Twirlymen: the Unlikely History of Cricket's Greatest Spin Bowlers

Twirlymen: the Unlikely History of Cricket's Greatest Spin Bowlers
Amol Rajan
Yellow Jersey Press, 400pp, £16.99

Shehan Karunatilaka
Jonathan Cape, 416pp, £12.99

Nearly two-thirds of the way in to this erudite and often very funny homage to cricket's greatest spin bowlers, Amol Rajan offers incontrovertible evidence - if more were needed by this stage - that he is an incurable cricket fanatic, the kind of person that the former Australian prime minister John Howard (similarly fanatical about the sport) was fond of describing as a "cricket tragic".

“There is a charming symmetry to the fact that the globalisation of spin bowling [that is, the spread of the art beyond English and Australian shores]," Rajan writes, "began with a Caribbean spinning surge, while what I have called the Second Flourish of spin bowling closed with a Caribbean spinner [Lance Gibbs] becoming the leading wicket-taker in all Tests." As I read this, I nodded in approval and pleasure. No cricket tragic ever tires of marvelling at symmetry, of discovering patterns in the game and its history, of uncovering how that history repeats itself, neither as tragedy nor as farce, but as a source of unrivalled joy.

I never fail to derive enjoyment from the following symmetry: when V V S Laxman and Rahul Dravid led India to victory against Australia after following on in the Kolkata Test in 2001 - a rare, improbable triumph - they helped snap Australia's 16-Test winning streak - the longest in Test history; when in 2008 Dravid and Laxman starred again in India's win against Australia in Perth - a venue where, it was thought, India was incapable of lasting five days - they broke a 16-Test winning streak for the Aussies. Patterns, see? We fans thrive on them.

Having dreamed of being a spin bowler as a boy, and having had that dream shattered by injury, Rajan (who grew up to be a journalist) calls this book "an extended apology, mainly to the cricketer I might have been". He goes far beyond that. This is his real purpose: "My aim is not to produce an encyclopaedic overview of spin bowling; rather, by focusing on the most successful purveyors of a precious art, I hope to chart the vicissitudes of its evolution."

He achieves that goal with style and aplomb. He is particularly good in making connections between bowlers who were not peers. Here he is, comparing the West Indians Sonny Ramadhin and Alf Valentine with the Australians Clarrie Grimmett and Bill O'Reilly: "Ramadhin and Grimmett were united in being small men whose vulnerability excited sympathy in those around them . . . O'Reilly and Valentine positively pursued the limelight, indeed wanted it to be theirs to keep."

The profiles of the greats are charming and insightful, and Rajan's grasp of the technique, intricacy and pitfalls of spin bowling is assured. He does well to place individual talents within the tradition. The paragraph that closes his assessment of Shane Warne, the greatest of the modern era, exemplifies this approach: "He had the vigorous wrist and finger action of [Arthur] Mailey; the modulating flight and leg-stump line of Grimmett; the aggression and exuberance of O'Reilly; and the technical proficiency and work ethic of Benaud."

I have my quibbles with Rajan. I shook my head at his explication of why Anil Kumble's ten wickets in a Test innings is inferior to Jim Laker's. I laughed out loud at the absurdity of his description of Geeta Basra - a decidedly minor Hindi film actress reputedly dating Harbhajan Singh - as a "Bollywood star and icon of modern India". I was appalled that he quoted Warne's late coach Terry Jenner as saying that he had watched "Harbhajan Singh help India win the 2007 World Cup" (that World Cup was held in the Caribbean; it was one of India's worst performances in the past two decades).

But Rajan's enthusiasm is so infectious that I wanted to sit down with him and discuss these points and much more. I imagine that the discussion would be less an argument than a pleasure. In the acknowledgements section, he says that his idea of pillow talk is discussing the merits of Saqlain Mushtaq's doosra. If you are that sort of cricket fan, then this book - knowledgeable, obsessed and astute - is for you.

Shehan Karunatilaka's Chinaman, on the other hand, wishes to be seen as a novel that uses cricket merely as a metaphor. Under the title "Sales Pitch", that desire turns up on page 16 of this book of more than 400 pages. "If you've never seen a cricket match; if you have and it has made you snore; if you can't understand why anyone would watch, let alone obsess over this dull game, then this is the book for you."
Don't be taken in. Karunatilaka's narrator, W G Karunasena (aka Wije) is a dying alcoholic, a retired sportswriter and a thoroughly unreliable narrator (as the epigraph helpfully asks: “If a liar tells you he is lying, is he telling the truth?") who is most in his element with comic hyperbole and irony.

