Wednesday, 28 May 2014


'Man of Letters'
As we have learned, on Thursday 19 May, while Adrian Shankar was gritting out a commendable 10 not out from 60 balls on the day of his LV= County Championship batting bow, Sri Lankan Test left-arm spinner Rangana Herath explicitly refuted the claim that the former Bedfordshire, Cambridge University, Notts 2nd XI, Middlesex 2nd XI, Worcestershire 2nd XI, Sussex 2nd XI and Lancashire 2nd XI batsman had made to a couple of his new teammates: namely, that he’d swooshed Herath across the ropes from each of five consecutive deliveries out there in the air-bending Lankan humidity during that very winter past. Nor had Ranga even heard of the tournament in which the sixfest was purported to have occurred – the Mercantile T20 – not even to be sounded out about possible inclusion. Odd. Names in Sri Lankan cricket don’t come much bigger than Herath Mudiyanselage Rangana Keerthi Bandara Herath. Not even that of WPUJC Vaas.

That’s all well and good, I would have been entitled to muse just three short days later, when the afore-analysed website appeared, ostensibly reporting the real events of the ‘Mercantile T20 tournament’ (albeit with no mention of the quinta-maximum), but what am I to make of this public record of his deeds that beams out brightly from the rectangle infront of me? Fair do’s about the sixes, Herath Mudiyanselage Rangana Keerthi Bandara Herath, but what about that website, eh?, I started to murmur to myself from amidst the increasingly perplexing perspective of that Sunday night, into Monday morning. 

Surely if anyone could clear this up then it had to be the cricketophiles of Sri Lanka. So, at 10.47am (BST) on Monday 23 May – around 72 hours after Shankar suffered his ‘knee injury’ on the outfield at Worcester – I started a thread on the Sri Lankan cricket fans web forum, I chose the username Serendipity, a difficult word to define precisely, but which roughly means the pleasant knack of chancing across beautiful things. The art of happy accidents. The word was coined by English man of letters Horace Walpole in 1754 after reading the Persian fairy tale, ‘The Three Princes of Serendip’ – the Arabic (and ultimately Sanskrit) word Serendib being how ancient Sri Lanka was known before it became Ceylon. Would Adrian Shankar happily chance across this forum thread out there in the unfathomable vastness of the Internet? Or was he still too busy building the very website hyperlinked in Serendipity’s initial post? 

In that opening message, ‘I’ asked, in a sort of artfully bastardised English, whether anyone out there knew anything about the site. The first to reply, ‘slboy’ (who joined in July 2006 and had well over 12,000 posts to his name), enquired whether it was my website. Come, come. If that were true (he probably failed to stop and think) it would probably render my original question somewhat pointless – well, unless it was flagrant or spamotion (“Hey! Do you know my site?”), a portmanteau coined 260 years after Horace Walpole first … oh, you know about that. 

I responded in manner that can perhaps best be described as ‘sarcastico-pidgin’ – pidgin to catch my pigeon? – before explaining that I had first come across the page on Google but was under the impression that the Mercantile tournament was only “for the companys”. I then reiterated my call for anyone who knew anything about it to speak up. 

The following day, these questions found some answers. Uncannily well informed answers, actually. Three wise interlocutors appeared – not Gold, Frank Insane and Meh, but ‘sangapump’, ‘lavigne’, and ‘tp24’ – all of whom registered with the site on May 24, none of whom posted anything after May 26, the day before Worcestershire announced he was to be fired. 

These pseudonymous posters were extremely knowledgeable – especially considering that by the time they offered their in-depth explanations the actual Mercantile T20 site had been taken offline – making it all the more surprising that such died-in-the-wool Lankan cricket aficionados had not posted on any other of the nation’s burning issues du jour: should Prasanna Jaywardene or Sangakkara keep in Tests? Had Ajantha Mendis been rumbled? Who should open the batting with TM Dilshan? Not a Dickie Bird. 

