In the opening pages of Shehan Karunatilaka’s extraordinary debut novel, Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew, there is a direct sales pitch to the reader: ‘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.’
The words are from the novel’s narrator, WG, a heavy-drinking, retired Sri Lankan sportswriter who has dedicated his remaining days to tracking down a mysterious spin bowler, ‘the greatest cricketer to walk the earth’. But it’s hard not to hear the author himself in the pitch: yes, this is a book about cricket, but that shouldn’t stop you, lover of literature, from reading and enjoying it.
And nor should it. Chinaman – which is a term for a kind of left-arm spin bowl – is a fine novel, one that manages to be both a screwball thriller and a quiet meditation on the dying of the light. It is a novel about cricket, definitely, but through cricket it is also about war, politics and corruption in postcolonial Sri Lanka.
But whatever the literary merits of Chinaman, you can understand the reason for the playful post-modern sales pitch. Cricket novels are rare. They are rare today and have been rare throughout the game’s long history. Few good cricket novels have come out of England – despite the game itself appealing to many great writers over centuries – while Australia has produced practically none.
Where are the great Australian cricket novels? Why is a game so central to our culture and history so absent from the pages of our fiction? Why do our novelists keep cricket at such a distance?
The scarcity of cricket novels, particularly Australian ones, stands in contrast to the baseball novel in America, which is practically its own genre. According to bibliographer Noel Schraufnagel, more than 200 baseball novels were published between 1990 and 2007 alone. Cricket and baseball are different games, of course, with different histories, but comparing them makes sense; they share a lot – bats and balls, runs and innings, the fans’ love of statistics.
The success of Chinaman (2011), not long after Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland (2008), about a cricket team in post–September 11 New York, may point to a change of fortune for the cricket novel. But when you have a well-received cricket novel coming out of America, of all places, it makes you wonder why the summer game is so rarely a subject in our fiction.
There are, of course, Australian novels that feature the game. To name a few of the best, Steven Carroll’s The Gift of Speed, Craig Silvey’s Jasper Jones and Malcolm Knox’s A Private Man. There are no doubt others. But the struggle to name many makes one thing clear off the bat: cricket plays a significantly smaller role in our literature than it does in our lives.
More than that, though, none of these novels could be said to be about cricket in the way that many American novels are about baseball. They don’t have the game at their very centre. To read Bernard Malamud’s The Natural, WP Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe (made into the film Field of Dreams), or Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding – not to mention more commercial fare such as Stephen King’s Blockade Billy or John Grisham’s Calico Joe – is to feel the love or crazy obsession for baseball and its traditions on every page. These novels evoke summers past: the ramshackle ballpark, the fading bleachers, the outfielder shielding his eyes from the sun. They make you see the pitcher’s graceful wind-up, hear the crack of bat on ball, feel the runner’s slide into base amid a cloud of dust.
Why don’t Australian novelists write about cricket in anything like the same way? Lack of interest and passion for the game is perhaps one reason, while ignorance is also a likely deterrent. For the novelist who follows the old dictum ‘write what you know’, elite-level sport is not often top of the list. The portrait of the young artist often finds him or her in the library or sitting dreamily under a tree, rather than at the wicket wielding a Slazenger. How do you go about imagining a two-metre-tall Joel Garner hurling a piece of hard leather at you at 150 clicks an hour, when the last sporting challenge you had was school PE, just before you faked a headache and went and lay down in sick bay?
But more than lack of interest or insight on the writer’s part is perhaps something like antipathy. Not toward cricket itself, but rather what it represents – a sports-mad nation where arts and letters get short shrift and always have done. A land where the sportsman (and it is usually a man) is hero and the artist is a perennial outsider. The Australian novelist may feel, with some justification, that writing about cricket or footy is like colluding with the enemy.
In America, perhaps partly because of its long tradition of wonderful non-fiction writing about sport (think Norman Mailer on Muhammad Ali, Gay Talese on Joe DiMaggio, David Foster Wallace on Roger Federer), the division between sport and literature isn’t as great or as antagonistic. There isn’t as much of the old Oxbridge divide between ‘hearties’ (athletes) and ‘arties’, where the former throw the latter in a pond for a bit of a laugh. The culture in America appears more open to the idea that you can be interested in sport and literature, and that a liking for the one doesn’t automatically cancel out an appreciation for the other.
This more open attitude to sport infiltrates American fiction not only at the popular, genre end of the market, but also at the literary end. So even in works that aren’t about baseball, the game is there, as background or metaphor. Baseball is in the writing of Twain, Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Faulkner. More recently, it is there in Richard Ford’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Independence Day, and in Don DeLillo’s opus Underworld, where a home run ball – from Bobby Thomson’s ‘shot heard round the world’ – is a leitmotif for half a century of American history.
In Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding, the most acclaimed baseball novel of recent times, the notion that sport and art shouldn’t stand so separate – that both have something to tell us about what it is to be human – is made plain. In one memorable passage, college baseball captain Mike Schwartz thinks about the game and how for him it is so much more than that:
For Schwartz this formed the paradox at the heart of baseball, or football, or any other sport. You loved it because you considered it an art: an apparently pointless affair, undertaken by people with special aptitude, which sidestepped attempts to paraphrase its value yet somehow seemed to communicate something true or even crucial about The Human Condition. The Human Condition being, basically, that we’re alive and have access to beauty, can even erratically create it, but will someday be dead and will not.
