Jonathan Cape, £12.99, 395pp. £11.69 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Chinaman, By Shehan Karunatilaka

In his 1989 film Crimes and Misdemeanors, Woody Allen plays a documentary-maker called Cliff Stern who is obsessed with Louis Levy, a philosopher whose life-affirming message he finds meaningful. But Levy takes his life, saying "I've gone out of the window", before Stern can complete the film. Levy's existence gave a meaning to Stern's life, becoming his magnificent obsession.

In Shehan Karunatilaka's debut novel, Chinaman, WG Karunasena is one such obsessed individual, and Pradeep Mathew, a beguiling left-arm spin bowler, the object of his affection. Ostensibly, Karunatilaka's novel is about cricket, but the game is the medium through which he talks about Sri Lankan life. "Wije", as Karunasena is known, personifies the inner struggles of an old man looking for that one final achievement to earn some self-respect.

The fictional Pradeep Mathew has played intermittently for Sri Lanka in the late 1980s and early 1990s, performing memorably in odd matches, but for mysterious reasons his career has never taken off. Soon he is forgotten; his name disappears from records. When Wije includes him in a list of all-time greats, his friends wonder if he has had too much to drink – not an unreasonable assumption.

For Wije is dying, because of alcoholism and old age, but also due to disappointments. Mathew's bowling brings that gleam to his eyes. And Wije wants to make a documentary about him. Wije considers it an omen, a matter of pride, that his initials coincide with those of WG Grace.

He has named his son Garfield (after the cricketer Sobers, not the cat). Wije is the type to get into a fist-fight over a statistic, or whom to include in a fantasy XI. Indeed, the nastiest argument he has ever had, "more foul-mouthed than when Ceylon Electricity overcharged me Rs 10,000, angrier than when my wife found out I had been fired from my third successive job," was over the legitimacy of Muttiah Muralitharan's bowling action.

Cricket allows Karunatilaka the outfield to show what his country is capable of, without being overt about it. For concurrent with Sri Lanka's cricket success (1996 world champions, finalists in 2007 and 2011) is the appalling fraying of the nation – Tamil separatism, suicide bombs, the brutal end of the war, and the devastation of the 2004 tsunami. None of these larger events dominates the story, but as CLR James said, "What do they know of cricket, who only cricket know?"

There is the meaningful post-colonial triumph: Wije's proudest moment is "watching (Sidhath) Wettimuny at Lord's in 1984, the first time I realized that a Sri Lankan could be as good as anyone else." And the tragedy: for Mathew represents the blended Sri Lanka (his mother is Sinhala, his father Tamil).

Without being didactically political, Wije reminds us of Sinhala boys at an elite school taunting Mathew, so obliquely hinting at why the cricketer might have receded from collective memory. And yet Mathew guides Sri Lankan cricketing history: he stiffens the Sri Lankan spine, advising Arjuna Ranatunga to sledge back against the hyper-aggressive Australians, and helps win the 1996 World Cup. He devises the brilliant plan for Sanath Jayasuriya to destroy opening bowlers in the first 15 overs. Only Mathew – and Wije – know of Mathew's role in this. But to what end?

Ultimately, cricket can do only so much. Wije laments: "I have been told by members of my own family that there is no use or value in sports... Left-arm spinners cannot teach your children or cure your disease. But once in a while, the very best of them will bowl a ball that will bring an entire nation to its feet. And while there may be no practical use in that, there is most certainly value". In contrast, "Real life is lived at two runs an over, with a dodgy LBW every decade." The real lives of millions end forgotten precisely because they are dull. Yet one magnificent bowling spell will stay in people's memories for generations. For "unlike life, sport matters" - and it scarcely matters here if the voice is Wije's or the author's.

What Karunatilaka has produced may or may not be the Great Sri Lankan Novel. Other worthy contenders exist, and parts of Chinaman are genuinely abstruse for those who see cricket as a game of flannelled fools. But it a Great Cricket Novel. For a game without much great fiction, that's a reason to applaud with drums – and forget the rules the marshals impose at Lord's.

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