11 June 2008.
Shivnarine Chanderpaul is a self-made man and player, shaped by circumstances and will, his technique not so much odd as original.
Shivnarine Chanderpaul provides a notable counterpoint to the contemporary game. At once he is inimitable and timeless – no more a product of his period than a kitchen clock, and yet not a creature of the past either, for he has scored runs yesterday and today and will score runs tomorrow. Just that he goes about it in his own sweet and deceptively frail way, relying on deflections and glides, hands as opposed to forearms, a wand as opposed to a tree trunk, persuasion and perseverance as opposed to power. He is a rubber man put among concrete pillars. In short, he is a reminder that, even now, cricket has many faces and talent can take many forms.
It has taken a boy from a distant fishing village to remind us that sporting technique cannot be pinned in a book like a dead butterfly or refined into a mathematical formula. Chanderpaul’s career shows that an ambitious sportsman can defy the straitjacket of conventional thought and even scientific analysis and still make his way in the game. Except that “defy” is the wrong word because the left-hander has no defiance in him, is too modest and uncertain to confront anything beyond his own circumstances.
Nevertheless, from the outset he has been extraordinarily bold. At the very least he has ignored accepted wisdom, dared to walk into the world from a remote outpost as his own player and his own man. Perhaps it was that he knew no other way, or perhaps it is that he knew more than he let on. In any event he has demonstrated that a player blessed with ability and determination, and prepared to follow his own instincts, can develop his own game and take it with him on the long journey. It is the half-baked who fall short.
Typically, he has crept up the batting rankings till, almost unnoticed, he has reached fifth place, the highest perch attained in an impressive, occasionally interrupted career. Nor is he far adrift from the top position. Of course, his inspired performances against the Australians in the last few weeks, and especially his match-saving innings in Antigua, lie behind his recent climb, but the deft 33-year-old has been in full flow all year. Altogether he has played eight Tests in the last 12 months, and has collected 1,635 runs in the three formats at an average of 86.05. Along the way he has added six centuries to his tally. Nor has he punished mugs. Besides the Australians, these runs have been scored against England and South Africa in their own backyards. It is a mighty achievement.
Of course it is the finest patch in a startling and sometimes stirring career, but Chanderpaul is hardly an overnight sensation. To the contrary, he has been an outstanding batsman for a decade. His rise is not remotely fortuitous or even unexpected. Simply, it has been an exposition of proven technique and resolute temperament. Chanderpaul has been scoring lots of runs for years, most of them in the face of the adversity that has long gripped West Indian cricket. Indeed, he has displayed laudable immunity to the forces of distraction, destruction and downright incompetence that have often swirled around him. Always he has moved along at his own pace in his own way. At times he has been a tortoise, on other occasions a hare, but always he has been staunch and skilful. His entire career tells of durability.
By no means is Chanderpaul’s rise a surprise. His position reflects the work of a singular batsman with a calculating mind and a strong insight into the requirements of batsmanship. Productivity has been his aim, intuition his guide. His game is more organised than it seems.
At the crease he resembles a puppet guided by an unseen hand, constantly moving, apparently at random, yet every part of the body knows its role and its location, and almost always he ends up in the right place at the right time, whereupon he essays the shot of his choosing. Chanderpaul’s technique is not so much odd as original. But then it is the product of his wits and not an outsider’s words. It is not so much that he turned his back on orthodoxy. The introduction was never made.
In any case, even by the most rigid standards the boy from the fishing village does an awful lot right. Most particularly, he watches the ball as does a mother hen her brood. Late movement might trap the unwary but the left-hander is not so easily foxed. He knows the trickery of the world and the cunning of bowlers and the blindness of umpires, and takes no risks save those of his own choosing. He is also an extremely disciplined batsman, not prone to flights of fancy or premeditation or the other follies of the mind. He does not indulge himself in wayward thoughts or headstrong outbursts. Rather, he goes quietly about his business, trusting no one except himself, giving the game its due, always aware of the cost of carelessness.
