What makes a sport a good subject for a novel? On American shelves, baseball is king: it often feels disproportionately represented in literature, especially with football and basketball taking up so much space in the cultural landscape. (Not to mention car racing, the most-watched sport in the country—though I’m not clamoring for that Great American NASCAR Novel just yet.) But books and baseball feel like an easy fit: after all, the sport has essentially fictionalized its own history, creating a big, century-long narrative that often serves to whip up equal parts nostalgia and excitement for the modern game. It seems that the most successful sports novels are those that can exist within these big narratives, regardless of the relative popularity of the sport: horse racing—a dying industry propped up by its own history—sits at one end of the spectrum, while soccer—living, breathing, and still rapidly growing—sits at the other, but great novels have been written about both.
It’s not particularly surprising, then, that great novels have been written about cricket. Cricket fans hate lazy comparisons to baseball, but the literary analogy is an apt one here: if baseball is America, then cricket is—or rather, was—England. From Dickens (the All-Muggleton versus Dingely Dell match, in The Pickwick Papers) to P. G. Wodehouse (who played amongst remarkably impressive literary company on an XI that sometimes included Arthur Conan Doyle, J. M. Barrie, A. A. Milne, G. K. Chesterton, H. G. Wells, and just about every other late Victorian writer who went by his first two initials), cricket served as a means to celebrate—or criticize—something intrinsically English: a game fashioned in the image of a nation. British culture has moved on in the intervening years; these days, soccer is clearly the ruling game. Cricket now belongs to the nations of the Commonwealth: the sport has huge international appeal and is dominated by the former colonies of the British Empire, from the Indian subcontinent to the West Indies to southern Africa to Oceania.
The literary history of cricket, in turn, is a lesson in colonialism and post-colonialism. Cricket enthusiasts began building the sport’s narrative in the Victorian era—they wanted it to represent the idea of a near-fictional England, with an emphasis on the rural and the ancient, a construction that they exported to the farthest reaches of the British Empire. The sport was—and still is—imbued with a deep sense of morality. In 1909, Ford Madox Ford wrote, “‘playing cricket’ is synonymous with pursuing honourable courses.” “Not cricket” was code for unsportsmanlike and ungracious conduct; abroad, the same phrase evoked a sense of disorder that the colonizing British felt the need to conquer and set right, however misguided (and extraordinarily harmful) those impulses may have been. As cricket circumnavigated the globe, its narrative began to splinter and grow in different ways, but the idea of cricket as a gentlemen’s game remained. By the mid-twentieth century, cricket was being used as a metaphor and an argument for self-rule in the colonies. Trinidadian Marxist C.L.R. James’s Beyond a Boundary, equal parts memoir and treatise, is politics by cricket—and considered one of the greatest sports books of all time.
In the twenty-first century, these legacies remain. We’re left with two wonderful post-colonial novels in which cricket plays a central role: Joseph O’Neill’s 2008 critical darling, Netherland, and Shehan Karunatilaka’s extraordinary Chinaman, published that same year in Sri Lanka and the winner of this year’s Commonwealth Book Prize. It was released this spring in the U.S., re-titled The Legend of Pradeep Mathew. Reading these books side by side, you see more differences than similarities: old world versus new, and old styles versus new, as well, the occasionally stifling “lyrical Realism,” to borrow Zadie Smith’s critique of Netherland, versus the beautifully erratic—Michael Ondaatje rightly said that Pradeep Mathew was “a crazy ambidextrous delight.” Stylistically, structurally, and thematically, Netherland and Pradeep Mathew are wildly divergent. But the story of cricket is embedded deeply in both narratives, along with the code of ethics that rules the sport, however constructed those ideas might be. To read these novels as “cricket books” is to attempt to understand the story of cricket; without that shared narrative, we’d be left with a pair of books about lonely guys who can barely handle the reins of their own lives.
