a broom, Argentinian General, Diego Maradona was a thin, teetotalling teenager.


"You used to be a poet, Gamini. Now you're just a grumpus."
She says I cannot spend my retirement in my room, reading about cricket and drinking. So I have chores, which at 64, I find abominable. But as long as I am helping around the house, we are not talking about my drinking and in my retirement, such mercies are welcome.


"Don't talk rot, Sheila. When we were young it was fashionable to be angry. Angry young man and all. Now I am grumpus?"
"That's not a cricket bat, Gamini. Sweep properly."
It was true. The world had changed and I had not. As with everything, my fault entirely.
"Heard from Garfield?"
"Just go men." Sheila is cutting onions and not crying. She keeps jabbering. "He's doing well. You better stop this business and talk to him. He's calling tonight."
"Tonight I will be writing."
"Do whatever the hell you want." she says.
She adds the red chilli to the dry fish.
I say nothing, keep sweeping and decide to do just that.


Pradeep Why?
Another question. Why am I chasing a man who played only 4 test matches for Sri Lanka? A man who denied me interviews, delighted me on occasion, disappointed those he played with and disappeared 3 years ago. A man whose name is remembered by a minority smaller than our native Veddha population.


I asked myself this, right after my bath and my morning tea. My tea is taken milk-less with 3 teaspoons of sugar and 5 tablespoons of Old Reserve. As you will soon see, I take arrack with a lot of things that society deems un-arrack-mixable.


So when, precisely or roughly, did Pradeep Mathew stop being another Lankan spinner of the 80s? When did he become something worth obsessing about? A cause that I would champion. To answer that I will take you to a boxing match between two men in dinner jackets. One was my dearest friend, the other, my oldest enemy.


Wicket
The word wicket can refer to the 3 stumps that the bowler attempts to hit. "The ball almost hits the wicket there."
To the surface they're playing on. "The Eden Gardens wicket is dry and difficult to bat on."
The bowler's performance. "Laker's taken 7 wickets in this match so far."
The batting line-up's mortality. "South Africa lose 5 quick wickets."
Its versatility is only bettered by a 4-letter word that serves as noun, verb, adjective, adverb and expletive


Clean Bowled
The simplest dismissal is when the bowler knocks over the batsman's wickets. Mathew did this with most of his victims. He sent left-arm chinaman, googlies, arm balls and darters through pads and feet. Here is a not so random sample of batsmen whose bails he dislodged. Border. Chappell. Crowe. Gatting. Gavaskar. Gower. Greenidge. Hadlee. Imran. Kapil. Lloyd. Miandad.


You are shaking your head. You are closing the book and frowning at the cover. Re-reading the blurb at the back. Wondering if a refund is out of the question.


Punch-up at a Wedding
In the buffet corner, weighing over 100 kilos, from the bridegroom's hometown of Matara, sports journo, talent broker, amateur coach: Newton "I came to eat, not to be insulted" Rodrigo.


In the champagne corner, weighing under 180 lbs, teacher, preacher, video fixer, uninvited guest: Ariyaratne "I have watched every test match since 1948" Byrd.


Ari was my neighbour and my drinking partner, I had smuggled him in and he had smuggled in a bottle. The Oberoi wasn't Ari's usual watering hole. He had tanked up already at somewhere far less plush. I should have expected trouble.


We were at the wedding of the Great Lankan Opening Batsman or the GLOB as we shall call him. The GLOB was a man of the people and had invited to his wedding, members of the press, ground staff and a sprinkling of international cricketing celebrities.


Thirty tables away, Tony Botham and Kris Shastri were swooning over a gaggle of girls. Both were former players who became commentators and then became players. The buffet table had seven types of buriyani.  Next to vats of chicken, Tyronne Cooray, the Minister for Sports and Recreation was laughing with Tom Whatmore, the then coach.


And this is roughly or precisely where it began. Not in Jonny's film room in '85. Not a year later, with a midget in a rainstorm. Not even during the '87 Asgiriya test match. It began at the Lanka Oberoi in 1994. With Ari Byrd, Thomian blazer torn along the creases, pressing a chicken drumstick into the face of Newton, shrieking "You came to eat, no? Ithing Kaapang! "


I have seen many fights. Boxing bouts in Kurunegala, barroom brawls in Maradana, Never have the combatants been less skilled, more drunk or better dressed.


A waiter guards the buffet table as the men in torn suits roll against empty chairs. Newton takes a hard bite on the chicken, chomping down on two of Ari's fingers.
"Ah-wa!"
Ari's scream is high and girlish. Our table, composed of inebriated journalists like myself, chuckle, sip and gaze around with pleasure at sari-clad women, exotic dancers and international celebrities, who, thanks to Ari's scream, are gazing back, though perhaps not with as much pleasure.


