Monday, 26 May 2014

SHANKAR PART 1: THE TALENTED MR SHANKAR





O poeta é um fingidor.
Finge tão completamente
Que chega a fingir que é dor
A dor que deveras sente.

The poet is a faker.
So completely does he feign,
That he ends up faking as pain
The pain that he really feels.

Fernando Pessoa, ‘Autopsychography


New Road, Worcester – Thursday 19 May, 2011

Close of play at the end of the second day of newly-promoted Worcestershire’s County Championship match with Durham, champions in 2008 and 2009. Somewhere in the home dressing room sits debutant Adrian Shankar, no doubt tired from his exertions. He has just left the field undefeated following more than two hours of hard graft in which he eked out 10 runs from 60 balls (including a pair of lapped threes off Ian Blackwell) against a Durham attack that, at the time of his entrance, had reduced his team to 50 for 4, this after themselves having racked up the small matter of 587 for 7 declared in 137 overs. Backs were against the wall. 

Amidst the general moroseness at the Pears’ parlous position – both in the game and the Championship, where they have lost the first five games – Shankar is (I imagine) relatively content with things. At the age of 29 – although his teammates of course think he is 26 (or he thinks they think he is, I think; maybe he was oblivious, impervious to it all now) – this is a milestone reached, perhaps a millstone cast off. After all, this is his first ever Championship game, the natural culmination of a trajectory taking in twelve first-class games for Cambridge University, a smattering of Second XI runs-out (for six counties) and some 21 Minor Counties Championship appearances for Bedfordshire between 2000 and 2006 (averaging 27.8). It is (I imagine) the realization of a lifelong dream, a fantasy fulfilled (or perhaps a phantasy), and bound, therefore, to bestow a certain amount of satisfaction, a layer of existential insulation. These things are relative and subjective, right? But I cannot imagine he is sitting particularly comfortably there, in his county tracksuit, the black-and-green totem of Achievement that (I imagine) had compelled his Abagnalean falsehoods, fibs, fabrications, forgeries, fraud and fictions.

The previous week he had played a first ever List A limited overs game – for the Worcestershire Royals, as they were known at the time, at Lord’s against Middlesex – although he had failed to glean any comparable crumbs of success as the 10 not out from that game, which was televised by Sky and saw him bowled through the gate by the third ball of the match after an unconvincing forward defence had failed to repel Tim ‘Dial M for’ Murtagh. No Adrian’s Wall, that.

Doubtless the decision to promote Shankar to both the team and the opener’s slot when Vikram Solanki was unavailable had something to do with the strengths identified by Worcestershire when they announced the signing on their website on May 13, a press release that I would not be surprised to learn had been outsourced, maybe even to as far away as Sri Lanka:

“The right handed batsman will join Worcestershire CCC on the back of a highly productive off-season. Shankar spent the winter in Sri Lanka gaining valuable experience and catching the attention of numerous counties. Director of Cricket, Steve Rhodes, commented ‘Adrian came to the Club’s attention during the winter, which he spent playing cricket for Colombo in the Sri Lankan Mercantile League. He was the leading run scorer in the twenty20 tournament with an average of over 52 and also scored three successive hundreds in the longer form of the game. Adrian has the potential to develop further after his recent winter experiences and is keen to make an impact across all forms of the game going forward.’ The Cambridge University graduate had risen through the ranks of the Middlesex Academy and was later snapped up by Lancashire CCC on a two year deal.”


