Sunday, 30 December 2012

On Warne, and another great spinner

Reviews of On Warne by Gideon Haigh and Chinaman by Shehan Karunatilika

So it came to pass that the greatest cricket writer of his generation tackled the greatest spin bowler of his generation. I expected a weighty tome - that it's a slim volume of 'essays' rather surprised me. How would Haigh tackle a life imbued with so many moments of shame, triumph, embarrassment, glory - not to mention the small matter of over 700 Test wickets - in so few pages?

He does so successfully. One section of the book which received heavy trailing, having been featured in the Times, is a masterful description of Warne's bowling action. Here is Warne at the start of the run up, flipping the ball from hand to hand – “languidly, voluptuously, like somebody feeling warm sand run through his fingers”. And sometimes it's the simple lines that work best: "There was a leg break, and then there was a leg break from Shane Warne."

This incredible section is really all we get to see of Warne in action on the field of play. There's hardly any mention of his batting and fielding. Haigh makes the oft-repeated point that Warne only had two balls - the leg break (with different degrees of overspin), and variations of a straight one (though fuck me if it felt like he had another 17 when bowling to Alec Stewart). He mentions the fact that Warne changed his style a little after the shoulder injury. But really, that's it. If you want a description of exactly how Warne operated on the field of play, you'd be better off turning to Amol Rajan's Twirlymen. A little later he discusses the moment when Warne talked his viewing audience through a wicket, but pauses only to make the point that as a piece of bowling, it's a fairly unremarkable trick.

He's right - if it was another bowler, it's unlikely that clip would have received half the coverage it has. That's why Haigh is probably right to dedicate most of his attention not to Warne the cricketer, but to Warne the man. And on this, he's predictably insightful. He posits Warne as a certain kind of Australian - the boy from the suburbs, perhaps never more at home than when guest-starring in Neighbours - and from this he begins to look at how Warne created himself - and sought confidence - by aligning with the likes of Ian Chappell and, of course, Terry Jenner.  He shows how he therefore could never have really got on with the likes of John Buchanan and Steve Waugh - because cricket came to him (through what was a very good development system) and not the other way around. Boot camps and uptight professionalism don't square easily with such a mindset.

Haigh's particularly good at spotting instances of the "Rashomon" effect -  whereby different players' autobiographies give somewhat varied impressions of different incidents. Ponting's decision to bowl at Edgbaston in 2005 either elicited some murmurs of disapproval or outright dressing room warfare, depending on whose autobiography you read. And he's even better on Warne in the context of his bowling partnerships - one with MacGill (Warne was always outbowled by him) and one with McGrath.

The only problem is that for all the intricate research and beautiful prose, there's a sense that when you scratch beneath it the book has nothing new to offer. Haigh is strong in defence of Warne's various scandals - particularly on how the ACB mishandled the approaches made by a bookmaker to him and Mark Waugh in 1994. But we kind of knew all that: the Barmy Army had a (by their standards) rather amusing song on the subject only a few years later. He's likewise strong on the hypocrisy of the media when it comes to Warne's adultery, but there's nothing new under the sun here either: public figures who are serial adulterers usually understand the price of the game they're playing. And while Haigh's good on Warne's cricket brain, pointing out (though again, he's not the first) that Warne predicted Gibbs' infamous 1999 World Cup dropped catch, he doesn't do enough on this. I rather wish he'd written about Warne's leadership of a young Rajasthan Royals side in the early days of the IPL. As cricket achievements go, it was something else, but barely gets a mention.

The weird thing is that for all these flaws, you come away from the book feeling you understand the man a great deal more than from any ghost-written autobiography. No interviews, no research beyond flicking through a few tomes that were sitting on his shelves - and yet the whole thing just works. I guess it's the power of good writing.


Speaking of spin bowlers, how well do you know Pradeep Mathew? What do you mean you don't? He's the greatest spinner who ever lived! Have a look at this website about him, for a start. Mathew could bowl equally well with either hand, and was possibly his country's best bowler whether bowling quick or slow. He did have 17 different deliveries, including a ball that pitched twice, and which spun both ways on each bounce. He once took 10-51 against New Zealand, but the record was disallowed due to the security situation at the ground. Among the batsmen to have been clean bowled by him were Border, Chappell, Crowe, Gatting, Gavaskar, Gower, Hadlee, Imran, Kapil, Lloyd and Miandad.

Of course, he didn't exist at all. He's the subject of Shehan Karunatilika's Chinaman, a novel about W.G Karunasena, an alcoholic, middle-aged hack who sees Mathew bowl a couple of times in the 1980s, is staggered by his talent, and then wonders why he's disappeared, never to be seen again.

The man may have been involved in match-fixing. He may have been forced out because he was the product of Tamil and Sinhalese parents. Who knows? W.G. is drawn deeper and deeper into his country's underworld as he attempts to get to the bottom of the mystery and, of course, Mathew's story becomes something of an objective correlative for his country's history. Just as the web link above might suggest, fact and fiction blur - we see Sri Lanka win the world cup in 1996, and we see all that hope soon betrayed. Meanwhile, the war to the north rumbles on in the background. 

It's a quite brilliant novel. The ending is, it must be said, rather trite. But the writing just prior to this conclusion, when W.G. defends his life and his obsession with fripperies like the game of cricket, is among the very best few pages of prose I've read in years.

And that goes of the whole book. Line-by-line it's moving, hilarious, and foreboding. By any measure it's a great piece of literature. For a first novel, it's simply incredible.