Book review: The Curse and the Cup - not quite cricket

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 February, 2015, 10:49pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 21 February, 2015, 10:49pm

The Curse and the Cup
by Gaurav Bhalla

Gaurav Bhalla is a Reston, Virginia-based PhD who has spent the past 25 years on the international corporate speaking circuit. His 2010 book, Collaboration and Co-Creation: New Platforms for Marketing and Innovation, was well-received in business academic circles, and his first attempt at fiction, The Curse and the Cup, has the makings of an international bestseller, at least within the global cricket community.

The 390-page novel is set in South Africa, and tells the story of three generations of prodigious left-arm spinners in the Lingani family, in New Brighton, Port Elizabeth. The author shows his love of cricket and the book offers even non-cricketers an easy Billy Elliott-type plot that retains shine and movement to its final ball.

The grandfather, Vuyisa, becomes a bowling legend in New Brighton and dreams of international cricket, but he is "coloured" and his ambitions are soon dashed in 1966 apartheid South Africa. He and his wife, Mama Nonkosi, have a similarly talented son, Manga, who in turn has a boy, Themba.

However, when Vuyisa and Manga die in 1991, Mama Nonkosi blames their deaths on the racism of South African cricket, and curses its Proteas team never to win the game's ultimate prize, the one-day International Cricket Council (ICC) World Cup.

Bhalla cleverly links the curse to subsequent World Cup failures of South Africa's cricket team. Since their 1992 return to international cricket, the Proteas have often entered the tournament as favourites, only to lose several key, but potentially winnable, matches.

Mama Nonkosi entrusts her curse to Themba, but "somewhere in the early 2000s", he dreams of playing for South Africa, to fulfil his father and grandfather's dreams, and absolve the Proteas of their apartheid legacy, so that the team can at last win the 2015 ICC World Cup.

Torn between two family loyalties, Themba seeks the advice of an old family friend who sets him up with coaches who recognise his natural talent, and perfect his bowling with Shaolin-like discipline. However, the more Themba plays against his grandmother's wishes, supernatural voices threaten to hobble his talent.

In the best part of the book, Bhalla brings on new characters who can take Themba out of the township and realise his yearning to play with the Proteas in 2015. Bhalla cleverly exploits his corporate expertise to illustrate the schmooze of sports sponsorship, and the meeting rituals of corporate chiefs.

But as the plot matures, Bhalla telegraphs his plot in chapter headings and misses chances to show his knowledge of modern cricket. Bhalla writes clearly and well. With more effort, however, he could have turned his indulgent, karmic cricket romp into a definitive 600-page quest-to-Test blockbuster, with more about the Linganis' relationships; their origins; and how township life changed over three generations in Port Elizabeth.

Instead, Themba remains an enigmatic blur in a book that seems researched from a distant laptop, and strategically pushed to coincide with this month's World Cup, which South Africa are again favourites to win.