Wije wants to write a book about Pradeep Mathew, the greatest Sri Lankan cricketer ever, whose name has been effaced from all record books. But first, Wije needs to find him. That quest - during which he hears of a coach with six fingers, runs into a Tamil warlord, is told outlandish stories and tests to the limit his notions of marriage, fatherhood, friendship and commitment to the game - provides the narrative engine of this witty novel. Along the way, Karunatilaka (or his narrator) explores ideas of nationhood, class, race, capitalism, love, longing, success and failure. Chinaman is a capacious novel, discursive (often delightfully, on occasion annoyingly), leavened with snappy one-liners, plotted like a good thriller, and as compulsively readable, yet full of postmodern high jinks too.

Towards the end of the novel, as he lies dying (and still trying to finish his book), Wije takes stock of his life: "My wife asks me why I love sport more than her. More than I do my son and our life together. I tell her then that she is talking nonsense. But perhaps she isn't . . ." The truth, he says, doesn't lie in a precise answer to that question. It lies instead in the transcendental nature of sport, especially cricket, and the appreciation of it: "Sport can unite worlds, tear down walls, and transcend race, the past and all probability. Unlike life, sport matters."

Chinaman may not be merely about cricket, but then, when was cricket only about itself? Without its context, without its narrative, without its ongoing dialogue with the past and the world, cricket is not the game we adore. Given the world-view of the man who narrates all but the final 50-odd pages of the novel, many of its charms undeniably will be lost on any reader who is not a sport fan in general and a cricket tragic in particular; but the intelligence of its playfulness is heightened for devotees. l

Soumya Bhattacharya's "Why India Can Never Do Without Cricket" is available in paperback from Peakpublish (£9.99)

This article first appeared in the 27 June 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The food issue

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The Bloody Mary is dead: all hail the Bloody Caesar

This Canadian version of an old standard is a good substitute for dinner.

It is not anti-Catholic bias that makes me dislike the Bloody Mary, that lumpish combination of tomato juice and vodka named after a 16th-century English queen who, despite the immense reach of her royal powers, found burning Protestants alive the most effective display of majesty.

My prejudice is against its contents: the pulverised tomatoes that look like run-off from a Tudor torture chamber. A whole tomato is a source of joy and, occasionally, wonder (I remember learning that the Farsi for tomato is gojeh farangi, which translates literally as “foreign plum”) – and I am as fond of pizza as anyone. Most accessories to the Bloody Mary are fine with me: Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, celery, black pepper, even sherry or oysters. But generally I share the curmudgeon Bernard DeVoto’s mistrust of fruit juice in my spirits: “all pestilential, all gangrenous, all vile” was the great man’s verdict. His main objection was sweetness but I will include the admittedly savoury tomato in my ban. At the cocktail hour, I have been known to crave all kinds of odd concoctions but none has included pulp.

To many, the whole point of a Bloody Mary is that you don’t wait until the cocktail hour. This seems to entail a certain shying away from unpleasant realities. I know perfectly well the reaction I would get if I were to ask for a grilled tomato and a chilled Martini at brunch: my friends would start likening me to F Scott Fitzgerald and they wouldn’t be referring to my writing talent. Despite its remarkably similar contents, a Bloody Mary is a perfectly acceptable midday, middle-class beverage. If the original Mary were here to witness such hypocrisy, she would surely tut and reach for her firelighters.

Yet, like the good Catholic I certainly am not, I must confess, for I have seen the error of my ways. In July, on Vancouver Island, I tried a Bloody Caesar – Canada’s spirited response to England’s favourite breakfast tipple (“I’ll see your Tudor queen, you bunch of retrograde royalists, and raise you a Roman emperor”). The main difference is a weird yet oddly palatable concoction called Clamato: tomato juice thinned and refined by clam juice. Replace your standard slop with this stuff, which has all the tang of tomato yet flows like a veritable Niagara, and you will have a drink far stranger yet more delicious than the traditional version.

Apparently, the Caesar was invented by an Italian restaurateur in Calgary, Alberta, who wanted a liquid version of his favourite dish from the old country: spaghetti alle vongole in rosso (clam and tomato spaghetti). He got it – and, more importantly, the rest of us got something we can drink not at breakfast but instead of dinner. Find a really interesting garnish – pickled bull kelp or spicy pickled celery, say – and you can even claim to have eaten your greens.

I’m sure that dedicated fans of the Bloody Mary will consider this entire column heretical, which seems appropriate: that’s the side I was born on, being Jewish, and I like to hope I wouldn’t switch even under extreme forms of persuasion. But this cocktail is in any case a broad church: few cocktails come in so many different incarnations.

The original was invented, according to him, by Fernand Petiot, who was a French barman in New York during Prohibition (and so must have known a thing or two about hypocrisy). It includes lemon juice and a “layer” of Worcestershire sauce and the tomato juice is strained; it may also actually have been named after a barmaid.

All of which proves only that dogma has no place at the bar. Variety is the spice of life, which makes it ironic that the world’s spiciest cocktail bestows a frivolous immortality on a woman who believed all choice to be the work of the devil.

Next week John Burnside on nature

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis