waiting for the chinaman

I recently read an article on one of my favorite websites The Millions about the rich literary tradition of cricket. I’ve become quite obsessed with the game lately thanks to Joseph O’Neill’s 2008 novel Netherland, about a group of immigrants living, loving, striving, and playing cricket in and around New York City in a post-9/11 world. Curious about this bat-and-ball game with English roots (I am a quarter English myself, hence my other obsessions with tea and real football), I started a journey that is only a few weeks old, but one that has nearly engulfed my life. (Just ask my wife and kids. You know you’re in trouble when you start conducting late-night internet searches for the best beginner cricket sets, asking your sleepy and puzzled eight-year-old son for advice (“Which one, buddy? The yellow Gray-Nicolls Nitro set that comes with two sets of wickets or the more traditional Gunn & Moore Icon cricket set that comes with a real wooden bat and ambidextrous batting gloves?” Son: “Wha?”) Or when, after being laughed at in Dick’s when you asked if they carried cricket balls, ordering a beautiful red Teststar hand-made in Pakistan just so you could hold it, feel the weight of it in your hand (all 5.5 ounces of it) and yes, smell it. Or watching grainy YouTube highlights of the latest Test match between India and Sri Lanka.) After Netherland I read CLR James’s classic (I soon discovered) memoir Beyond A Boundary, about his life growing up with and playing alongside some of the best West Indian cricketers of the first half of the twentieth century. His book also provides a look into his boyhood in Trinidad and his prescient analysis of cricket as a classic struggle between ruler and ruled, colonizer and colonized, master and slave (I recently discovered that when the British were exporting their game around the world, teaching it to their “subjects” it was the British colonizers who always batted and the native peoples who always bowled. Imagine playing baseball and always having to pitch and field, but never getting a chance to hit; a sure way to solidify the power structure of the colonial world.) After James, I watched the documentary Fire in Babylon, about the domination by the West Indies cricket team of the international cricket world in the 1970’s and 80’s. In this film, cricket becomes the symbol of black nationalism and post-colonial self-rule. So where am I now on my journey? I’m thinking, like the character Chuck Ramkissoon in Netherland, of starting my own cricket club. When I drive by empty green spaces I wonder I could make it the next Lord’s or if it at least would be a good place for a pitch. I’m going to start researching the cricketing history of the town I live in, a town built by shipbuilders and immigrants, who may (who knows?) even have played cricket somewhere in these environs. (Something else to ponder: before the Civil War, cricket was the most popular game in the United States. It was only after the war ended that baseball started crafting its narrative as the “national pastime.”) And I’m waiting for a chinaman to come to me from across the Atlantic. You see, in that Millions piece I mentioned above, another book was reviewed, also published in 2008, titled Chinaman by Shehan Karunatilaka. It’s about the fictional search for the greatest Sri Lankan cricketer, a Mr. Pradeep Sivanathan Mathew. The book was just released in the US, but as with everything, was renamed The Legend of Pradeep Mathew to perhaps make it sound quirky and attractive to American readers, rather than the original title that would make one think it was about a man from China (the original title actually refers to a style of cricket bowling that uses an unorthodox, left arm spin). I could have ordered the American edition, but am waiting for the original edition, with the original title and cover, to be delivered to me from that virtual shopping mall across the pond known as Amazon UK (even though I despise the notion of e-books and think Amazon is killing the book publishing industry, creating a world where every future novel, like the Taco Bell chain in the movie Demolition Man, becomes a monolithic choice, a Fifty Shades of Hunger Games in Twilight uber-novel, I still think getting stuff from England is wildly exotic). Could I have “started reading The Legend of Pradeep Mathew: A Novel on my Kindle in under a minute?” Yes, I could have. But like a ball from a slow bowler, I prefer to wait.

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