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Chanderpaul a Master of Disguise

25 November 2009.

Shivnarine Chanderpaul is the most astonishing batsmen around, and among the finest. From his first outing for the West Indies in Georgetown in 1994 to his forthcoming 389th appearance, at the Gabba, he has batted by his own lights and been effective and entertaining. Remove his wicket cheaply and the job is half-done. But he will not lend a hand.

Chanderpaul likes batting and knows his game inside out. He is, too, a survivor, not a bad quality in modern West Indian cricket. And with every passing year he seems to get better.

Usually he makes a nuisance of himself. Others may destroy; he picks an attack apart like a buzzard at a bone.

Shivnarine Chanderpaul

Shivnarine Chanderpaul in the outfield as Essex bat against Derbyshire at Queen’s Park, Chesterfield.
Photo ©: It’s No Game / Flickr.com

In every respect it has been an incredible journey. He bats like a puppet, every part of his body in motion, arms, wrists, legs, nothing static. He can look out of his depth, a man of rubber in a time of steel; a skinny fellow in an age of muscle.

Bowlers think they will get him out in a minute, and then the minutes turn into hours and sometimes days and still the modest man from the fishing village of Unity in Guyana continues to pull in his haul. In the end, everyone looks at the scoreboard and realises he has done it again.

Chanderpaul likes batting and is about five times as good as he appears. His chaos is but an illusion: everything is in its rightful place.

Chanderpaul hinted at the riches to come in that first Test match. To widespread surprise the selectors summoned the 21-year-old to try his luck against England. Although he had played for the West Indies’ under-19 side, the promotion seemed premature. He looked like a shrimp and a sympathetic crowd feared for him. It did not last long. Supporters relaxed as soon as he began stroking the ball around.

England has been trying to shift him ever since – he averages 50 against it, 48 against Australia, and 29 against Zimbabwe.

As it turned out, that opening innings was typical Chanderpaul. He pottered along in his compelling and yet unobtrusive way till he was dismissed for 62, with the job half-done. Dismissals in the 60s were to become a habit and a limitation in his early years. Simply put, he did not have the stamina needed to play long innings. Evidently fish are better for the brain than for the body.

Not until he became stronger could his full powers emerge. Even now he has scored 21 centuries compared to 52 half-centuries.

Intrigued by the youngster’s singularity, I visited his home on the rest day of that Guyana Test. To arrive in Unity was to encounter a small village built beside the sea and consisting of wooden houses sitting on stilts and a green used for numerous purposes, including grazing. To meet the family was to discover that cricket ran in the family. His father and both uncles played good club cricket and the youngster inherited their passion. “When he was in his mother’s belly, she bowled to me,” reported his father, whereupon Uncle Martin added, “when he was a boy, I soaked the bat in oil and he drank the oil.” The rest, it seems, was inevitable.

And so they pushed the boy along. Not that he needed any prompting.

Teachers tried in vain to make him attend to his books. Batting was his only preoccupation, and he went about it his own way. Aged eight he started practising in the community hall, which was not as posh as it sounds. His dad said that he had “started inside” because he “heard that [Rohan] Kanhai practised on concrete”. He told his son to “watch the footwork of [Alvin] Kallicharran” – English technique was too stiff.

It worked. Chanderpaul has scored 8576 Test runs at an average of 49.3.

At times he has resembled an immoveable object.

Everything has been tried to shift him. Australian bowlers contemplating a pace bombardment might be interested to hear that Chanderpaul snr also told his son that “if you are afraid of getting hit, stop playing the game”.

Chanderpaul has come a long way since that startling debut. Now he is a sophisticate with a family of his own, a house in Miami, a fine record and a county championship to his name. Depending on mood, he can bat in several styles. Dogged by instinct, he has nevertheless played some dazzling innings, not least a stirring hundred in 69 balls against the Australians in Georgetown, and a thrilling counter-attack in Sydney cut short by a Warne leg-break that turned extravagantly. Always, Chanderpaul comes to play. He’ll try his utmost to block Australia’s path.

This article was written for The Age.
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