Cricket’s exact origins are somewhat contentious, but the first recorded matches of the game as we recognize it today took place in England in the mid-1500s. Two centuries later, it was the national sport. The game was considered a “rough” one then, known for its violence and played for large sums of money, which invariably attracted the sort of spectator looking to turn a quick profit. By the nineteenth century, cricket had evolved into a deeply classist affair: “gentlemen,” amateurs mostly from the upper classes who learned to play in public schools, were pitted against “players,” professionals mostly from the lower classes. Gentlemen were widely known for batting, and the best among them were celebrated for their elegance and their economy of movement; players, meanwhile, were the workhorses, saddled with the less-glamorous and more physical task of bowling. (A woman was rumored to have invented the overarm bowl—her hoopskirt got in the way of overhand tosses—because in mixed-gender games, men would always bat, while women would always bowl. In reality, the overarm bowl was invented by a man, but the stratified imagery remains.) In the colonies, as the British taught the game to their new subjects, colonists would inevitably be cast in the role of players, bowling to their batting colonizers.
For a comprehensive history of cricket and literature, it seems best to start with Anthony Bateman’s Cricket, Literature and Culture, published in 2009. It’s probably one of the most readable and lively academic books I’ve ever come across. Bateman is concerned with the “literaturization” of cricket, the process by which written material fed into and influenced changing perceptions—and eventually, the institutionalization—of cricket over the past two centuries. To introduce links between the sport and literature, there’s Benny Green, a cricket historian: “Not only does cricket, more than any other game, inspire the urge to literary expression; it is almost as though the game itself would not exist at all until written about.” Bateman begins with the Reverend James Pycroft and his wildly popular 1851 book The Cricket Field, which celebrated what would later be known as “Muscular Christianity”—“a doctrine that saw physical weakness as evidence of spiritual shortcomings against which Christian faith, clean living, self-discipline and exercise in the form of team sports was the only cure.” Bateman later describes the book as “overtly xenophobic”: Pycroft wrote, “Hence it has come to pass that, wherever her Majesty’s servants have ‘carried their victorious arms’ and legs, wind and weather permitting, cricket has been played. Still the game is essentially Anglo-Saxon. Foreigners have rarely, very rarely, imitated us.”
As cricket evolved from a rough folk game to the sport of public schoolboys and gentlemen batsmen, it began to take on the pastoral and nostalgic overtones that it carries to this day (though it was celebrated in the Victorian era, in the twenty-first century, this sort of stuff isn’t usually seen as positive—with its white sweater vests and seemingly sleepy pace, cricket often feels anachronistic and stuffy to outsiders). But more importantly than all of that, it was an English game—the same celebration of the pastoral as something deeply English was happening across the country, in music, art, and popular literature. Cricket was well suited for the task. Neville Cardus, one of the most celebrated cricket writers of the twentieth century, wrote that “cricket more than any other game is inclined toward sentimentalism and cant.” Cricketing idealism carried the British upper classes blithely into the First World War—“When the sons of old England are all driven from their native land by foreign foes, then—and not till then—will the bat, the ball, and the wicket be laid aside and forgotten,” wrote Nicholas Wanostrocht half a century prior—and nostalgia for the pre-war days in the twenties and thirties featured a great deal of wistful cricket talk: the long, slow afternoons on the pitches of some fantasy Edwardian England stood in for the relative innocence that was decimated by the war.
Far from these mythical fields, cricket was an integral part of the expansion of the British Empire. Bateman writes that the spread of the sport was “often informal, uneven and geographically specific…not part of a straightforward, centrally controlled and consciously executed ‘civilising mission’.” Cecil Headlam (whose racism Bateman later describes as “quite staggering but casually-expressed”) summed up the general trajectory of the invading Britons: “First the hunter, the missionary, and the merchant, next the soldier and the politician, and then the cricketer—that is the history of British colonisation. And of these civilising influences the last may, perhaps, be said to do least harm.” On the surface, there was some truth to that—colonists were being taught a sport, not converted or taxed or conscripted—but these test matches arrived with a rigid ideas about race and class: colonists were relegated to perpetual bowling slots, and when rules were misunderstood or their play was unorthodox or “not cricket”, colonizers would chalk it up to racial inferiority, the idea that no non- (white) Englishman could ever master the game.
