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If only W.G. Karunasena were the sort of fortunate man known by his initials. What could be more opportune for a cricket journalist than to be known as “W.G.", two letters that will always recall cricket’s first great icon, W.G. Grace? But life is always full of disappointments, small and big, and for the ageing, alcoholic W.G., there is nothing more symbolic of this fact than the legend of Pradeep Mathew.

Chinaman—The Legend of Pradeep Mathew: Random House, 408 pages, Rs499.

It takes us the length of this lush, achingly sad—and hilarious—novel to unravel that fascination. W.G. sifts through decades of Sri Lanka’s cricket history to trace the genius left-arm unorthodox spinner, who disappeared mysteriously. His narrative offers a glimpse into a world where Sinhala and Tamil, artiste and hustler, colonialism and post-colonialism, are locked together both on the pitch and off it.

The roiling, boozy voice of W.G. tells us the story in anecdotal spurts, now painting with a broad brush, now offering a view of a cricket match or boardroom intrigue with reportorial precision. Characters veer close to caricature, as Karunatilaka helps himself liberally to real persons—not all of whom are given fake names, either.

The overall effect can pall sometimes, particularly for those who don’t love the sport with the passion of a 60-something cricket reporter, but as the novel steps back and forth between honest comedy and sly satire, it offers far more opportunities for delight.

Cricket is not the novel’s guiding metaphor; the sport, and the ways in which it can consume both player and spectator, are actually the soul of ‘Chinaman’. Readers familiar with the writing of Mohammed Hanif may hear echoes of an unlikely counterpart from across the subcontinent—the young Ali Shigri of ‘A Case of Exploding Mangoes’—in W.G.’s keen-eyed, sharp-tongued tone. Cricket’s practicalities may not have much in common with a military dictatorship, but it can break a heart with a lot less bloodshed.

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