Wisden Almanac (c) 2017.
Fantasies and fairy tales about cricket and life.
I enjoy my arguments the old fashioned way, face-to-face, preferably over a beverage. Not rubbing a phone while on the toilet or hunched over a keyboard at 2am. The captain of Lanka Lions, six-time winner of Singapore cricket’s first division, once expressed disdain at my love of sci-fi and fantasy.
“Machan, give me a real story with real people in it, not bloody dragons and portals and talking apes.”
“But you watch cricket,” was my considered retort.
It didn’t quite have the mic drop effect I was hoping for.
“What are you talking? Cricket is real. Wooden bats, leather balls. Real people hitting real sixers into real crowds.”
I sighed. Where to start? Pink balls or truncheon bats or Kevin Pietersen?
“I respectfully disagree,” I say, though not in those words, and not all that respectfully. “Cricket is just fantasy.”
“Which part of it?”
“All parts of it.”
“Have you fellas stopped talking movies yet?” says the wicketkeeper, rudely hijacking the debate and steering it towards the burning issues of the day.
“Have you thought?” he asks. “What will happen when Mahela-Sanga-Murali-Dilshan-Vaas retire?”
“Don’t worry, machan,” says the opening bowler, the simplest person in the room. “Lanka has talent. We’ll be fine.”
I also like my arguments after the fact. L’espirit de l’escalier. As I can always present them with a logic that eludes me at a club cricket post-match drinks session. And be as empirically sound as it is possible to be when discussing dragons and doosras.
Everyone agreed with the simple pacey’s optimism. We thought we’d be doomed when Aravinda-Sanath-Arjuna-Gura retired, but we had managed two World Cup finals. Lanka’s got talent, we’ll be fine, thought everyone but me.
The opinion that I didn’t voice then was that cricket is filled of self-serving fantasies, like the ones that deluded Sri Lankan cricket fans; fictions that keep us watching, talking, arguing and tweeting about this silly game.
Exhibit A: The fairy tale, fantasy’s underage cousin. Sport loves its fairy tales. Leicester winning the league, Japan stunning the Springboks, Goran stealing Wimbledon, Buster Douglas, that Miracle on Ice and we all know what comes next, this piece being written by a Sri Lankan and all, Nineteen Ninety Six.
Like Godwin’s law of online discussions and Nazis, the longer any chat on Sri Lankan cricket grows, the probability of 1996 being mentioned will approach one. It was the VHS that every middle-class Lankan home pulled out on a rainy day, the phenomenon that launched a hundred failed pinch hitters, and a thousand dull ads. The cloud on which all Sri Lankan cricket fantasies float.
Underdog tales have thrilled sports fans since David pipped Goliath at the 484 BC Olympics discus — or was it shot putt? The fairy tale of 1996 had it all: a team of club amateurs from a war-torn minnow slaying the dragon, humbling the game’s bullies. It played into the fantasy that Lankan flair could overcome anything, that we didn’t need to be rich or professional or organised or diligent, we just had to play it Lankan style and triumph would be ours.
We could conquer the world with tricks learned from whacking tennis balls across streets, beaches, coconut groves and tea fields. At first, reality seemed to bear this myth out, personified in Murali’s flapping wrist, Malinga’s slings, Sanath’s slogs, Dilshan’s scoops and Ajantha’s short-lived mysteries. Then they all left and the cupboard began to look bare.
In sport, fairy tales don’t end with a happily ever after. Leicester returned to mid-table mediocrity, Buster lost the title and hung up the gloves, and the Soviets resumed their ice hockey dominance for the next decade. For Sri Lankan cricket, the happily ever after has taken 21 years to perish. And now the fairy tale of 1996 is as dead as Snow White’s stepmum.
We didn’t upgrade our domestic tournaments, fire our greedy administrators, chase out our politicians, nurture our talent or keep a coach for more than two monsoons. We built our fantasies around a handful of world-class (and perversely orthodox) players and persisted with the assumption that a schoolboy playing three-day cricket in Gampaha would be ready to face down Steyn and Philander next week.
It’s now worse than the 1980s: we have neither belief nor ideas nor fairy tales. Watching the team lose is a national pastime, and all we have to celebrate are wins against Zimbabwe, draws against Bangladesh or surviving to the fourth day of a Test match. We languish in a relegation zone, dreading the day we hand Ireland and Afghanistan their first Test wins.
The dream of the minnow is a common fantasy, but there are others. Every kid with a bat or ball may fantasise about playing for their country and many may carry these daydreams into their 30s till they realise that the oldest player in their team is younger than them. Some, in desperation, may collect fantasies and turn them into novels about mystery spinners and drunks who argue about great cricketers.
The all-time greatest XI is a metaphysical fantasy that assumes what physicists and mystics have known all along: linear time is an illusion, and on some inter-dimensional turf, Marshall is bowling yorkers at the Don; Hutton and Gilchrist are having a net together; and Sobers, Wasim and Kallis are in the pavilion arguing over the all-rounder’s berth.
