The average adult male relationship to sport involves a sizeable dollop of fantasy. That 25-yard screamer against the Dog and Duck was pure Stevie G, right? The 127 outshot? Phil Taylor in the World Darts Championship. Every blinding pot, fizzing backhand pass or chip to four feet allows you to feel, for a moment, like a genius.
For most of us, the childlike daydreaming will be restricted to these fleeting moments of giddy reverie, or else will evaporate altogether. Reality bites. Limits are reached. For others, the swirling possibilities of the inner fantasy world never find such external checks and balances – in fact, those soaring possibilities come to subdue reality. Such was the case with Adrian Anton Shankar, the former Cambridge University cricket captain who, in May of 2011, joined Worcestershire on a two-year deal, the county's website announcing the signing of "the 26-year-old" as follows:
"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.'"
All of this sounds very impressive – only, there hadn't actually been any such tournament played (as an obscure tool called "Google" would have revealed), and he was 29 years old, not 26. For the latter to have been true, Shankar would have had to have gone up to Cambridge at 16 – not impossible, but more likely of a Nobel laureate than a guy kicking around the lower echelons of county cricket. Besides, if they'd really been watching him all winter, why only sign him in May? People don't turn up to the January Sales on Valentine's Day.
If Worcestershire's alarm bells weren't set off by these whopping untruths, some of the freely available truths ought to have given them pause for thought. Cricket is a game in which statistics rarely lie over the long course – whatever his age, and whichever way you sliced the numbers, Shankar had an extremely modest record at any standard of cricket you care to mention.
His 12 first-class games at Cambridge had yielded a batting average of 19.2, or 12.6 if you exclude a score of 143 in the Varsity match against an Oxford attack described as "unbelievably bad" by his coach, Chris Scott (who, according to multiple sources close to him, was in the habit of referring to Shankar as "Jeffrey Archer"). Over a decade of County Second XI trials for five teams he averaged just 21. For Bedfordshire in Minor Counties (cricket's Vanarama Conference) it was 27.8. As club pro for Neston in 2009, Shankar scored 19 runs in five innings – failing to make it through the opening over in the first three outings – before being relieved of his duties. None of it suggested a Moneyball-style hidden gem. So, Worcestershire signing a 29-(or 26)-year-old with such underwhelming stats prompted more raised eyebrows than a Carlo Ancelotti lookalike convention.
The whiff of suspicion grew, and within two weeks he was sacked, his fibs, fabrications, falsifications and fraud exposed to an equally bemused and amused cricket public. A story that was already largely fairy-tale instantly became legend in the usually sedate world of county cricket. But what tugging compulsion or deficit of self-esteem led him to bullshit his way to a professional contract? What made him think he could pull it off? And what happened in those two weeks at Worcestershire as the finely-wrought fantasy started to unravel? (I have tried to contact Shankar for comment twice, but he is yet to respond.)
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After graduating in 2004 (which didn't prevent him playing the 2005 Varsity match), Shankar hawked himself around the county circuit, keeping that when-I-grow-up-I-want-to-be-a-professional-cricketer flame alive, despite the fairly unambiguous evidence of his statistical shortcomings. In 2008, the breakthrough finally came. Following a four-game trial (in which he failed to make a half-century and was mysteriously injured retrieving a ball from a car park against a team with menacing fast bowlers), Lancashire offered him a two-year deal. However, he didn't play a single first-team game and was cut halfway through his second year.
It wasn't that Shankar was totally clueless. He was simply out of his depth and wouldn't take the hint. And a good thing, too, otherwise he'd never have got as close as he did. But four years – between graduation and signing for Lancashire – is quite a gap on the CV, a long time not to be playing top-level cricket for someone that "numerous counties" have their eye on, and it required a lot of creativity to account for the fallow period. Thus, when Lancashire announced his signing, they said he was 23 and had graduated in 2006, while the Manchester Evening News reported that "glandular fever had put his career on hold for 18 months" and that he would be combining his foray into county cricket with a part-time M.Phil in International Relations.
The chronology issues were most hilariously exposed when he was challenged about his age upon joining the "Young" team for a pre-game football warm-up, while a colleague and exact contemporary at Cambridge joined the "Old". Shankar explained that he'd been on a life support machine for the first three years of his life, so they obviously didn't count. Not that he was much cop at football, despite claiming – according to former Lancashire teammate Luke Sutton – to have been in Arsène Wenger's original academy intake. Nor was he much good at tennis, despite claiming – again to Sutton – that he'd played at a national level.
While Shankar hardly set the county scene ablaze at Lancashire, you wouldn't have known it from reading the "Investor Updates" being sent to his kit manufacturers, Mongoose (which I have seen), the last of which was pure, unadulterated fiction: "This year he has averaged just under 100... He has been the country's stand-out player in both county second team and club cricket, and has been the most talked about player on the county circuit..." Perhaps it was one of these updates that persuaded Worcestershire to take a punt. Either way, his fortnight there living the dream was certainly eventful.
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First up, as happens to all fringe pros, he was farmed out for a club match, making a sizzling four for Evesham. Next came a first-ever county first-team appearance, a one-dayer against Middlesex in front of the Sky cameras at Lord's. Chucked in at the deep end, Shankar couldn't muster a run, bowled out on the third ball. Finally, the late-developing old youngster made his County Championship debut – a dream come true!
Durham, champions in 2008 and 2009, batted for most of the opening two days, racking up 587 for 7. Worcestershire, having lost their first five games, then slipped to 50 for 4 before Shankar battled through to stumps, scoring 10 not out from 60 balls. That would be as good as it got in the big leagues. The next morning, as the murmurs grew louder among county cricket journalists and supporters about his age, the Mercantile T20 in Sri Lanka, Arsenal, tennis, glandular fever and the rest, Shankar failed to resume his innings, mysteriously injuring his knee in the warm-up and therefore unable to face intimidating bowler Ben Stokes and refreshed ex-England star Steve Harmison, "a fast bowler somewhere near his best", the previous evening.
As Worcestershire relayed all the allegations to Shankar, something incredible happened. Within 36 hours, a basic website appeared, purporting to cover the Mercantile T20 League and featuring news, statistics, two player profiles (guess who), a statement of the tournament's "vision" from "the Chairman of the Mercantile T20, Ravi de Silva" (try finding him in a Colombo telephone directory), and a couple of scorecards from the two semi-finals. Almost unbelievably convenient under the circumstances. The problem was that, of the 43 players other than Shankar on these scorecards, 25 were complete inventions, and of the 18 who were bona fide, only eight could feasibly have participated due to playing matches elsewhere on the same day.
On the 23rd of May, I started a thread on the slcricket.com forum, asking in artfully bastardised English whether anyone knew anything about this strange tournament. Within hours, three members – all registering on the 24th of May and posting nothing after the 26th of May – were explaining exactly why there wasn't a single report about it on the whole internet, not even one explaining why there was a blackout. Wikipedia pages were modified to corroborate the story. The iceberg had been hit, yet someone was still re-arranging the Titanic's deck chairs.
Soon enough, however, Shankar was sacked, the story broke and his Wikipedia page went berserk with far-fetched, parodical biographical claims. There was a parody Twitter account and a #shankarfacts hashtag. West Mercia Police were called in, but no charges were pressed.
What could lead someone to build such a mega-city of lies without imagining that one day they'd be utterly engulfed by them? He was clearly no fool, and you'd reckon a basic grasp of the potential for humiliation and social stigma would have kept his delusions in check. Some clues are offered by a series of excruciating blogs for Mongoose (at one point he writes: "Shouts of 'you're a disgrace' rang around the ground, accompanied by scoffs and general disbelief that I have the gall to call myself a professional"), although it all remains a puzzle.
The polygraph-twitching obsession pulled him ever deeper in, yet here was the paradox: the closer Shankar came to actually realising the humdrum fantasy of Being-A-County-Cricketer, the more he had to back away from it to keep it intact, to stop the fantasy from melting in the pitiless light of truth. Maybe Shankar took the plunge at Worcestershire genuinely believing that one day his ability would catch up with his self-image, that the walk would eventually match the talk. However, during that debut innings in the shadow of Worcester Cathedral, he must have known the game was up – that for someone of such meagre talents, Division One of the County Championship really was no country for 29-year-old men.
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