Accordingly it is a mistake to dismiss him as a curiosity, a batting version of Muttiah Muralitharan or John Gleeson. Apart from anything else, batsmen must obey certain rules, must meet certain challenges. Bowlers have the luxury of pleasing themselves. It is not possible for a seriously flawed batsman to sustain high-class performances in the best company. Sooner or later the weakness is exposed and the novice sent packing. Rather than patronising an unusual batsman with gasps and sighs, it is wiser to seek a better understanding of his game. Fragility can be in the eye of the beholder. Viv Richards’ leg-flick was possible because he straightened his front leg at the time of impact, allowing his bat to stroke the ball. The shot was much less daring that it seemed, though just as intimidating. Likewise Virender Sehwag’s game is built on solid foundations. His defence is excellent; it is his optimistic shots that periodically bring him down.
It’s the same with Chanderpaul. He is an excellent batsman and always has been. Otherwise he could not have lasted as long or produced as consistently. His technique was honed in a geographic – but not cricketing – backwater. Admittedly Unity Village did not have advanced facilities or proven coaches, let alone dieticians, psychologists or sponsors. But it did have plenty of fishing nets, tidal waters and willing assistants. Chanderpaul persuaded fellow villagers to hurl taped tennis balls into the dying waves of the nearby sea and practised swaying and weaving, and eventually hooking, the fastest bumpers. Finding the ball flying at his head the lad learnt to react quickly and choose wisely. Otherwise he spent long hours batting on a rough and ready pitch prepared on the village green, a location not nearly as dainty as it sounds. Villagers took turns to bowl at the ankle-biter, and spare fishing nets stopped them having to fetch the ball. Chanderpaul also went into the local hall to practise his shots on concrete. The family had heard that Rohan Kanhai had practised this way, and he was a more relevant guide than any stiff Englishman with a high left elbow and plonking feet. Accordingly Chanderpaul developed a fertile, reliable and well-understood technique. Maybe it is better to build a game this way than against a bowling machine.
And so the boy emerged and became a man. But it goes further. Chanderpaul is not merely as good as his figures indicate. He is better. As much can be told from the stunning, thrilling attacks that he occasionally launches, often against the Australians. An exhilarating onslaught in Sydney was ended by a delivery from Shane Warne that landed in the next parish before hitting his leg stump. And there was another exuberance against the same opponents in Guyana where, with his team against the ropes, he unleashed an astonishing counterattack, scoring one of the fastest hundreds Test cricket has known. The Australians were amazed. They had always regarded him as a batsman hard to dislodge. Now they were startled to find that he could also take them apart when the mercurial mood was upon him and the circumstances permitted it.
As much as the excellently constructed scores against strong attacks on dubious surfaces, it is these innings that are the mark of the man. Certainly they have been too few and far between to allow him to be put alongside the greatest batsmen of the age but they have hinted at the extent of his powers. To some degree Chanderpaul has been restrained by the forces that made him. Although he has scored consistently, he has few big tallies to his name. Close observers suggest that a skinny boy raised on fish as opposed to meat lacked the strength required to bat for days. Had Chanderpaul been able to turn a few of the centuries into doubles or trebles, his record would be even more formidable. Mind you, Sachin Tendulkar and Steve Waugh also produced few massive totals and no chicken was safe when they were around.
Insecurity has been Chanderpaul’s other limitation. It cannot have been easy for a boy of Indian origin, from a remote village in a struggling and latterly unfashionable country, to make his way in West Indian cricket. From the start he knew he had to score more runs than anyone else just to get noticed. To that end he put his head down, and kept it down. His fears have taken another form as well, making him especially sensitive to the sort of niggles and soreness and other frustrations that a man more confident of his destiny would sweep aside. Over the years he has missed more matches or innings than seems entirely appropriate. Doubt plays tricks with the mind. Blessed with more stamina and certainty, Chanderpaul might have surpassed all contemporaries. But no one is perfect, all must struggle in one way or another, or else sport loses its challenge and its charm.
Nonetheless Chanderpaul has made a magnificent contribution. If not always the most pleasing, he has been the most satisfying West Indian batsman to watch in recent years. It has been a human journey, flawed and fascinating, and along the way he has earned the respect that he craves and deserves. Although lacking the force of personality needed to hold the team together, he has often prevented the batting from falling apart. Perhaps the bad times were his making. After all fishermen, like farmers, are a resilient lot. Certainly they do not expect more from life than it is prepared to offer.