As anyone who’s listened to any rock supergroup knows, if you did create a fantasy XI, it would be less than the sum of its parts and would implode from egos colliding in the dressing room. But that’s not its only problem. It’s a fallacy that players across eras can be compared. In temperament and skill, a 21st century T20 player has more in common with Derek Jeter and A-Rod than the Chappell brothers. Our stats of averages and strike-rates paint but a partial picture and will not factor conditions, opposition and a dozen other intangibles. It is impossible with any authority to compare SF Barnes with CEL Ambrose. Which is why we waste so many hours of our lives trying.
One fantasy we only question in our darkest moments is the illusion of integrity. How much of what happens on the field is maya, a grand facade of smoke, mirrors and showmanship? How much of the game is scripted or influenced or fixed or compromised by outside interests, be they dodgy men with mobile phones and gambling websites or dodgier men with briefcases and ICC memberships? Is it possible to manipulate the game’s glorious uncertainties to maximise viewer engagement for stakeholders? You bet.
My favourite fantasy in cricket is the one I entertain in life: that it is fair. That deserving players get selected, that hard-workers reap runs and wickets, and that the team that plays better cricket takes the cup. I believe in Cricketing Gods, in deities who preside over the cosmic balance of the game, guiding drives, causing googlies and spilling catches. And judging by how bats grow in girth while balls change colour, the Gods may prefer sixers to wickets.
Related to this is the fantasy of cricket karma. When an umpire makes a bad and potentially series-altering call, we philosophise that “these things even out”, as if a tao-like force runs through the game regulating umpiring errors. Do those who bowl dangerous bouncers become injury prone? Do those who run others out get run out themselves? Do those who have catches dropped off their bowling pick up wickets off bad balls? These are stats I would very much like to see.
My old friend WG, fictional narrator of the novel Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew, used to turn up in my office around 4am each morning, already tanked up on half a bottle of arrack and impatient to begin his monologue.
“You’re late putha. We have a lot of work.”
“Otherwise. Today I have to tell you about that time Pradeep fixed the ’88 Asia Cup.”
And so it was each day. Imaginary uncle WG Karunasena would show up at my writing desk and tell me stories of that great unsung Sri Lankan cricketer Pradeep Mathew, and I would type.
WG’s friend Jonny had an elaborate karmic theory that a nation’s fortunes in cricket were directly linked to the sins of its past. So South Africa were doomed to choke in every world cup from 1992 to 2036 as payback for 44 years of apartheid. England would never win anything of significance in any of the sports they invented, until they had paid back all their colonial sins. And Sri Lanka won 1996 as consolation for their many tragedies.
Of course, this theory holds less water than the gutters at the SSC. Australia have been punished for genocide with five World Cups. Pakistan have been cursed for the slaughters of 1971 with a fountain of fast bowlers. No karmic redemption in sight for Mugabe-battered Zimbabweans. And New Zealand is rewarded for being clean, green, peaceful, all-round nice guys with a rich tally of zero trophies.
The underdog fairy tale, the all-time greatest team, the façade of honesty and the illusion of justice are narratives that we impose on this strange game. Along with the fiction that the game is played by gentlemen, and that every session, innings, match or series is not as meaningless as it seems.
Noam Chomsky famously dismissed sport as a way of manufacturing tribalism, which distracts us from applying our passion and critical thinking to the real issues of broken societies and malfunctioning governments. Why do that when you can watch a spin duo take a middle order apart. Or witness a doosra that breathes fire and ice. It’s an open secret that successive Sri Lankan governments have used cricket match days to raise petrol prices, pass dodgy legislature and launch attacks on their own people. It’s the distraction we need as our reality darkens.
Last night I dreamed of WG again. I haven’t seen him in years and can’t say I miss him. Much had happened since we last chatted. Sri Lanka have lost World Cups and legends, ended wars and dictators, and the fantasy tale that made me a writer appears to have come true.
He hadn’t aged a day, meaning he looked old and ready to fall apart. Back then he told me stories of double bounce balls and magical doosras and midgets with bunkers under cricket grounds. I thought these stories were made up but now I know they were prophecy.
“You look good,” I said.
“You look old.”
“The story came true.”
“Because it is.”
“Today Sri Lankan cricket has a Pradeep, a Mathews, a Chinaman bowler, a dodgy cricket board and rumours of fixed matches. I’ve even heard of ambidextrous bowlers and double bounce balls.”
“Who cares?” he says. “Guess what putha? I met the real WG.”
“Otherwise? We watched the T20 World Cup together.”
“What did the great man say?”
“He was surprised that people of colour play the game so well. Though that’s not the phrase he used.”
“And he was delighted that his beard is still in fashion.”
WG always preferred the gag over the truth. Just as cricket fans would rather embrace fantasy than face the real. Believe that the good guys will win, that flair is born and cannot be bought, and that the match we are watching now is not a complete waste of time. Anyone with a passing acquaintance with hallucinogens knows a pleasant illusion is preferable to a harsh truth. And if all life and all cricket is illusion, what else to do but enjoy the spectacle?
I hope the Sri Lankan team starts winning soon. And that we do it without changing our cricket board, our domestic structure, or our attitude. If you can’t believe in magic, no point watching. Too much reality is good for no one.
An advertising copywriter, Shehan Karunatilaka has written on sport, society and music for theGuardian, Rolling StoneandNational Geographic. His book Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew won the 2012 Commonwealth Book Prize.