The story of a retired alcoholic sportswriter and his obsession with a spin bowler called Pradeep Mathew, who he believes to be the greatest Sri Lankan cricketer ever,
Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew is a peek into Sri Lanka through cricket. The book, which Michael Ondaatje called a "crazy, ambidexterous delight" and Sidin Vadukut reviewed as "unputdownable" on ESPNcricinfo, is Shehan Karunatilaka's debut novel. The following is an extract from it.
The Match That Would Never Exist
The first test of the 1987 New Zealand tour to Sri Lanka was known as the Kuruppu test, due to the aforementioned wicketkeeper batsman spending every minute of it on the field. The match was as dreary as Kuruppu's unbeaten 201, the first double century by a Sri Lankan, quite possibly the dullest innings ever. Stretched over 778 soggy minutes, it remains the slowest double century in history.
Kuruppu was dropped on 31, 70, 165, and 181 and scooped most of his runs from pushing into the covers with his bottom hand. Then the Kiwis got in on the action with Hadlee and Jeff Crowe adding two equally yawn-worthy centuries as the match lurched to a non-climax. Days later, a car bomb at the Colombo central bus station killed 113 and wounded 300. The LTTE had struck at the heart of Colombo for neither the first nor the last time, as New Zealand cricket would find out again five years later.
In 1992, the exploding motorbike that disposed of Navy chief Clancy Kobbekaduwa in front of the touring team's hotel, landed body parts quite literally at the feet of the horrified Kiwis. Gavin Larsen, another medium pacer who could bat a bit, almost trod on a severed hand. That tragedy splintered the New Zealand team, with five players and manager Wally Lees returning home and Sri Lanka trouncing a weakened Kiwi outfit.
1987's bomb had no such compromise. As soon as the death count of Colombo's then biggest tragedy hit the headlines, the New Zealanders had their bags packed. It was the coaxing of the Minister that convinced them to play a second test in Asgiriya.
Three reasons: the Minister was instrumental in the construction of this stadium in the hills and guaranteed a closed event with tight security; the Minister was also instrumental in NZ dairy exporter Anchor's near monopoly of the local milk powder market; the Minister had a smirk that was difficult to refuse.
The second test was closed to the public and only selected members of the press were invited. I then worked for the Sun, a short-lived tabloid that made up in free tickets what it lacked in print quality. I received an invitation to cover the match and I took my friend Ari along as my photographer.
We were body-searched and stripped of our alcohol. Our stand was populated by the press and the players' guests. The pavilion was filled with politicians and VIPs, the stands around the players' dressing rooms were empty, and the rest of the stadium was bare.
These were the days before multiple cricket channels. Even school games and club matches attracted half-full stadiums. To see a test match in a cricket-starved nation played before an empty stadium was farcical. As was the notion that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam would want to assassinate curly-haired medium pacers from Waipukarau.
The Asgiriya pitch was not expecting call-up for international duties that year and had been hosting U-13 matting encounters between Trinity and St Anthony's. The surface had only three days' preparation, a fact kept from the already nervous New Zealanders.
The press box had a lone fax machine, a few typewriters, and three dust-ridden overhead fans. There was a bar that served warm beer and a bird's eye view of the pitch. The commentary boxes upstairs sent rumbles across the ceiling. The usual suspects spread themselves across empty chairs and absorbed the action.
As members of the press, we were informed that this test was a goodwill game between the SLBCC and the NZCB and was yet to be officially recognized by the ICC. That due to the prevalent situation in the country, our match reports would have to be approved by the government censor.
'Cricket in Czechoslovakia must be like this,' said Ari as we took our assigned seats with a who's who of NZ sportswriting. Called this not for their fame or infamy, but because neither Ari nor I knew who was who.
New Zealand played an unchanged XI, while Sri Lanka replaced spinner Anurasiri and paceman Kurupparachchi with spinner Mathew and paceman Ramanayake. The first session proved a fascinating contest. Accurate bowling by the two Ratnayakes matched by cautious defence by Franklin and Jones. Pradeep Mathew came on just before lunch and made Jones jump in the way of a darter. He then dispensed of Horne with a googly.