But modernity arrived, and before long, white and non-white colonists alike were sending their best players for tours of England—and the English began to lose. (The 1932 Bodyline affair, in which the English, tired of losing to Australia, resorted to some largely “not cricket” tactics to take down Australian great Donald Bradman, is still known as one of the most infamous and important events in the sport’s history.) It was under the changing landscape of international cricket that C.L.R. James emerged. “Cricket had plunged me into politics long before I was aware of it,” he wrote in Beyond a Boundary, published in 1963. “When I did turn to politics, I did not have too much to learn.” Bateman writes that James works within the tradition of English cricket writing—“part of a broader discourse of Englishness that functioned…[by] rendering culture no longer a construct to be fought over”—and turns that tradition on its head, arguing for Caribbean sovereignty within England’s own prescribed set of terms. This echoed throughout all cricket-loving nations in the decades that followed: the former colonists took cricket and expropriated it for themselves, though in the process, they overlaid their own cultural concerns and political conflicts on the game. In Netherland, we find a mix of cricket refugees, Commonwealth immigrants exiled in cricket-averse New York City, navigating the politics of America while trying to uphold the ideals of the sport. And in Pradeep Mathew, all of Sri Lankan politics are wrapped up in all of Sri Lankan cricket, played under the thumb of a decades-long civil war—one in which the eponymous cricketer has inevitably gotten tangled.
To most Americans, there is something inexplicably foreign about cricket. On the surface, it is pretty similar to baseball, at least compared to just about any other sport: bats and balls and runs and innings—like baseball, cricket is heaven for statisticians. But perhaps the similarities throw us off: we watch a few minutes, expecting it to be perfectly analogous and comprehensible, and are irreparably jarred by the differences. (The funniest example of our perceptions of cricket might be a sketch that, despite coming from the Dutch comedy show “Jiskefet”, is entitled “What playing cricket looks like to Americans” on YouTube, and involves a giant chessboard, a freestanding set of swinging doors, and commentary full of gibberish.) Halfway through the nineteenth century, baseball and cricket were on equal footing here—if anything, cricket was the more popular of the two—but during and after the Civil War, baseball’s “national pastime” narrative was constructed and spread. Baseball was supposedly more egalitarian—it could be played in any open space, rather than cricket’s proscribed pitches—and its promoters sold the game on a national level as a uniquely American sport. Cricket stayed local, largely in the big cities of the Northeast, and faded from the American consciousness.
But when immigration laws were loosened in the sixties, members of the Commonwealth nations began to arrive, and cricket quietly came back to America. Today, an estimated 200,000 people play the sport in some organized way in the U.S., mostly in amateur leagues and casual games on weekends. It is within this slow cultural turn that we can locate Netherland, Joseph O’Neill’s 2008 novel which, according to the sticker affixed to my paperback copy, President Obama has described as both “fascinating” and “wonderful” (he turned to it when he was “sick enough of briefing books” in the spring of 2009). Netherland was a big hit: broad critical praise, prestigious awards, and a firm place in the pantheon of very-recent post-9/11 fiction—the subject is dealt with quietly but pervasively, a heavy undercurrent running through the entire anxiety-laden narrative. Irish-born O’Neill’s protagonist, Hans van den Broek, is a Dutch financial analyst living in New York City before and after September 11, trying to mend a disintegrating marriage and searching for a metaphorical and metaphysical place in both the city and the country.
