- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
Winner of the 2012 Commonwealth Book Prize
The Legend of Pradeep Mathew
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.
Geoff Boycott, England batsman (1964-82)
Begin with a question. An obvious one. So obvious it has already crossed your mind. Why have I not heard of this so-called Pradeep Mathew?
This subject has been researched lengthwise and breadthwise. I have analysed every match our man has played in. 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, re-read the last two sentences. They are as good a summary as I can give from this side of the bottle.
I made my decision in early 1995. The last years of my worthless life would be dedicated to a worthy cause. 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.
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 up my acidic, blood-stained vomit.
The doctor is younger than my son and has a put-on smile that does not soften the blow. 'Mr Karunasena, your liver is being destroyed. And it will get worse.'
'At least I have my heart.'
My giggle is as pathetic as my attempt at humour. He ignores it and begins scribbling.
'Can't you give me pills?'
'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 chit branded by a pharmaceutical company I have not heard of. 'The rest, Uncle, is up to you.'
'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 ten, twenty years.'
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 2-0 ? Or to land a knockout punch at the end of the 12th? Is it too late to score at 10 an over and turn a paltry 170 into a magnificent 300?
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 can make you cry. Sixty-four years, two things of beauty. One I have failed to cherish, the other I may yet be able to.
Sheila at the Galle Face Hotel 31st Nite Dinner Dance, 1963.
PS Mathew vs New Zealand, at Asgiriya, 1987.
'What if I cut down to two drinks a day?'
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.
'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, 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 sixty-four, 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 anger was fashionable. Angry young man and all. Now I'm a grumpus?'
'That's not a cricket bat, Gamini. Sweep properly.'
It is true. The world has changed and I have 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 adds the red chilli to the dry fish.
I say nothing, keep sweeping, and decide to do just that.
Another question. Why am I chasing a man who played only four test matches for Sri Lanka? A man who denied me interviews, delighted me on occasion, disappointed those he played with, and disappeared three years ago. A man whose name is remembered by a minority smaller than our tribal Veddah population.
I ask myself this right after my bath and my morning tea. My tea is taken milk-less with three teaspoons of sugar and five tablespoons of Old Reserve. As you will soon see, I take arrack with a lot of things.
So when did Pradeep Mathew stop being just another Lankan spinner of the 1980s? When did he become something worth obsessing over? A cause 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.
DIAGRAM OF WICKET
The word wicket can refer to the three stumps that the bowler attempts to hit. 'The ball almost hit the wicket there.'
The surface they are 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 bettered only by a four-letter word that serves as noun, verb, adjective, adverb, and expletive.
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, armballs, 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 of the Sri Lanka cricket team.
And this is where 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! Eat!'
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.
Ari's scream is high and girlish. Our table, composed of inebriated journalists like myself, chuckles, sips, and gazes 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 dance floor. 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 just then. Not even us.
Two reasons: (a) Sports journalists rarely see anything in the way of entertainment, especially these days, especially on the cricket field. (b) We all dislike Newton and feel he deserved this bludgeoning with buriyani chicken.
Newton has made a lot more money than any of us. 'For me, of course, journalism is a hobby. A calling. Pocket money.' Newton brings young cricketers to Colombo and sells them to clubs; he also studies race sheets, politically and literally backing the right horses always. I know this pudgy man as well as I know 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 Weekend, he ran one issue with seventeen articles on this wristy batsman of the 1980s.
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 services, the bride of the GLOB enters, 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 am thinking: that these animals would tear his flower apart. The flower drops her bouquet and screams in an accent that sounds like Sydney but could be Melbourne, in a voice that is anything but petal-like: 'Get the fuck out of my wedding! You fucking arseholes!'
We can 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! Get out!' 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 151, 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 Pradeep 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 I would not respond. 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 had the best view of the dance floor 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 had a bottle of arrack and several glasses of passion fruit cordial. We were men of simple tastes: anything, or even with nothing, with arrack will do.
'I should be drinking Chivas with Botham and Sobers,' says Newton. 'They must've misprinted my ticket.'
'So go, will you,' says Ari. 'Maybe Shastri will ask you to dance.'
The band plays a synthetic love song and the happy couple hold each other and move from side to side. We make quick work of the booze. Everyone whacks two shots, Ari and I whack four. The Pakistanis, Allah be praised, do not drink. As the lights dim, I explore unoccupied tables for bottles to steal. When I return with gin, the conversation has turned to cricket.