The tourists went to lunch at 73-2 and we were informed that the ICC had officially bestowed test match status on this game. Invigorated by the buffet, the Kiwis came out guns blazing. Future rivals Crowe Jr and Rutherford, the wine and cheese man and the beer and pie man, hit our medium pacers out of the attack and within half an hour the score was 111 for 2. Captain Mendis tossed the ball to Pradeep Mathew, whose figures stood at 2-47.
What followed was the finest spell of spin bowling or any bowling, on this or any other planet, that I or anyone else could ever have seen.
Rutherford 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 headband. 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.
With the new batsman, Mathew shifted to orthodox spin. The flight and drift were perfect, the ball curling just out of the batsman's reach. The trajectory was like a whip in mid-crack. By 1987, Mathew was not a stranger to Ari and me, though we were unaware he had weapons like the boru ball, responsible for Crowe Sr and Evan Gray's demises.
New Zealand 113 for 5. Rutherford knocked Gurusinha for a few boundaries at the other end, but made the fatal error of taking a single on the last ball. He faced Mathew who dished an unplayable finger spinner, followed by the undercutter, the ball backspinning and staying low. Rutherford kicked the pitch in annoyance and said something unprintable to the bowler.
Mathew bowled him a chinaman and a googly, both of which he saw out.
Then out of nowhere a medium-paced leaper rose off the pitch and smashed into Rutherford's hook nose. The batsman advanced down the pitch and had to be restrained.
We watched in stunned silence as carrom flicks and darters were mixed in with stock deliveries. The variation was mesmerizing, the control exquisite. Hadlee, Bracewell, and Sneddon scattered like hacked limbs as Mathew raced to his eighth wicket. Palitha Epasekera mentioned the words 'world record' and everyone in the press box became excited. Mathew's 8-50 was well ahead of the then Sri Lankan record, Ravi Ratnayake's 8-83 vs Pakistan.
We watched in stunned silence as carrom flicks and darters were mixed in with stock deliveries. The variation was mesmerizing, the control exquisite. Hadlee, Bracewell, and Sneddon scattered like hacked limbs as Mathew raced to his eighth wicket
'This is an upset,' said the Kiwi journalist with the beak.
'Just because you're upset doesn't make it an upset,' grinned Ari, snapping his flashing camera at ten-minute intervals.
The former Sri Lankan record holder himself stood at mid-on and shared a kind word with the bowler. The Sri Lankan field crowded the batsmen as Mathew sent down consecutive maidens. The shadows of the surrounding hills tickled the boundary line and the New Zealand team stood outside their dressing room in various degrees of agitation. Rutherford got a single. Smith fended off a looping chinaman. Then he bowled it.
It pitched wide off leg, like a misplaced carrom ball, cut onto the off stump, then darted back into the stumps. The double bounce ball, cricket's most magnificent creation. There was a loud boo from the New Zealand dressing room. Last man Chatfield swung at a top spinner, an edge flew by keeper Kuruppu, and they got a single.
Rutherford patted the wicket with the bat and shouted to the dressing room. 'This pitch is f***ed!' Mathew then bowled another double bounce ball, this time turning from off to leg to take the middle stump. Rutherford stormed off in disgust.
New Zealand slumped from 111 for 2 to 117 all out. Mathew's figures sat plainly on the scoreboard. 10-51. Two better than Jim Laker. There was jubilation in the press box as the players went in for tea. This wasn't like Kuruppu's slow double hundred. This was a real world record.
But all joy is fleeting. The New Zealanders refused to take the field after tea, calling the pitch 'a shocker'. Intense discussions followed on the field between New Zealand tour management and the umpires. The Minister himself came down from the VIP stand to a standing ovation. The two captains were called and without pomp or ceremony the match was abandoned, as was the New Zealand tour.
The Minister gave an impromptu press conference minus anyone who was actually on the field. 'The pitch has been deemed unsuitable…'
The three sessions of play were declared null and void. We were told that any paper publishing a match report would have its licence revoked. We looked on forlornly as history was erased. Cricket in Czechoslovakia indeed. It was the match that would never exist.
Asgiriya would have to wait six more years to host another test match. Today there is no record of the record, even in Wisden. There is no record of a second test match taking place. But everyone who was there knows what they saw. And for once, Ari and I agree. Whatever the reason for New Zealand's collapse, it had very little to do with the pitch.
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