Chinaman : The Legend of Pradeep Mathew – Shehan Karunatilaka

I read through the book in one go. The last time I did this was with the book on the Martina – Chris rivalry, about 2 years back.

I just could not stop turning the pages of this one, even when it was not night anymore, and even when the Hyderabad heat streamed through from the outside.

Unfortunately, there have not been much sports-based fiction written. What you get are almost biographies, analysis or semi-travelogues. Not that I dislike them… I am a sucker for anything based on sport… but the fiction pieces do have a … what’s the right word here… directness(?) / anger(?) / terseness(?) that the realistic bounds of the fact-based books cannot capture (ps. I thank the stars that Mati Nandi wrote in Bangla).

And here’s one of the highest order. The books I enjoy the most are the ones that tell more than one story. And this is one of those kinds. And Shehan Karunakilaka weaves them all in this wondrous maze of a book. He has a lightness of touch, one that you will come to realise only after you have finished the book. He is able to say a lot of rather pithy things in the garb of humour.

You have read the gushing reviews; you have heard the whispers that this is a must-read. Let me do my bit of gushing to add on to all that. This is a must-read. One of the best sports-based books I have read in a while.

Here’s a proper – and fine – book review – on ESPNcricinfo.

Review: What I love about Cricket – Sandy Balfour

Is not a cricket book. In fact, the parts about cricket are some of the more laboured ones in the book. Sandy Balfour probably has the same problem as most of us have, in that he is not able to articulate too well the deep love for cricket and his village green matches. He doesn’t do half bad with the internationals though.

However, this is a nice, well written, occasionally very-funny (in a stiff-upper-lip british way might I add ….. Balfour has left his South African past behind), sentimental (why, even maudlin at times) and slightly eccentric book about a cricket-mad father and his daughter and her skateboarder boyfriend. You will probably appreciate it more than me if you do have a daughter.

Fever Pitch this is not – as the jacket cover claims. But you don’t have to find a Fever Pitch in every personal memoir on sport. And I was not expecting a Fever Pitch when I opened this.

I rather liked the book. A pleasant, quaint, easy read, it pretty much unfolds like a test match – which is a good thing. Definitely readable. Three stars out of five.

Best Cricket Books – Tender Leaves

This post is about two things in one….

First- I have guest-posted on ol’ Bschool mate Harish (bvhk) ‘s start-up endeavor, Tender Leaves ‘ blog, on the 7 (indeed, 9) favourite cricket books of mine.

Go have a read if you may. And if you do so, do check out Tender Leaves. I think you should really do so if you are in Pune. Also, I have checked out the collection on cricket books, and there are some absolute hidden gems.

Good luck on this, Harish.

It Never Rains: A Cricketer’s Lot

It Never Rains: A Cricketer’s Lot (George Allen and Unwin 1984), by Peter Roebuck, is a wonderful, wonderful read. Probably the best book on sports that I had read this year.

Peter Roebuck (photo courtest Cricinfo)

In fact, this is hardly a book, it’s a diary, a journal, a blog. Peter Roebuck was a player for Somerset in 1983 (and by then a senior player, a gnarled veteran of some five years in the county circuit). A top order batsman, sometimes an opener, for whom the word dour and doughty almost come as compliments, so defensive he confesses to be as a batsman, he was part of the crack Somerset team of the early eighties of Botham, Viv Richards, Garner, Vic Marks and Brian Rose. This book is a journal of Roebuck’s and Somerset’s 1983 county season, and shares wonderful stories of the life of a traveling pro cricketer, and the various characters, some legendary and some forgotten, that he shared the dressing room with.

And most of all, this is about Roebuck the man. In his present day writing, it is almost impossible to trace a hint of lack of confidence or a shadow of a doubt, in Roebuck. As a cricketer, he was hardly that. In this book, Roebuck is as finicky, over-analyzing and bewildered as a batsman could be, albeit one skilled at the art, you don’t become a pro cricketer (and a respected, almost-played-for-England one) without being quite good.

He is a brilliant analyst of people and behaviours, of course. And he writes well, his opinions are intelligent, direct and if sometimes acerbic, never anything but honest. It is indeed not (yet) the writing of one of the best cricket writer of our times as he later turned out to be, but that of a cricketer who has a talent for observation, who has top-class writing skills, who has humour by the shovelfuls, and one who does not take himself so seriously as to not to be able to laugh at himself (albeit it’s a completely different story about his batting technique and his average).

I cannot recommend this book highly enough to fellow followers of sport. Read it, it’s a joy.

Mati Nandi: The man who gave me sports

I had visited Kolkata for a short while a few days back. And I came to know through magazines and newspapers that Mati Nandi has passed away in January this year.

Mati Nandi, for the lack of a better expression, was the person who gave me sports. Let me speak to you about Mati Nandi today. Let me speak to you today, blogging friends, about sports.