Brian Gomez, ever the patriot, proclaims that this Sri Lankan team could be our greatest. Ari says they are OK, but nowhere near the true greats like Lloyd's Windies or Bradman's Invincibles. 'Clive Lloyd's team is the best I've ever seen,' proclaims Renga. We hide our smirks. Every time Renga sees a film or witnesses a cover drive, he proclaims it to be 'the best he's ever seen'.
The Pakistani journalist talks of an all-time football XI featuring Zico, Best, and Maradona. We sip stolen booze and begin fantasizing. What if Ali fought Tyson? Or Navratilova played Billie Jean? It's a good way to pass the time. Better than staring at the dance floor, pretending to grin.
We agree that Lloyd's team were literally head and shoulders above the rest. Elmo offers that Bradman's Invincibles were invincible only because of Bradman. 'You eliminate him, good team. Invincible? That I don't know.' We all drink a toast to Clive Lloyd. The young couple slink off to another table.
Newton is petulant throughout. 'Our team couldn't even draw a two-day match with Bradman.'
'Don't say that,' says Brian. 'We beat New Zealand.'
The dance floor writhes with famous names and dolled-up women who do not belong to them. From the roar of the house band and the machinations of the dancers, it is evident that the alcohol denied to our table has been flowing freely on the other side of the room. Understandable. Dolled-up women prefer to have their bottoms pinched by international cricketers and not by those who write about them.
The Pakistani journalist begins scribbling on napkins. As the only man at the table with an education outside of Asia, he convinces us with diagrams and eloquence that the perfect cricket team should be composed as such:
Two solid openers
Three aggressive batsmen
Two genuine all-rounders
One agile wicketkeeper
Two unplayable fast bowlers
One genius spinner
Seduced by his Parthan lilt and logical arguments, we nod collectively. The Windies were great, but not perfect. No spinner. No all-rounder. Lloyd had four types of hurricanes at his disposal: the elegant Holding, the belligerent Roberts, the towering Garner, and the fiery Marshall. Who needs spinners, counters an argumentative Newton.
Booze flows and conversation splinters. Tony Botham toasts the GLOB and his bride, who begin doing the rounds of the ballroom. Ari and the Pakistani journalist whisper and scribble on napkins. The rest of us charge our glasses and clap as the band switches to traditional baila and a bald man with a moustache commandeers the mic from a bearded man in a hat. Both are middle-aged, pot-bellied, and wearing leather trousers.
Ari and the Pakistani journo silence the table with an announcement. Elmo, Brian, and Renga listen while wiggling their bellies to the bajaw beat .
'Gentlemen. We have constructed the world's greatest cricket team.'
Ari and the Pakistani have prepared a slide show of napkins. Dinner arrives at the table, but is pushed aside for the presentation. 'Of course, I don't agree with some choices,' says the Pakistani.
• Jack Hobbs (Eng-20s)
• Sunil Gavaskar (Ind-80s)
Newton raises his glass. There is much nodding. 'The masters,' says Elmo.
• Sachin Tendulkar (Ind-90s)
• Don Bradman (Aus-40s)
• Viv Richards (WI-80s)
There is applause. We grin at each other with appreciation. 'How about Zaheer Abbas?' says the quiet friend of the Pakistani journo. We all glare at him and he pipes down into his passion fruit.
• Garfield Sobers (WI-60s)
• Wasim Akram (Pak-90s)
I mention the word Hadlee. Ari and the Pakistani inform me that sadly there are no New Zealanders on this team. 'What about Sri Lankans?' asks Brian and we all snigger. This was 1994. We were drunk, but not stupid.
• Denis Lindsey (SA-60s)
And here the group erupts. Denis Lindsey over Tallon? Knott? Bari? Madness. Newton calls the list pathetic. The rest of the critics hurl their knives. Not me.
I saw Lindsey tour Sri Lanka as part of a Commonwealth side in the 1960s and keep wickets to the fire of Wes Hall and Freddie Trueman and the wiles of Chandrasekhar and Prasanna. I have never seen that level of agility in anyone outside of a cartoon film. Apartheid was responsible for many tragedies. Somewhere at the bottom of a long list would be the short careers of Graeme Pollock, Barry Richards, and Denis Lindsey.
• Sidney Barnes (Eng-10s)
• Dennis Lillee (Aus-70s)
Some say ooh. Some say ahh. Some say Sidney who? I mention that the great Lillee took all his wickets in England, Australia, and New Zealand. That over a twelve-year career he never took a wicket in India or the West Indies. No one listens to me.
The clatter of plates and chatter of guests replace baila as the dominant noise. Across the ballroom everyone digs into the roast chicken and richly flavoured rice. But our table is undivided in its attention.