The first respondent, tp24, kindly and helpfully glossed the reasons why the tournament had still not yet progressed from the brute, mute fact of having been physically played out in three dimensions – presumably with visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory and gustatory sensations being produced – on to acquiring a supplementary or complementary verbal or textual form, recorded for posterity in a news report or somesuch. There was not even a ‘meta-report’, on the media blackout. Why the big secret? Well, despite the “pretty good” standard of the cricket (naturellement), tp24 explains, the “organisation and publicity of the games was terrible”. 

It was all growing curiouser and curiouser; any cats wandering past were surely in mortal danger. On which note, much as batting against spin – be that smearing a world-class spinner for sixes on a subcontinental Bunsen or dogging it out against Ian Blackwell at Worcester in May – is always a game of cat-and-mouse (and depending on who has the upper hand, the batsman might get Scratchy or the bowler Itchy), so is persuading your professional cricket employer that a professional cricket tournament that you’ve invented actually took place. We know that Shankar was certainly a good purveyor if not a great player of spin and so it was that the online cat-and-mouse – a virtual chase scene with bad guy on the run and only one conclusion possible – continued on Wikipedia. 

Thus, having pointed out on the slcricket forum that the organisers were being sued, tp24 now flagged up the Wikipedia entry on the defunct Indian Cricket League, an entry that had recently seen an amendment under the ‘Other private cricket leagues’ sub-heading, made by one ‘Yperera’. 

By 8pm on Monday, our epochally important four-way discussion had taken the thread to the top of the Google search rankings for ‘Mercantile T20’ – not exactly what you’d expect of a supposedly major sporting event (major enough to get you a two-year pro contract, anyway) on the major search engine, which of course tends to rank pages according to the number and importance of links pointing toward them. 

Anyway, Serendipity had noticed that the Mercantile T20 website, after barely 24 hours online, had already been taken down. Why was that? A first assumption had to be that it was because it had been pointed out to Worcestershire that several of the Sri Lankans who featured thereon (no Pereras, though. Why, Yperera?) were not extant, as such. They were not as such, as such. 

So, again Serendipity paddled out into the deeper waters of the Internet, hoping not to get caught up in anything that would tug him under. He returned to the thread, underlining his confusion about the “ongoing legal proceedings” alluded to on Wikipedia, and quoted by tp24. (Incidentally, I wasn’t playing dumb when I wondered why such a veil of silence hung over things. Now, I’m no lawyer, but how could it be that a high court superinjunction or similar instrument could impose a legal blackout on reporting the case, not even to state that a case was ongoing yet that they were forbidden to report it because of the potential effect on the course of justice? And in any case, that surely could only be a blackout in Sri Lanka, for there would be no jurisdiction for such a thing elsewhere...) Thus, in the next post on the thread, tp24 asserts that the existence of corruption was mentioned both in the Indian press – although still not a jot of news on such tiddling cricket sites as ESPNcricinfo – and by Hashan Tillekaratne in his deposition to the SL Cricket Board. Intriguing. 

cricket in 'sleepy' Sri Lanka

(To add to the already Scooby Doo levels of mystery, there had in fact been a Mercantile T20 tournament slated for November 2010, seven months previous, but according to an article in the Lankan Times it had been cancelled due to bad weather. In any event, it was supposed to be an inter-firms tournament – although it’s not entirely clear whether it was List A level – with many of the big names of the island’s cricket turning out. We know that Shankar was in Sri Lanka at the time, being looked after by agent / administrator [don’t ask], Ravi de Silva, and would no doubt have got wind of all this, which many have slowly and serendipitously settled down into his cover story for Worcestershire.) 

At any rate, Serendipity then tweaked the direction of the conversation slightly, attempting to penetrate the fog of obfuscation in order to ask about one of the two players given a profile on that mayfly of a website (born, eat, shag, die): Sachith Pathirana, “one of best friends with my cousins when going the Trinnity School” (sic). The idea, of course, was to imply that Serendipity might fairly easily be able to find out about all this Mercantile business, and without relying on tp24, sangapump or lavigne to volunteer information. 

“Hope he not get the ban from SL board becoz he play in this illegal brekaways T20 games!!??” my alter ego continued, adding, with a dash of conspiratorial rancour, that “currant board only looking in own pockets” (sic). 

