Karunatilaka’s “Chinaman” captures Sri Lanka’s enduring cricket love affair

 Charles Haviland, BBC News,

 Pic by AFP

Even some cricket lovers are complaining that the current World Cup is dragging on for too long. But not Sri Lankans. They cannot get enough of it. There is widespread exhilaration at the prospect of hosting the unpredictable England in the quarter-finals on Saturday. This comes shortly after Sri Lankan novelist, Shehan Karunatilaka, captured the spirit of the country and its adulation for the sport in a prize-winning novel. Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Matthew was published last year and recounts the quest of an ageing, alcoholic cricket writer to find out what befell a brilliant but now little-mentioned bowler of the late 80s and early 90s.

Walls of denial

The cricketing prodigy, Pradeep, is fictional but the novel is set in a world of characters either fictional, semi-fictional or entirely real — the latter including many top Sri Lankan cricketers of the past 25 years.

“If we go all the way… we’ll walk with our heads in the clouds for the next three years” End Quote Shehan Karunatilaka Sri Lankan novelist

The drink-swilling storyteller, WG “Wije” Karunasena, becomes fascinated by Pradeep’s genius, wants to make documentaries about him and is convinced the man is the island’s greatest ever cricketer – but is met with walls of denial, threats and conflicting claims about his fate.

The backdrop is the fundamental place in Sri Lankan life that cricket, first introduced by British colonialists, now occupies. At times the sport is used as a metaphor for the country’s fortunes. In the novel Wije says that watching the cricketer Sidath Wettimuny score 190 at Lord’s in 1984 was “the first time I realised that a Sri Lankan could be as good as anyone else”.

And the 35-year-old novelist says he agrees with his character. “Despite what people say about our tea and our beaches, cricket is the only thing we’re truly world-class at,” he said in a BBC interview — although the Sri Lanka tourism authorities might not thank him for doing so.  “Our post-independence history is a catalogue of wasted opportunities. Except for on the cricket field.”

Bill Shankly once said football was more important than a matter of life and death, and perhaps in Sri Lanka the same is true of cricket.

The novel opens with a full-scale punch-up emanating from a dispute over who to pick in a fantasy team. Karunatilaka says he has seen such passionate cricket arguments at family gatherings, TV panel discussions and “dodgy dive bars”.

The author portrays the game as something that unites Sri Lanka – but not always. Even the war at the time was halted during the 2007 World Cup; the whole country gets behind the sport, he says.

Mythic talents

“On the other hand, there’s always been this notion that players who don’t have Sinhalese names struggle to get into the national side. Things are a lot better these days, though we still have a way to go to overcome our divisions, both on and off the field.”

In the novel, the fictional Pradeep Mathew is one of the few Tamils at the top of the game and he complains that racism and corruption are still holding him back. Slowly it emerges that there is an Orwellian-style campaign to delete his name and achievements from the records. Karunatilaka says that although his story is fictional, this is plausible.

“There are many tales of mythic talents who didn’t make it to the highest level due to belonging to the wrong club, the wrong family or the wrong race,” he says. “Getting ahead in cricket, as in politics or business, is all about “who you know”.

One of the novel’s publishers describes “Chinaman” as “a novel about Sri Lanka and cricket” and it has struck a chord with many in this country because of the rich detail of Sri Lankan life that it encompasses.


Karunatilaka says his narrator, Wije, is one of a very Sri Lankan type of “drunken old men who are happy to talk cricket till the cows come home”. He says he “loved every minute” of collecting stories from them for the book.

Another curiously Sri Lankan trait, highlighted in the book, is the “old school tie”, the fierce attachment to one’s alma mater. While many would view this as harmless, Karunatilaka says it is a sort of tribalism, difficult to understand but essentially “another opportunity to create an us-and-them situation, sadly something most Sri Lankans delight in”.

As the island gears up for its quarter-final, so badly wanting to repeat its 1996 feat and lift the World Cup again, the novelist badly wants this too.  He says the national side’s playing is best characterised by “unorthodoxy”: Lasith Malinga’s and Muttiah Muralitharan’s bowling actions; Tillekaratne Dilshan’s “scoop shot” as a batsman.

But he says the team is less maverick than it used to be and that this is probably good. If Sri Lanka gets to the final, or wins, there will be a very Sri Lankan mix of “euphoria and mayhem”, he anticipates. “If we go all the way, we’ll walk with our heads in the clouds for the next three years.

“Until the next World Cup, nothing will get done, but we’ll all have smiles on our faces.”

Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew is already published in Sri Lanka and India and will be published in the UK by Jonathan Cape next month.


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