Most observe from the dancefloor. Disapproving aunties and jolly uncles, push through the has-beens and never-will-bes. Hand on mouth in mock shock. "This is what happens when you invite the riff raff," cackles a crow in a sari. No one for a moment considers stopping the fight. Not even us.


Two reasons. (a)Sports journalists rarely saw anything in the way of entertainment, especially those days, especially on the cricket field. (b) We all disliked Newton and felt he deserved this bludgeoning with buriyani chicken.


Newton made a lot more money than any of us. "For me, of course, journalism is a hobby. A calling. Pocket money." Newton brought young cricketers to Colombo and sold them to clubs, he also studied race sheets, politically and literally backing the right horses always. I knew this pudgy man as well as I knew the gentleman who was dousing him in gravy.


"Shall we do something?" asks Brian Gomez, TV presenter and prankster. Brian once typed a letter on Oxford stationery asking Newton to visit the British High Commission to receive his Queen's scholarship.  The next day Newton wore a suit to work.


"Let them be," says Renganathan, Tamil cricket writer. Renga is a good bugger, but unhealthily obsessed with Roy Dias. When he was editor at the Kreeda, he ran one issue with 17 articles on this wristy batsman of the 80s.


Newton gains the upper hand. He smears rice in Ari's eyes and crawls under the table. Elmo Tawfeeq of the Daily News tries to separate them, gets elbowed twice and decides to sit down. Elmo once told us that he hit Imran Khan for a 6. In actuality, he played club cricket with a Bangladeshi who Imran once hammered for 6.


These are the men I have spent my years with and they are all drunk. Failed artists, scholars and idealists who now hate all artists, scholars and idealists. The band has stopped playing and I hear raised voices in the distance. Newton and Ari knock into veteran scribes Palitha Epasekera and Rex Palipane and I decide to intervene.


I gulp down the last of my rum, but before I can offer my service, there enters the bride of the GLOB, shining under yellow lights. A delicate petal, bouquet in hands, tears in eyes.


In the distance, her husband advances with concern smeared across his brow, thinking what I was thinking: these animals would tear his flower apart. The flower drops her bouquet and screams in an accent that sounded like Sydney, but could've been Melbourne. In a voice that was anything but petal-like.
"Get the fuck out of my wedding! You fucking arseholes!"


We could take a fist from a brute, but not a curse from a bride. The waiters assist us in packing up the fight. Released from Ari's gin-powered grip, Newton picks up a mutton curry with intent.


"Put that down!" The GLOB descends on the scene. "Yanawa methaning! " Both Newton and Ari heed the great man. With the GLOB is Ravi de Mel, has-been fast bowler. He looks for the softest target, finds it and snarls. "Ah Karunasena. Who else? Kindly take your friends and bugger off."
Fearing unfavourable press, the GLOB puts on his man-of-the-people smile and pats me on the back. "Don't get angry, Mr. Karuna. Wife is bit upset. Don't you know?"


As we are led out, I see a dark man with a crew cut.  He is leaning on table 1051, surrounded by sycophants.  Indian captain Azharuddin is chatting to him, though the man doesn't appear to be listening. Our eyes meet and he raises his hand. I return the wave but he has already averted his gaze.


That may or may not have been the moment that started what you are about to read. But it was most certainly the last time I ever saw Pradeepan Sivanathan Mathew.


***


Today Newton looks like a hippo, those days he was more like a rhino. Mathew may have caused the fight, but it was started by Newton. He had issues with me that went beyond cricket and provoked me knowing that I would never have responded. He didn't count on noble, smashed-on- stolen-gin Ari, leaping, quite literally, to my defence.


The ballroom smelled of flowers, buriyani and thousands of clashing perfumes. Strategic buffet tables separated cricket refugees from social parasites. The deluxe section featured the national team, some minor celebs, film stars, models, and people wealthy enough to own film stars and models.


The middle section was filled with aunties and uncles, media and business types. They got the best view of the dancefloor and the band, neither of which seemed to interest them. And then there was us. The journalists, coaches, ground staff, b-grade cricketers, c-grade friends.


Our table sat ten. Me, Ari, Newton, Brian, Renga, Elmo, a Pakistani from the Associated Press, his friend and a young couple who looked lost. At the other end of the room, there was a bar serving scotch, vodka and champagne. Our table has a bottle of arrack and several glasses of passion fruit cordial. We are men of simple tastes, anything, or even with nothing, with arrack will do.


 
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