It hardly needs stating that sport in novels is rarely just sport; it is a way of writing about something else. That something else, broadly speaking, is the human condition (all novels are about this, or they’re about nothing). But in baseball novels, that something else is also often America itself. Philip Roth, for one, made this idea transparent by cheekily titling his 1973 tale about a homeless New Jersey baseball team, The Great American Novel.
Going back nearly a century, to Ring Lardner’s classic You Know Me Al (1916), baseball has been a framework through which American writers have looked at their country’s culture and character through time. So beneath the surface story of bat and ball and the lights of the stadium, are novels about race, religion, class, lost innocence and redemption. Novels, in other words, about the American dream – a dream that seems to exist within the semi-pastoral and egalitarian space of the baseball diamond, but which is forever threatened by corruption from outside.
Walt Whitman, who knew a thing or two about the American dream, once said of baseball, ‘it’s our game, that’s the chief fact in connection with it: America’s game’. And in this fact of ownership no doubt lies a major reason why American novelists write about baseball with greater keenness and ease than their Australian counterparts write about cricket. Baseball is America’s game, while cricket can never be ours.
The American who writes about baseball is always looking inward, at his or her own country’s history, traditions and myths. The Australian wanting to write about cricket, however, is forced to look both inward and outward. The same is true for the New Zealander, Indian or South African. The game they love is impossible to untangle from a history of colonialism and imperialism.
As English cricket historian Cecil Headlam wrote in 1902 about Britain’s imperial expansion: ‘First the hunter, the missionary, and the merchant, next the soldier and the politician, and then the cricketer – that is the history of British colonisation. And of these civilising influences the last may, perhaps, be said to do least harm.’
Not surprisingly, the narrative about cricket that Britain sent to ‘civilise’ those at the farthest reaches of empire was a profoundly conservative one. It was also laden with myth and very English, as if cricket were a game fashioned in the image of a nation. The narrative went something like this. The natural home of cricket is the English village green, where tranquil summer afternoons pass slowly to the merry click of bat on ball. In this rural idyll there is a natural social order under benevolent aristocratic rule – in other words, everyone knows their place in the batting order. The status quo is maintained by an unwritten moral code, which to question or disregard is ‘just not cricket’.
As an example of this narrative at work, consider JM Barrie’s speech at a dinner to welcome the Australian Test team to England in 1926. The writer of Peter Pan – who had his own cricket team that included, among others, Arthur Conan Doyle, PG Wodehouse and HG Wells – told the touring Australians that ‘the great glory of cricket does not lie in Test matches, nor county championships, nor Sheffield Shields, but rather on village greens, the cradle of cricket’.
What the Australian team thought of Barrie’s speech isn’t known. But its subtext was clear: however much the game grows as it circumnavigates the globe, cricket on the village green will keep the game forever and always English. Past, present and future, everything will remain the same. It was as if Barrie believed time could stand still, just like it did for Peter Pan, with Neverland a rural English cricket field on which the sun never set.
Of course the outposts of empire had other ideas about the game and its meaning. For if cricket is defined by its imperial past, it has also played a role in the process of decolonisation and change. It is a game that the colonies and dominions have used – particularly when they started winning (think Don Bradman knocking England around in 1930) – to define their independence. To break away. Cricket, for all its ingrained Englishness, helped the empire strike back.
Inevitably, this process changed cricket, and continues to do so. How former colonies play, watch and think about the game and the values they attach to it are products of their own culture. There’s a dynamism at work. Cricket has thus come, over time, to be overlaid with the distinct social, cultural and political concerns of a dozen nations.
A great Australian cricket novel has to somehow wrestle with these ideas and how they play out in a particular place and time. This is what Netherland and Chinaman do so well. The former, about a bunch of Commonwealth immigrants with their own American dream, is like a postcolonial retelling of The Great Gatsby, with cricket as the Daisy-like vision. The latter has a dying sportswriter who sees in the unsung greatness of a Sri Lankan spin bowler a metaphor for his country. Both novels use cricket as a way of exploring politics, postcolonial experience and belonging, all the while expressing a love for the game that doesn’t feel laden with empty nostalgia or reliant on conservative English myth.
Sadly, an Australian novel that manages the same or similar doesn’t exist. And you can’t help thinking it’s the very bigness of the themes – history, imperialism, postcolonialism, class, myth – that keeps our writers away. For how does a novelist approach a game that has helped define Australia, and its relationship to England, empire and Commonwealth, for 150 years?
Most literary novels in modern times tend toward the small and particular rather than the sweeping and bold. Yet a great cricket novel needs scope. It needs – like a great Test match – a grand narrative with multiple subplots. And you can see why a novelist might not want to take that on: why they might choose instead to stand at the boundary and wait for some other poor sucker to stride out to wicket.
But if readers are going to have to wait for the great Australian cricket novel, then wait they will. And in this respect at least, cricket does us all a favour. For cricket is a funny game. There are hours of play where not much happens. Whole sessions are lost to rain. A match can go five days and not produce a winner. People who like the game, in other words, are used to waiting, and they’re nothing if not patient.