Our family is non-English-speaking, and my sister and I are the first generation in our family fluent in the Queen’s language. Anandabazar Patrika was the staple newspaper of our family, and The Statesman, the English language daily that used to be standard fare at most (supposedly) intellectual Bengali homes, was only a weekend visitor at ours.

Along with being a reputed novelist, Nandi was a sports journalist with Anandabazar Patrika. Well, not a very regular journalist when I started to read the newspaper, his reputation as a novelist was already big enough by then for him to tend to only cover the major sporting events. Rupak Saha, Gautam Bhattacharya and a few others did the regular sports coverage. The standard of sports coverage was high, and the analysis was far better than what you would find today in most English-language national dailies. And reading the Anandabazar back pages (while Baba or Ma would be reading the front page), remains a cherished memory.

And then there was Anandamela, the sleek, stylish magazine for kids that Anandabazar used to come out with every fortnight. In the days of yore, Anandamela used to come up with the Pujabarshiki (Durgapuja special) edition, and Mati Nandi’s fictional sports stories were a major attraction for me. Nandi was a serious novelist, and his non-sports-based novels and novellas were (as I was to know later) also of a considerably high quality. However, it was his writing on sports, mainly for kids, that I remember him for, and what this post is about.

I remember vividly the first novel of his that I had read. It was one called ‘Stopper’, the story of an ageing central defender, Kamal Guha. Upright, honest and dignified, Kamal Guha had been humiliated and hounded out by his club a few years back, notwithstanding his great record as part of that club. Guha believes that he has that one big match still left in him, where he can prove his detractors (and there are many of them) wrong. His life is built around football, his wife had passed away a good few years ago, and he is estranged with his son. And this one match, against his former team playing for a relegation-contender, becomes his raison d’etre, a metaphor of his life and all that he stands for ….

The comparatively unheralded ‘Aparajito Anando’ (Anando the undefeated) is in my opinion his masterpiece. Teenager Anando is a promising quick bowler and tennis enthusiast, whose life as a sportsman is cut short when he is detected with an incurable heart ailment. In his bed, looking over the playing ground next to his house and the various characters that inhabit it, Anando dreams of debuting for India against the mighty West Indies of Sobers, Kallicharan, Holding and Anando’s favourite Andy Roberts. Or of playing in the semi-finals of Wimbledon against the seemingly indestructible Jimmy Connors, with the winner to play Ken Rosewall on his swansong appearance (Anando hopes to beat Connors, and then forfeit the match against Rosewall so that Rosewall can at last win the Wimbledon title that has slipped his grasp thrice previously). And as the rearguard eighth wicket partnership between Gavaskar and Anando reduces the first-innings deficit and takes India to a somewhat respectable second-innings lead; and as Anando fights back against Connors to take the match to the deciding fifth set, we know that neither of the two matches will finish… these two matches are what Anando is living for. If they finish, so would Anando…

Nandi’s heroes and heroines are you-and-I sportspeople, people we know, people we can relate to. Sometimes they are fun, sometimes they are tragic, and sometimes they are triumphant. But Ananta of ‘Jeeban Ananta’ is not defined by his 9-21 against New Zealand in his first test match but rather his friendships with Jeeban and Bhramara; Naran is a winner despite not being able to meet his hero Emile Zatopek; We root for Prasoon Bhattacharya in ‘Striker’, for Nanida in ‘Nanida Not Out’, or for Koni the swimmer (and for Khid’da her coach) not because of their skills as players, but more for their unbending, principled personalities. We love Kalabati not only because she is a fine cricketer and a dedicated journo, but also because of her joie de vivre and compassion for the world around her. Those little victories – Shibaji winning the National boxing event in ‘Shiba’r Firey Asha’, Naran completing the Kolkata marathon, the protagonist being able to sign for the club he wants to in ‘Dol Bodoler Aagey’…. Even in ‘Dwitiyo Innings-er Por’, Raminder Singh coming in to bat while his life is falling to pieces around him, is a triumph as much for him as for Saroj the journalist, who is covering the series.

Most of the protagonists, while skillful, are common everyday people, with everyday chores, everyday worries, and everyday failings. Skills are important tools for Nandi’s heroes and heroines, but what makes them successful is their moral character, their heart, their effort. The immensely talented (but of loose moral fiber) Bhabanishankars of the world are never glorified. And the ones who had strayed, but had then mended their ways, are always allowed a fresh start. In Nandi’s stories, winning is very important, but not at the risk of a compromise on human values. Glorious failure is not an option, but neither is cheating to win. In sports, as in life, Mati Nandi’s heroes celebrate winning the right way. Nandi celebrated life. And truth. And honesty.

Nandi’s stories gave me sports. He made me understand sport from a broader perspective than the next win or loss, and what it stands for. And I am glad that he wrote in my native language.

Let me leave you with these few lines from ‘Striker’, said to the protagonist Prasoon by his mentor Harsho-da, loosely translated.

…. And a man’s challenges come in many shapes and sizes. A tree grows because of its base, its roots. A man’s moral character is his root. If one’s character has disintegrated, he cannot face his demons, he cannot make it.