31 October, 2011Issue 17.2FictionLiteratureSport

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The Dark Art

Mike Jakeman

TwirlymenAmol Rajan
Twirlymen: The Unlikely History of Cricket’s Greatest Spin Bowlers
Yellow Jersey, May 2011
400 Pages
ISBN 978-0224083232


TwirlymenShehan Karunatilaka
Jonathan Cape, April 2011
416 Pages
ISBN 978-0224091459


Bowlers in the game of cricket can be classified as either seamers or spinners. Seamers aim to deliver the ball with power so that it hits the pitch at high speed; they tend to be tall, strong men, enabling them to get greater pace and bounce. Spinners, however, aim to turn the ball in the hand as it is released, sending it travelling down the pitch with no great momentum, but making it subject to all kinds of menace when it lands, depending on the direction of the spin, how high into the air the ball is tossed, and how much the wind causes it to drift in the air. Spin bowlers come in all shapes and sizes. India’s Anil Kumble was tall and elegant; Shane Warne of Australia was of average height but above-average girth; while England’s lesser-known ‘Tich’ Freeman was a mere 5-foot-2 and remains the only man to take 300 wickets in a single season. Spin bowling is, as such, a mental process, dependent on outwitting and tricking the opponent. As batsmen have found out, the humiliation of being out-thought can be just as intimidating as being out-muscled.

Spin is a word that now has heavy political connotations, to the extent that it is a necessary weapon in the armoury of any contemporary candidate, carrying with it connotations of deceit and manipulation. A great spinner in cricket possesses the same ability: the ball can be hidden or obscured from view in any number of ways. The rotation of the arm in bowling the ball can appear identical to that of an entirely different type of delivery. Add in boasts about developing brand new variations in an attempt to intimidate batsman before a ball has even been bowled, and it is clear that spin bowling is a psychological art.

Amol Rajan, an editor at The Independent, focuses on the cerebral aspects of spinning in his new book Twirlymen, a well researched history of the discipline from the earliest underarm practitioners to the exploits of the modern record-breakers Shane Warne and Muttiah Muralitharan. Rajan charts the development of spinning through the successes and failures of the personalities drawn to what can be an unforgiving and lonely pursuit. Inevitably, the most successful passages of the book are those in which he dissects complex personalities. He writes well on the torment of England’s Tony Lock, a gifted player who had the misfortune to bowl in tandem with fellow spinner Jim Laker when Laker took 19 wickets in a Test against Australia:

Lock said years later that he wished he hadn’t denied Laker all twenty, and perhaps from his point of view that would have lessened the focus on his comparative failure in that July Test. It might then have been all about Laker, and not just 95 per cent about him, which naturally draws attention to the conspicuous 5 per cent remaining.

This section (and several others) add grit to the wheels. The chronological format of Twirlymen is such that it has the tendency to read as a procession of one hugely successful player emulating and outdoing his forebears.

Rajan clearly wants spinners not only to return to prominence, but also to receive the credit that he believes that they deserve. Twirlymen is driven by a feeling of injustice against the developments in cricket that have made the spinner’s life as difficult as possible. Pitches have become flatter with shorter boundaries, and technology has been developed that enables batsmen to examine a spinner’s tricks and disguises in forensic detail. Certainly, Twirlymen ought to be good for the reputations of several spinners who have slipped into obscurity, such as Sonny Ramadhin of the West Indies, who retired to run a pub in the north of England, and Australia’s Arthur Mailey, whose previous career as a glass-blower toughened his fingers to the extent that he avoided the cuts and tears that plague other spinners.

Twirlymen has a happy ending, though, owing to the resurgence in spin bowling in the past decade. Although, in Warne and Murali, Test cricket had two bowlers of both skill and longevity (and who took more wickets than any brawny seamer has ever managed) the most interesting development is actually how spinners have responded to the development of Twenty20 cricket, which has led to more aggressive batting and faster scoring than ever before. One would expect spinners to suffer at the hands of less risk-averse batting, or at least, to lose their attacking edge. However, in the frenetic setting of T20, the mental agility of a good spin bowler has seen the practice thrive. It is a shame that this development is passed over in only two pages.

