Given the hold cricket has on the Indian psyche, why don’t we havemore novels based on it?
With the cricket season in full swing, perhaps it is inevitable to find yourself lost in a cricket novel. I am currently reading Pramesh Ratnakar’s Centurion: Father, Son and the Spirit of Cricket , a fascinating novel that invites the reader to take on the identity of Sachin Tendulkar and then proceeds to take him or her on a philosophical quest.
Given how long cricket has been around and the prominent place it occupies in much of the British Commonwealth, it is surprising that not too much memorable fiction has been written about cricket. There is plenty about the gentleman’s game that would translate well to literature. Not least of all, the fact that it was once a gentleman’s game in the literal sense of the word, complete with a match between Gentlemen and Players. In those days to be counted a gentleman you had to be part of the English upper-class. Just think of how much grist for the mill that would provide a novelist looking to examine social class.
Then there is the game itself. The shock and awe unleashed by a pace battery, the grace of a straight drive, the brute power manifest in a pull or a hook, the deceit inherent in the art of spin bowling, close-in fielders prowling near the bat like vultures eager to swoop in for a catch, the ebb and flow of fortune in a hard-fought Test match…And then there is the passion of the Ashes, the way religion and politics form the backdrop of any India-Pakistan encounter, the scourge of match-fixing… The list goes on and on.
Which brings me to the first cricket novel I ever read; a novel I now remember for all the wrong reasons. It was Testkill by Ted Dexter and Clifford Makins. Maybe because it had Dexter’s name on the cover and was about cricket, my mother agreed to buy it without screening it as she normally would. As it turned out, the novel contained a lot of stuff that my eight-year-old mind found incomprehensible. In my naiveté I turned to my mother for enlightenment. “Mummy, what is a lesbian?” I asked. Needless to say, Testkill was confiscated at that moment, and from then on my mother examined every book from cover to cover before allowing me to read it, even if it was by Enid Blyton!
The list of cricket novels, thankfully, does not end with Testkill . And like all good novels about sport, the best cricket novels are not just about cricket. Take Sri Lankan author Shehan Karunatilaka’s award-winning Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew . The novel is, at one level, a drunken rant; the protagonist is a dying, alcoholic sportswriter. It is, at another level, a quixotic quest, where the sportswriter has decided to dedicate the rest of his life to immortalising an ignored cricketer. In the midst of all that, you get a probing, unsettling investigation into the bigotry and violence that have bedeviled the island nation.
Just as engrossing as Chinaman is Netherland by Joseph O’Neill, where a Dutch banker takes up cricket in New York in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Through the prism of this white character, O’Neill delves into the lives of his fellow cricketers, the mostly nonwhite immigrants — Indians, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans, West Indians — playing cricket in a New York park. He examines their impossible dreams and their deep desire to become American, an urge in which he correctly senses the colonial urge to become a colonialist and, therefore, part of the erstwhile master’s world. And all of this is told in rich prose: ‘The day, a pink smear above America, had all but disappeared.’ Or: ‘Ice was spread out over the breadth of the Hudson like a plot of cloud.’
Beyond that, I cannot remember reading much memorable fiction about cricket. Cricket does make an appearance at the beginning of Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers . It also figures in the great humorist P.G. Wodehouse’s work, as well as the Victorian novel Tom Brown’s School Days . It is surprising that there have not been too many Indian novels about cricket. Cricket generates the kind of passion in India that baseball evokes in America or football in Brazil. I don’t know too much about Brazilian writing, but baseball is prominently featured in several American novels. Bernard Malamud’s The Natural , which was adapted into a movie starring Robert Redford, instantly comes to mind. As Indian literature evolves and connects with its people, I expect to find more cricket finding its way into its pages. After all, a national literature is all about what goes into the making of the national character. And cricket is an integral part of being Indian today.