De-establishmentarian threads in Shehan Karunatilaka’s “Chinaman” and Stevan Riley’s “Fire In Babylon”.

Stevan Riley’s documentary film Fire In Babylon is a reflection of the coming of age in West Indian Cricket in the 1970s. It is a text that weaves together historical footage, commentary and views of past West Indian players who were a part of the “legend making” and opinions of Cricket historians and followers. When it initially came out in late 2010, Fire In Babylon was acknowledged as a balanced intervention with the West Indian “glory days” and not merely being a patronizing addition to Cricket literature. Riley’s film strives to centralize a philosophy and a justification to the all consuming XI of Clive Lloyd: the need to liberate a “collective identity” from the siege of imperial history. This thread is played out multiply and the unity and spirit forged into Lloyd’s team, along with its material recoveries of trophies, fame, a unique style of its own etc translate as trajectories of de-colonization and self-assertion.

The movement in West Indian Cricket as highlighted, from being “Calypso Cricketers” to respected worthy opponents, is parallel to the End of Empire –the decline of the English World (which once challenged the natural motion of the sun)in the aftermath of World War II. In a Cricketing arena that was sharply divided among the “White Nations” and the lesser “Others”, the former were seen as the virtual trend setters and vanguards of the sport. Given the colonial history – and of that history in India, Pakistan, West Indies and Sri Lanka being different to the colonization Australia underwent – the newly emergent ex-colonies are traditionally seen as “fitting opponents”, as far as the game was won: objects, in other words, of the imperial desire of the White folks.

Tony Greig receiving the treatment in 1976

Tony Greig receiving the treatment in 1976

When Michael Holding runs in to Brian Close in the 1976 series and sequentially hits him on and around his chest – leaving a collection of red imprints by the end of the day – the commentators are heard on the background to mumble how the game is at risk with that kind of hostile fast bowling. The documentary flashes newspaper headlines which condemn the West Indian tactics of bowling fast – for, for once the script has been re-written and the winner by default (the English) are now made to sweat under their own ground conditions. Holding’s barrage – an expression of the team’s collective anger – is a response to a racist slip by England’s South African born skipper Tony Greig, who tells the media in a pre-match interview that the English will make the Windies “grovel”. The battle in the middle, therefore, transforms into a tussle against the zombies of that poignant slave past – a confrontation which calls for mass mobilization, as seen by the fervent support of West Indian support all around the stadiums.

The West Indies triumph, therefore, unsettles a white-dominant, white-centric Cricketing universe, chipping down the monopolized authority of the Cricketing stakes and by subverting the “definition” of all aspects of the game. Another text – a novel – which appears around the same time as Riley’s film locates a similar trait in connection with a fictionalized account of a Sri Lankan Cricketer – Shehan Karunatilaka’s Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew. In Karunatilaka’s case, the establishment of Cricket is approached at two key levels – locally and as the international circuit. The novel’s persistent emphasis of the 1996 world cup, which Sri Lanka won, gives the writer sufficient purchase to define the national XI as a team that re-writes the politics and the annals of the game. The flamboyance of individual players, the mystery and charisma in their leading spinner, the doggedness of their wily skipper Ranatunga etc closely resonate the maverick West Indies team of 1975. The portrayal of Aravinda De Silva runs parallel to the pivotal position held by Viv Richards in Stevan Riley’s film. The battery of the pace quartet Lloyd employed is effectively counter-posed by Muttiah Muralitharan and Chaminda Vaas. The dogged Ranatunga himself is a younger counterpart for the Nestorian Lloyd.

Close's famous bump marks.

Close’s famous bump marks.

In Karunatilaka’s foregrounding of Sri Lankan Cricket, the more compelling sections deal with the domestic realities of the game. While the national team is historically seen inferiorly placed in the international hierarchy, the individual players, too, are seen at the mercy of the political and bureaucratic establishment. While player s such as Charith Silva – who has earned a few lucrative advertisement deals and has built a house by merely being a substitute on tour – complement with the bureaucratic requirements, those like Mathew challenge and stand up to the system which is endemic with corruption and debauchery. Mathew’s career, with more years than matches, is the testament of being bitten and bullied by the real “players” of the system – of which the game is actually a smaller part. Charith Silva is Karunatilaka’s foil for Pradeep Mathew. While the substitute has settled down with a family and even as his wife is nearing her delivery date with a potential heir to Silva’s legacy – Mathew has been thrown to the wilderness and has been erased from history.

However, Mathew’s subversive power accounts for much, as he gets back at the establishment both as a player and as an agent. His ambidextrous skill – if that claim to dexterity is true – is a potent undermining of the logic of Cricket. In Cricket, you are generally either a batter or a bowler; and in each division you’re either one or the other. As a bowler, you are either a spinner or a pace bowler, with variations setting in. then again, you are either a leg break bowler or an off spinner. But, in Mathew we have a fellow who can both bowl fast, spin and with both arms. The reference to the 1983 Royal-Thomian “Big Match” – if that account is true – had a Mathew, covered in sunscreen, imitating the bowling actions of players who were not in the field to begin with.

Mathew’s ultimate trump is where he blackmails the Cricket Board President Punchipala and earns himself a jackpot, enabling him to relocate to New Zealand. In this single action a number of codes are violated from codes of professionalism to the unwritten gentleman’s code of all proper cricket players. But, Mathew sneers as such “unreal” variables and walks off with what he can get, when he could. The establishment may react to erase him from history and blot him out from the annals of the game – but, for the subversive agent there is little glory in empty accolades.

Fire In Babylon ends with a personal note on Vivian Richards, by a historian, who claims that had Richards not been a Cricketer he would have been a rebel. In Karunatilaka’s text the “rebellion” has paid off and the path chosen by Mathew (if the story is to be believed) is to re-locate, re-orient identity and to retire. It is a very palpable descent from moral idealism to the toughness of bare ground.

[Written for the Lakbima News]

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