The obvious question at this juncture, one that a serviceable sleuth might have been tempted to ask, was: if he was being monitored, why was he signed in mid-May? That trifle aside, there was the other question, the question as to his cricketing merits. After a twelve-match first-class career that had yielded 384 runs at 19.2 in a dozen games for Cambridge – a figure significantly inflated by a career-best Varsity match 143 against an attack that his own coach described as “unbelievably bad” (where otherwise it would sit at a tailenderly meagre 12.6) – this gritty 10 not out against Durham must feel like a significant step forward, a summit scaled, a dream come true. But how might it be seen by his peers? It would not be too fanciful to suggest that, some time later that evening, a player with such a mediocre record, a player desperately trying to “make an impact across all forms of the game going forward”, might reckon they had what the snooker players would call a shot to nothing. With the rest of the top-order gunned down (save Moeen Ali, who made 46), there was perhaps little to lose – always perhaps, for any such loss is in some way a product of the emotional investment therein – and much to gain. A breakthrough loomed. An innings of substance. Everyone else had failed so you couldn’t really ‘fail’. Carpe Diem. 

Here Shankar was, then, finally playing 1st XI cricket. A window of opportunity. The man of mute deed would simply need to summon the courage – the mad, leaping audacity – of the man of wordy confabulation who had accompanied him step-by-step through life, exaggerating, berating, mythologising, castigating. Those immaterial words, floating free as bubbles across a summer sky – “a highly productive off-season ... catching the attention of numerous counties” – would need to find some way of returning from orbit and settling down alongside the actions of the earthly man, the man of flesh-and-blood limitations.


South Northumberland CC, Gosforth – 27 August, 2008

Adrian Shankar is in the third game of a short trial period for Lancashire in which he has so far made 39 not out versus Derbyshire and 19 against Northants (out of 303 for 4). His prior Championship record at Second XI level – for four other counties, including Worcestershire eight years previously – is a none too convincing 249 runs at 13.83, and against a strong Durham side, with Mitch Claydon, Neil Killeen, Will Gidman and Luke Evans in the attack, it promises to be a stiff examination – the sort of match, say, in which you might easily look all at sea and play your way out of a contract.

At some point early on day two Shankar hops over a low wall en route to the car park in order to retrieve the ball, walloped there by some Durham batsman or other. A minute or so later, he has not returned. A colleague runs over to help find what must be a lost ball. It seems that, out of everyone’s eye-line, Shankar has collapsed, for he is found whelping and groaning, indicating that he has done something serious to his knee. He takes no further part in the match. The next, against Yorkshire, is a wash-out.

The season finale is against Surrey and, after both sides forfeit an innings, Shankar scores 46 from 138 balls against a new ball attack of Robbie Frylinck and Tim Linley. Only Gareth Cross, with 50, makes more, and Shankar – who opened the innings with the coach’s son, Scott Stanworth, who made 9 – has evidently done enough to secure a two-year deal. However, he will not make a single first-class or List A appearance for the Lancastrians.

While trialling is the tried and trusted method for the aspirant professional cricketer to play their way to a contract, so, too, is not playing when on trial if you happen not to be quite good enough.


Bromsgrove CC – Saturday 14 May, 2011

Before he has a chance to play for the Worcestershire First XI, Shankar is despatched to play a game in the Birmingham League for Evesham (a club who, a couple of years later, would field Saqlain Mushtaq) at Bromsgrove. Opening the batting with the 16-year-old Worcester Academy prospect Tom Kohler-Cadmore (who took strike), he makes 4 runs from 16 balls, courtesy of a single scoring shot, being dismissed before another Pears prospect and future contracted player, Brett D’Oliveira, could come into the attack. For the fastidious among you, Bromsgrove won a tight game by two wickets. The upshot is that it’s only fair to say that Shankar might not have been in purple form coming into the CB40 game at Lord’s.


New Road, Worcester – Friday 20 May, 2011 (circa 10am)

The shell-shocked players of Worcestershire – five down and still 333 behind the follow-on target – begin their warm-up. No doubt minds will be focussed on the threat of the enigmatic Steve Harmison who, the previous evening, had prized out Pardoe, Cameron and Ali in a spell described by Vic Marks thus: “A fast bowler somewhere near his best dominated the second half of the day. Steve Harmison … cruised down the hill, in rhythm and in control, and took three wickets from steep bounce. No, he is not nudging the selectors but it is still possible that he could win his county side another championship.” This is not club cricket. Oh no. And there is also Callum Thorp to contend with. And Ben Stokes. Pretty daunting. It’s the sort of challenge that can induce anxiety, causing the release of adrenaline, re-routing blood to the brain and heart, ultimately turning your legs to jelly.

