Published by Random House India/Jonathan Cape UK.
Winner of the Commonwealth Book Prize 2012, the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature 2012, and the Gratiaen Prize 2008.
Selected by Waterstones as a Top 11 debut of 2011.
Chosen by Wisden in 2020 as the second greatest cricket book of all time.
The Legend of a Pradeep Mathew is 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.
Excerpts from Chinaman
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.
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.
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.
QUOTES FROM CHINAMAN
“Sports can unite worlds, tear down walls and transcend race, the past, and all probability. Unlike life, sport matters.”
“The ball is made of leather with a hard seam running its circumference. The bat is made of willow. The sound of one hitting the other is music.”
“Left-arm spinners cannot unclog your drains, teach your children, or cure you of disease. But once in a while, the very best of them will bowl a ball that will bring an entire nation to its feet. And while there may be no practical use in that, there is most certainly value.”
“Explain the differences between Sinhalese and Tamils? I cannot. The truth is, whatever differences there may be, they are not large enough to burn down libraries, blow up banks, or send children into minefields. They are not significant enough to waste hundreds of months firing millions of bullets into thousands of bodies.”
`It's funny and original. "If you can't understand why anyone would watch, let alone obsess over this dull game, then this is the book for you." Brilliant.'
The Times, Kate Saunders
"In a thousand years, grass will have grown all over your cities. Nothing of anything will matter."
Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew