Before you get to the first sentence of The Fix ("Their odyssey will come to an end, one way or another, here in Kolkata, the city of endless night") the book's introduction to author Omar Shahid Hamid is a thrill-a-minute eye-grabber. In the past, Hamid, an active counter-terrorism officer in Pakistan, has been, we are told, ambushed by gangsters, implicated in a false case, and barely escaped when his office was bombed by the Pakistan Taliban. Jason Bourne, get out of the way.
Hamid knows his bad guys and their bad deeds firsthand. He also knows how to tell a story. The Fix, his fourth book, ends with: "Just before she climbs the stairs in the hallway, she unlatches the front door and leaves it ajar." In between the first line and the last are a number of characters recognisable from Pakistani cricket history, and others who depart from stereotype.
The Pakistan men's team circa now are in the doghouse because everyone believes that decades ago they tanked a World Cup final under iconic captain Tahir Zaman (referred to almost always only as "Skipper" in the book) an upright man, now just deceased, who was framed when he looked to get into politics. It is the Pakistani women's team who are everybody's darlings, having beaten India in an Asia Cup final, and are favourites to win the T20 World Cup.
Fast-bowling allrounder Sanam Khan is their captain and wicketkeeper Fatima Shah her deputy. The ghouls of match-fixing - in the form of cricket officials and coaches - lurk around the team as they head to England and the T20 World Cup. Sanam and Fatima are spirited creatures who must tackle attention from men of all stripes - bookie, gambler, fixer, spy, as well as dashing but slightly dubious former stars. Sanam is romantically involved with the most charismatic of them, and so wants to get to the bottom of the fixing scandal that destroyed the reputations of the biggest names in the Pakistani men's game. Fatima wants to take her family out of her rough Shahdara neighbourhood.
One of the biggest bookies in the business has won the catering contract for the women's T20 World Cup, and the dread felt by cricket fans after accepting the truth about fixing lingers.
Towards the end, the baddest guy in The Fix says, "If you have a script for the final, it takes the romance out of the game… fixing the final would be bad news for everyone." All he wants to do, he tells Sanam and Fatima the day before the World Cup final, is work out some lucrative spot-fixes to manipulate odds. Cricket fixing 2.0. No spoilers shall follow other than to expect surprise.
No real names are named but many of the names in the book are riffs on famous ones. There's a murdered gangster called Hanif KitKat (a bookie called Hanif Cadbury was found dead in South Africa two days after the 1999 World Cup began). An Australian No. 3 called DeMojito. A "legendary West Indian fast bowler and destroyer of batsmen's reputations", Mikey Gilchrist (what odds that these are the names of the author's two favourite cricketers?) A bookie called Saleem Euro (a currency that came into common circulation after the 2000 match-fixing scandal). A Zimbabwean cricketer named Mugabe in a scorecard that prefixes a chapter, which should annoy many in Harare.
The Fix has editing lapses that call for knuckles to be rapped in the Pan Macmillan offices. The ways the varied pronunciations of international accents (West Indians saying "dere", Australians saying "myte", and Pakistanis shouting "What the hail") are spelled are both inconsistent and distract attention from the plot - which is about cricket, cricketers, sex, drugs, match-fixing, and the key lesson often found in underbelly stories: trust no one.
Crime has always lurked in cricket fiction. In Testkill by Ted Dexter and Clifford Makins, a bowler drops dead during an Ashes Test, and in Mike Marqusee's Slow Turn, an umpire is murdered in Madras with a stump through his head. Hamid takes the genre into page-turner territory. Given his professional background, a question the book leaves behind is this: Officer, how much of The Fix comes from real-life experience?
By Omar Shahid Hamid
252 pages, Rs 399