He finds the Staten Island Cricket Club, the oldest in America and an organization that is today largely frequented by these Commonwealth immigrants—Hans is the only white man on a team that is made up of Indians, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans, and West Indians, “nominally, three Hindus, three Christians, a Sikh, and four Muslims.” On a foreigner’s map of New York City, these are growing but often largely invisible groups, relegated to enclaves at the far ends of subway lines: in the early pages of Netherland, Chuck Ramkissoon, a Trinidadian who is Hans’s closest friend through most of the book, makes an impassioned speech to this effect, which starts with the “not cricket” expression—he is discussing some poor behavior on the field prior to that evening’s game. He then draws some fairly unsubtle but potent metaphors about cricket and those who play it in America:
“In this country, we’re nowhere. We’re a joke. Cricket? How funny. So we play as a matter of indulgence. And if we step out of line, believe me, this indulgence disappears. … What this means is, we have an extra responsibility to play this game right. We have to prove ourselves. We have to let our hosts see that these strange-looking guys are up to something worthwhile. I say ‘see.’ I don’t know why I use that word. Every summer the parks of this city are taken over by hundreds of cricketers but somehow nobody notices. Now that’s nothing new, for those of us who are black or brown. As for those who are not”—Chuck acknowledged my presence with a smile—“you’ll forgive me, I hope, if I say that I sometimes tell people, You want a taste of how it feels to be a black man in this country? Put on the white clothes of the cricketer. Put on white to feel black.”
Chuck often speaks in big, sweeping metaphors. (Later, he tells Hans: “‘The noble bald eagle represents the spirit of freedom, living as it does in the boundless void of the sky.’ I turned to see whether he was joking. He wasn’t. From time to time, Chuck actually spoke like this.”) Playing cricket, living by cricket’s values, becomes a metaphor for quiet assimilation. In the first cricket scene, Hans describes the pitch on which they play, where the grass is never cut properly. On a traditionally kept pitch, with its trimmed grass, a skilled batsman will try to bank bouncing shots along the ground. In tall grasses, this is rendered impossible: “Consequently, in breach of the first rule of batting, the batsman is forced to smash the ball into the air…and batting is turned into a gamble.” Hans later realizes that he is going to have to change his batting style if he wants to play cricket in America, so to speak. But as the only person of privilege on the team—white, wealthy, Western—Hans consciously separates himself from his teammates. “But it was, I felt, different for them. They had grown up playing the game in floodlit Lahore car parks or in rough clearings in some West Indian countryside. They could, and did, modify their batting without spiritual upheaval. I could not.”
Hans’s friendship with Chuck reorients that map of New York both physically and spiritually—traveling the long stretch of Coney Island Avenue, in South Brooklyn, or across Hillside Avenue, in the far reaches of Queens. Chuck pushes him forward, however slightly, towards action; Hans is the sort of passive and permissive character whose lack of movement becomes a plot point. But cricket remains an undercurrent, as the plot meanders: Chuck wants to start a cricket club in New York, to plow out an old Brooklyn airfield and open a cricket stadium, to reignite an American passion for the sport that died more than a century ago. He has other schemes, lots of schemes, and these are the least life threatening (we learn within the first pages of the book that he has turned up dead in the Gowanus Canal). But for Hans, cricket in America is a moral dilemma: “on the one hand, my sense of an innings as a chanceless progression of orthodox shots—impossible under local conditions—and, on the other hand, the indigenous notion of batting as a gamble of hitting out.” When he finally makes the leap, and smashes one out of the park, so to speak (only to be called out soon after): “And everything is suddenly clear, and I am at last naturalized.”
If Netherland is a book of cricketing outsiders, what does the sport look like from the inside, from the heart of the cricket-loving world? We can turn, then, to Sri Lanka: the narrator and hero of Shehan Karunatilaka’s The Legend of Pradeep Mathew is a washed-up, alcoholic sports writer named W.G. Karunasera—Wiji to his Sri Lankan friends, “WeeGee” to the English ones, and Gamini to his long-suffering wife. He himself longs to be known by his initials only—“W.G. May not roll of the tongue, but I like how it sounds. Come W.G., let’s put a drink. W.G. at your service madam. I’m sorry, Mr. W.G., but we cannot refund your bet. Sadly, the only place my initials appear is where I place them myself.” Wiji is an extraordinarily charming narrator—and a suitably unreliable one. Cricket isn’t merely a metaphor here, as it is in Netherland, though it often serves as one: Wiji treats cricket as he does alcohol—his passion for both is painful and debilitating, and he cannot live without either. He doesn’t waste any time getting into the details of it, to both his amusement and the bewilderment of the uninitiated reader. From page 6, “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 chinamen, googlies, armballs and darters through pads and feet. Here is a not-so-random sample of batsmen whose balls 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. Rereading the blurb at the back. Wondering if a refund is out of the question.
