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