Chinaman, the debut novel by a Sri Lankan author, Shehan Karunatilaka, shrouds spin bowling in a page-turning account of mystery and deception. The narrative thrust of the novel concerns shambling, alcoholic journalist WG (or Wije) Karunasena’s search for a spin bowler named Pradeep Mathew, about whom he wishes to write a book. Statistically, Mathew was an ordinary player who managed only four Test match appearances for Sri Lanka before disappearing into obscurity. However, Wije is convinced that Mathew was a bowling genius, and that his career was cut short by the political manoeuvring that parasitically feeds off cricket in Sri Lanka. Having witnessed Mathew’s extraordinary range of deliveries, which include zooters, floaters, and an unprecedented double-bounce ball, Wije is determined to restore his reputation, a task that brings him into contact with the seamier side of Sri Lankan society.

Mathew, one senses, would not have gained Rajan’s approval. He is not a great thinker who bamboozles batsmen with carefully laid plans. Rather, he is impulsive, short-tempered, and lazy, a man who happens to play some exceptional cricket in the interim periods between upsetting the authorities. His miraculous bowling is therefore even more mysterious. He can make the ball spin and drift in extraordinary ways, and on the basis of raw talent alone. There is no one in Twirlymen capable of this because of Rajan’s emphasis on the earnest hard work that comes with the constant search for more rip, flight, or turn.

The legend of Pradeep Mathew succeeds because of Karunatilaka’s skill in setting his fictional spinner in context. He is a teammate of real players, some of whom are named (Muttiah Muralitharan, Arjuna Ranatunga), some of whom are alluded to (The GLOB, i.e., Great Lankan Opening Batsman). Many a curious reader will be confused as to whether Mathew is a real player, such is the slipperiness of Chinaman. His fictionality is a shame, simply for a scene in which he engages in a hilarious discussion with a thinly disguised Geoffrey Boycott (described only as “The Yorkshireman”), in which he makes one of the most pompous figures in the game look ridiculous thanks to the speed and venom of his tongue:

Mathew dispensed with the smile… “New Zealand took twenty years to win first test. Sri Lanka only took three years.”
The Yorkshireman smirks. “That may be the case, but…”
Mathew’s voice rose a key. “England has played for hundred years…”
“But we’re not talking history, are we son?”
“…and they’re still crap.”
“Is that right? You think you’re better than England, do ya?”
“I’m better than you ever were.”
The Yorkshireman raised his eyebrows and gave his lopsided smile… “You think you’ll play the next game, son? Or will you be carrying drinks again?” There was silence. Reggie watched Mathew look up at his bully.
“You think you’ll ever do commentary? Or will you be doing CatchoftheMatch again?”

Wije’s tongue is rather less dextrous and rather more furry thanks to his conspicuous consumption of arrack. He is phenomenally disorganised—attempting to assemble a book on Mathew based on the scraps of information that he is able to glean from a shady cast of characters, each of whom operates with their own (often unspecified) agendas. This disorganisation is reflected in the form of Chinaman, which is assembled from short paragraphs on the basic rules of cricket; transcripts of interviews; notes that Wije has made, lost, and found again; recollections of broken promises made to his long-suffering wife, Sheila; and debates he has held with his best friend, Ari. This technique makes it easy for the truth to slip between the cracks. As readers, we are reliant on Wije’s interpretation of Mathew and the evidence that he chooses to show us, just as a batsman is reliant on a spinner’s clues about what sort of ball he is about to face.

There is enough to suggest that we should trust Karunatilaka’s wobbly protagonist: he sees beauty and takes joy in the game of cricket, and spinning in particular. This is a joy that we must share in. By eliminating physical attributes, spin bowling is a great leveller, and there is little that is more satisfying on a field than defeating a batsman with a wily and well-executed plan. Geniuses like Mathew, Murali, and Tich Freeman may possess uncommon control and dexterity, but for the rest of us, good spinning remains a dark art of subterfuge.

Mike Jakeman graduated in 2006 with a BA in English from Keble College, Oxford. He now works for the Economist Intelligence Unit.