May 4, 2012

Strokes in Plain Prose: Shivanarine Chanderpaul

Popularity and wisdom in cricket are not necessarily contradiction in terms. And Shivanarine Chanderpaul has seldom received rousing support from either. Among the Guyana left-hander's more watchable strokes, his straight push and leg glance evoke tolerant acceptance rather than awe; his defence is solid, but you would be told "Chanderpaul solid", a slight unkindness implicit in the accent, by the game's geeks. The West Indian has not only defied textbooks, like he has bowlers, throughout his career but he has also irritated them beyond measure. For a game that celebrates its southpaws for style, Chanderpaul seems the very antithesis of the term unless it is redefined; so much so that I know some who will pay not to watch Chanderpaul bat, or watch Graeme Smith instead. Chanderpaul's batting has not the voice of Gower's fabled stroke play on the off-side, or a Brian Charles Lara's sense of occasion. But he has always had steel -  tons of it seems -, and now has ten thousand Test runs. That Steve Waugh, Lara, Ponting, Tendulkar, Dravid, Kallis and Jayawardene have made the landmark a bit of a parade target misses the point. 10000  runs in the game's long format remains a significant milestone for anyone. For someone who has been defined by what he does not have rather than what he does all his life it is just something else. Ask Anil Kumble.

My first memory of Chanderpaul is from the 1996 series between India and West Indies, a rare five-Test rubber - if ever there was one - in which cricket would have died (to borrow an expression from Andy Zaltzman) had it not been for the second innings brilliance from Curtley Ambrose & Company on a farmland of a pitch at Kensington Oval, Barbados. In the first innings of that Test  Chanderpaul ground himself, the bowlers, the elements and everything else, with the stubbornness of a habit and the stickiness of guilt, en route to a debut hundred which would turn out match- and series-winning. Forward a decade and half, he was again the scrapper-in-charge against an Indian team that wanted more than the 1-0 win at home they eventually secured after the drubbing at the hands of England, though Darren Bravo's Lara-invoking stroke play and aggregate runs grabbed the headlines. Over the years the one thing that has remained constant about Chanderpaul besides his clean-shaven boyish visage is the impossible willingness - or willfulness - to survive, scrap, switch off, leave, take a single, scrap, start again and survive until hell, or at least the expression of the opposition bowlers, freezes over. It was ironic, but sadly befitting, that Chanderpaul's 10000th Test run came against a resurgent Australian team in a cause that might have been won but was all too easily lost in moments of mindless batting by the other batsmen in the top order.

For all his mind-numbing staidness at the crease, however, Chanderpaul has been more just than a shield: to call him a resolute stone-waller, therefore, is to do him considerable injustice. As Rob Steen eloquently reminds us, the left-hander once tonked a jolly good 100 off 69 balls against an Australian attack that had Brett Lee, Jason Gillespie and Stuart McGill after Lara's fall which left West Indies 53-5. Nor has Chanderpaul been anything less than good in one-day cricket as evidenced by his 41+ average in the format. Twelve years ago on a January day, he even topped 150 against South Africa in East London in a game that West Indies won despite Shaun Pollock's six-for. Be that as it may, it seems Chanderpaul will eventually be judged as an anchor without whom the West Indian batting might have capsized even more frequently than they have since Lara's retirement. It is probably fair as well because Chanderpaul is cast in the mould of a leader of cussed but considerate footmen rather than a follower of flamboyant cavaliers.

The decade that has gone by has seen changes in the way cricket is played, run and administered. Players who have been part of the game have also redefined it in crucial ways. Adam Gilchrist was at once the prototype and the epitome of a wicketkeeping all-rounder while Virendra Sehwag has ensured that "give the first two hours to the bowlers" is an age-old platitude on opening batting meant for conservative souls. (Geoffrey Boycott might balk at that and M.S. Dhoni could issue a rejoinder that unsurprisingly starts with Yes, of course). By and by, Chanderpaul has taken the road less travelled and forced at least some of us to rethink the significance of terms  such as "technique" and "stance" by paring batting down to its fundamentals: not getting out, and making runs. He has shown how will-wielders can be unique. He has shown that cricket does not care even if fans and pundits might. Above all else, he has shown that one's longevity at the top is determined as much through resilience as through talents.

Along the way I hope Chanderpaul has inspired other sportsmen to stick to what works for them even if succumbing to the fancy stuff due to peer pressure is the easiest thing to do. After all, efficiency is at the heart of all performance. Elegance, by whichever name you call it, is but a make-over, the icing that makes a cake look, not necessarily taste, better. So while oozing cover drives, ingenious switch hits and powerful helicopter - and aeroplane - strokes steal the show, Shivnarine Chanderpaul reminds us that a jabbed 30 that saves or wins a game is valuable in its own terms. (He has also on one occasion hit a six of the last ball to win a One-day game. Against Sri Lanka. Which would delight my friend and fellow author on this space: The Venk. Here's proof).  

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