Tp24 was again quick with the inside track, assuring the perturb├Ęd Serendipity that there will be no bans for players, “because the corruption goes high up”. (Perhaps tp24 ought to be on the prosecuting team. He – by which I mean Shankar – would certainly have the requisite professional competence in that arena, what with the Cambridge Law degree and all…) He also mentioned having “watched a couple of games involving Colombo and Kandy teams”. The verdict? “Some good young players”. If, in this edited post, he was referring to Adrian Shankar (“…but I did not know all of their names”), then that statement would essentially be true – aside from the adjectives good and young, of course. And the verb watched. 

Sangapump then responds to another, bona fide forum member: correcting ‘tutor’s’ erroneous presumption that Sri Lanka Cricket had hired Somerset Entertainment Ventures to run the Sri Lankan Premier League T20, explaining that they had bought the rights. He also referred opaquely to a split in the Board in which some “wanted overseas players to be carefully selected, but SEV just went out and signed as many top players as they could” [italics added – although it ought to be borne in mind that the author of this post was referring to the genuine tournament due for August that year, which wasn’t called the Mercantile and didn’t take place], and rails against private leagues, insinuating that such unsanctioned cricket is ripe for spot-fixing – and, if one were being cruel, it might be suggested that fixing would be a cogent explanation for Shankar’s ‘success’ as ‘leading run scorer’. Yet still Serendipity remained bemused… 

The reply (2.47pm Lankan time, or 10.17am BST) was fulsome. And wriggling. But again, dripping with information that had not yet entered the public domain. 

It was by now fast resembling an espionage thriller. On the subject of which, by Tuesday afternoon, there were rumours – and you may need to take a deep breath here – that Shankar was in fact working for MI5. Of course he was. Word had come out of New Road – one can only presume as a result of Shankar ‘confessing’ to his real reason for swindling the contract out of them, finally coming clean – that the story ought to be dropped, “because it’s much bigger than you think”. 

It may have been far-fetched, but it was plausible. And perhaps even sustainable as a charade. Certainly, sangapump, lavigne and tp24 knew a great deal about the instruments used by the fixers: 

Moreover, if you were MI5 and looking to recruit someone to try and crack South Asian spot-fixing rings that may or may not be financing Islamist jihadis, then your traditional recruitment ground would be Oxbridge (check), ideally someone of South Asian provenance (check), and preferably good enough to play first-class cricket (erm). 

Still plausible? Well, it was as good as any cricketing reason hitherto offered to explain why Lancashire and then Worcestershire had each given him two-year deals with almost no credible track record to go on. (Was it also conceivable – although certainly more outlandish – that he was actually working for the fixers, attempting to recruit bent cricketers…?) 

Of course, the most plausible explanation of all as to why he’d claimed to be in the pay of the Security Service is that, having allowed innocent dreams to become reverie, and with this baroque edifice of untruths and make-believe collapsing around him, the elaborate fantasy structure that had provided ersatz nutrition to his increasingly floundering, unanchored, wordbound sense of Self, Shankar, like a desperate tailender facing a genius spinner on a Galle dustbowl, simply charged headlong at the latest embodiment of his Tormentor: i.e. anyone who sought out the truth of his modest ability, to get through the defences of his persona, just as Tim Murtagh had done on the telly a few days earlier. This time, that Tormentor happened to be his employer. Belatedly. 

The sense of anguish that his charade was being defrocked must have been acute. If ever you’ve had a lie brutally and rigorously exposed as a fabrication (“No Dad, I didn’t smash your engraved brandy goblet”), that sense of drowning, heart going like a speaker stack at a Sepultura stadium show, will be familiar. The end is coming, panic envelops you. These forum posts and the website were the last desperate, flailing haymakers of a shitfaced rural bruiser before falling (already unconscious) to the floor, face first. 

But we keep coming back to our initial questions: what, exactly, led him to this ignominy in the first place? 

Intro | Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 


Anonymous said...

Where is part 5 ? I want more!

Anonymous said...

Yup. More, please. This is brilliant stuff.

Anonymous said...

Amazing stuff :)

bipul barmon said...
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