Who could the genius spinner be? A leggie like Grimmet or Qadir? An offie like Laker or Gibbs? A left-armer like Bedi or Underwood?
• Pradeep Mathew (SL-80s)
And the pandemonium begins. The Pakistani shakes his head and says he had nothing to do with it. Renga, Brian, and Elmo hoot with laughter.
'Y'all are cocked, ah?' Newton launches into a tirade. 'If you want to put a Lankan, put Aravinda or Duleep. Pradeep Mathew? How can you call yourselves sports journalists? Bloody fools.'
Ari puts up his hand. 'This list is based on stats and natural ability. Both Mathew and Lindsey have strike rates and averages that rank them with the greats.'
I step in. 'I saw Lindsey in '63. Maara reflexes. Jonty Rhodes is nowhere . He jumped in front of the batsman to take a catch at silly mid-off.'
'You bloody drunkard, it was '66,' says Newton. 'Y'all are idiots. Mathew can't even make the current side.'
And in the economy section of the crystal ballroom, gobbling chicken buriyani amidst famous acquaintances, Ari and I begin telling them. About the multiple variations, the prize scalps, the balls that defied physics, and that legendary spell at Asgiriya. No one believes us.
Newton calls me a drunk a few more times. I call him a bribe-taking pimp. The rest of the table retreat, while Ari begins slurring.
And as the temperature rises, I look around and see the man himself in a circle of people, looking lost. At his side is a pretty girl, whispering in his ear is the Indian skipper, hanging on each syllable are career reserve Charith Silva and Sri Lankan cheerleader Reggie Ranwala.
Mathew is glaring at me, as if he knows his name is about to cause a brawl. As if he knows I will spend the next five years searching for him. As if he knows he will never be found.
And then, Newton calls me a talentless illiterate who should be writing women's features. And then, Ari stuffs a chicken into Newton's open mouth. And then, all is noise.
Why would anyone in America be interested in a book about cricket?
Because I don't really think it's about cricket. I see it more as a drunken detective story about a sportswriter trying to track down a shadowy figure.
I don't think it's necessary to know cricket to get the book. Even though I have little interest in baseball, I enjoyed Moneyball because it told a bigger story. There is some cricket in The Legend of Pradeep Mathew, but it's presented in a way to interest even those who are bored by the game.
So what's the book really about?
Lots of things. Wasted genius, addiction, fathers and sons, racism, class snobbery, corruption and the failure of Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans over the past few decades. It's about how important sport is and how unimportant life can be. And there's quite a lot of drinking and falling over in it.
The book's has travelled a long way from Colombo, Sri Lanka. Can you fill us in on the journey?
I spent two years writing it in Colombo and a year editing and sending out queries. Didn't get any interest so I self-published in Sri Lanka and moved on with life. Then Chiki Sarkar from Random House India fished my email out of her spam filter and sent me a text. That was in early 2010.
Things happened steadily after that. It came out in the UK to good reviews, I got to travel to Cape Town, Bali, Hong Kong, London and all over India and pretend to be a cricket guru, even though I no longer watch the game. Then it won the DSC prize at Jaipur and soon I'll be in travelling around America trying to flog off a cricket book. Pretty surreal stuff.
You've said in interviews that you're not a cricket fan. What made you write The Legend of Pradeep Mathew?
Research. That's the toughest part of writing and potentially the most tedious. And that's where I faltered with previous attempts at writing. The research bored me and ultimately so did the story. With this book, ?research was just watching cricket matches, digging up obscure stats and hanging out with drunk old men. Didn't seem like work, even for a casual fan and a moderate drinker.
Who have you discovered lately?
These were my favourites of last year.
A Certain Age by Lynn Truss
She's the lady who got us excited over semi colons and apostrophes. Beautifully drawn characters, exquisitely crafted voices and stories that shift gracefully between dark and funny.
The War on Art by Steven Pressfield
A collection of wonderful vignettes on why we write and why we procrastinate. I read it whenever I'm putting off writing, which is often.
Stitch Your Eyelids Shut by Vivimarie Vanderpoorten
My favourite Sri Lankan writer. She's a gifted poet who uses simple words to tackle big themes like war, death, love and sex. Everyone should read her.
How To Make Gravy by Paul Kelly
The great Australian songwriter shares the story behind each of his songs. The kind of book that makes you want to pick up a guitar and reach for a chord.
The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje
I'm still in the middle of this, but I really don't want it to end. It's such a brilliant idea and the prose is exquisite. I'd like to write like this when I grow up