At some point in the routine warm-up, Shankar’s legs did indeed go from under him and, it was reported, he suffered a cruciate ligament strain. With his county batting reputation at its zenith – a zenith not quite approaching Felix Baumgartner territory, it must be said – the fates would decree that he’d never play another game for Worcestershire. This wasn’t really how he’d have imagined it (I imagine). Zenith it may have been, but it wasn’t exactly bowing out at the top. That night the club would be given a blow-by-blow account of his mendacity and, it is presumed, would have afforded him the chance for an explanation. A chance he responded to with even further-fetched lies and some genuinely bonkers eleventh-hour ingenuity, although more on that later.    


Worcester – Thursday 26 May, 2011 (approximately 6pm)

With a certain grim inevitability, Worcestershire announce the termination of the contract of Adrian Shankar. Presumably, an internal investigation had been carried out (with a little more thoroughness than the recruitment process, you imagine), after which, it transpired, several aspects of his biography were fabrications retrieved from far-flung lands of credulity…

The back story, the broad sweep of events, is now well known. Indeed, looked at from a certain angle, it’s one of the greatest cricket stories of our nascent century, if not all time: a story about a county cricketer (just about) that was picked up by Fox News, Talksport et al, and many facets of it have been treated deftly, humorously and occasionally savagely. For a while after his sacking – I would say after the end of his career, but around the time of the 2012 IPL auction he was still trying to stir up interest among the franchises, with Andrew Strauss being asked by a franchise for a reference and in turn asking Vikram Solanki, so you never can tell – there was a spate of amendments to his Wikipedia page, as much of a feeding frenzy as you’re ever likely to find in county cricket. Of course, satire takes existing truths and exaggerates them into comedic realms; with some of Shankar’s claims, the upper limits of credulity had already been surpassed.


Thereafter came several excellent pieces delving into the why’s and wherefores; the scarcely credible lack of due diligence on Worcestershire CCC’s part (I mean, a simple check on Google would have blown the relevant parts of his CV – truly, a work of art – out of the water); the megaporkies he told to Luke Sutton to explain away why he was on the Young side in a 5-a-side football warm-up; the parallels from other sports (Ali Dia, and all that). For my part, I simply laughed at the gall of it all, the sheer brassneck. How on earth do you front that kind of thing out? How does the arclight of public scrutiny (much less self-consciousness) not cause the makeup to melt horribly? It may be insane, but there was a certain admiration for the demented audacity of it.

Once that audacity – and, depending on your proximity to the story, to professional cricket, the anger or indignation, too – had been fully absorbed, then, if you’re of sympathetic disposition and don’t simply set up camp at derision, you’re left, in the end, with pity. What kind of tugging compulsion and deficit of self-esteem could lead someone to build such a megacity of lies without imagining that one day they would be utterly engulfed by them? I mean, there are certain crimes that not even Soderbergh’s Ocean’s 11 team would entertain. How did he think he could pull it off? What sort of blindness prevented him from the clear and obvious fact that he wouldn’t be able?

These were – and remain – the interesting questions regarding the curious case of Adrian Shankar and his quixotic pursuit of the professional cricket that he wasn’t cut out to play. Having concocted – and indeed dominated – a mirage T20 tournament in Sri Lanka and forged documents to deceive employers about his age; having found his way from the shadows to the stage, what happened in that interval between his exposure – both on the square at Worcester and in journalists’ fact-revealing calls to David Leatherdale – and his ignominious (and, presumably, final) exit from the county game? What was Adrian doing to put out the fires that were turning his Byzantine fantasy-world to ashes? What was happening to him as this elaborate fantasy, spun into audacious ruse, started to collapse round about him? For in such moments – moments when the soul, alone and under assault, faces its own rigorous tribunal – whole lives are defined.   





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