On the surface, The Legend of Pradeep Mathew is about the search for Pradeep Sivanathan Mathew, a Sri Lankan cricketer who seems to have slipped from the record books, even though peoples’ vague memories and sketchy stories paint a portrait of one of the greatest and most mercurial players in Sri Lanka’s history. (The original title, Chinaman, refers to a common type of bowling style.) In the opening lines of the novel, another list: “Why, you ask, has no one heard of our nation’s greatest cricketer? Here, in no particular order. Politics, racism, power cuts, and plain bad luck. If you are unwilling to follow me on the next God-knows-how-many pages, re-read the last two sentences. They are as good a summary as I can give from this side of the bottle.” Politics, racism, power cuts—in a few words, the story of Sri Lankan cricket, and, in turn, Sri Lanka, unfurl: Mathew is Tamil, and, unrelated or not, seems to have made some shady deals. But the entirety of the novel takes place within the long, bloody stretch of the Sri Lankan Civil war, which began in 1983 and ended just three years ago. This book couldn’t exist without that context. Like C.L.R. James, this is politics by sport, though Karunatilaka often muddies these waters; the analogies aren’t nearly as cut and dry.
Wiji is a poor detective, though what he lacks in focus and skill he makes up for in enthusiasm. To reduce this novel—either of these novels—to books “about cricket” is to take away from all the amazing things that Karunatilaka does here: the entire book, with its brief episodes, lists, and anecdotes, is sleight-of-hand, but the sort that leaves you feeling gratified in the end, rather than cheated. But to say that Pradeep Mathew isn’t “about cricket” is also a gross misrepresentation: there are diagrams, photographs, statistics, random asides, and all the rules of the sport in what seems like the completely wrong order, so that a cricket novice might close the back cover and say, “I still don’t really understand how this game is basically played.” It’s as though your drunk uncle set out to explain something to you, giving you all the wrong information at the wrong time and getting far too excited about minor details or non-sequiturs—which, I suppose, is exactly what’s happening here. In Pradeep Mathew we come at the sport from the most unusual angles, but luckily, our understanding of the game deepens in turn.
Running beneath all of this is politics. Wiji sees it, acknowledges it—in some ways, he’s internalized it long ago—but he stops every so often to lay it out, and to explain some basic things to a non-Sri Lankan, which is helpful to a Western reader trying to sort out cultural differences from cricket talk. Like when Karunatilaka revisits the rebel South African tours: in the eighties, South Africa was banned from international cricket as a result of Apartheid, but test matches were still organized and staged by South Africa, luring players desperate for money and able to overlook any political or moral misgivings. Or when he’s talking with his English friend, Jonny, about the British ability to set aside conflicts of nationality and culture on the sporting field, something, he says, Sri Lankans didn’t manage to inherit:
Sri Lanka is filled with many shades of brown…It is not so much the colours as the ideas that these colours spawn that I find objectionable. The united super-race of Britons may have started it when they, among other things, segregated our cricket clubs. Though it is perhaps unfair and inaccurate to lay the blame for our racial problems on the streets of Downing or the palaces of Buckingham. Despite the existence of a Sinhalese Sports Club, a Tamil Union, a Moors SC, a Burgher Recreation Club and a perversely christened Nondescripts Cricket Club, cricket as a sport refuses to be segregated. Clubs grab talent regardless of vowels or consonants or moustaches or chalk. So much for divide and conquer.
In the end, at the heart of The Legend of Pradeep Mathew is a deep, unwavering love for cricket—and just as we inevitably fall for the story’s narrator, we come to love the sport itself, despite its history or its faults. In a world where facts and statistics are painstakingly recorded and often celebrated, we find just as much joy—maybe more—in something less tangible: the idea of the game, and the people devoted to it. Early on, Karunatilaka snags us easily, seducing even the most skeptical reader. From “Sales Pitch,” we’re hooked:
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.
Image via Wikimedia Commons