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By Suresh Menon
For a man who nearly made two centuries in the Lord's Test, the debate over Shiv Chanderpaul does not concern his dominance over the bowlers or even his undoubted superiority over everyone else in the batting line-up. It has revolved around his alleged selfishness, his ugly style of batsmanship and his refusal to bat at number three in an inexperienced top order.
What manner of man is this who can bat for ten hours in a Test match, and be criticized for his efforts? In England – where he has had only one poor series in four – the 37-year-old evokes pity. Pity for being part of a team that can do no right; pity for his inability to bat the West Indian way, all flair and flamboyance; pity for his crab-like technique that somehow still gives him a Test average of 50-plus over 141 Tests.
Brian Lara evoked poetry, Chanderpaul merely a limerick with lines that do not rhyme. Yet he is the No 1 batsman in the world today.
He carries on, ignoring both the comparison with the great George Headley for carrying the entire batting on his shoulders and the crack about his expecting the bowler to charge in from behind the square leg umpire whom he faces in his stance. Chanderpaul has eliminated front foot play, yet showed in his stints at T20 that he is capable of hitting into the crowds with the best of them.
The accusation of selfishness fails to take into account the fact that in the West Indies line-up, he needs to be preserved and kept at the crease for as long as possible. And if he has to do much of the preserving himself, that is par for the course. He is the load-bearing pillar; take him away and the structure collapses, as it has done so many times in the recent past. And after a while, self-preservation (which, remember is in the team's interest) becomes an important part of the player. Selfishness is not only recommended, it is necessary.
Towards the end of his career, the great Lara seemed to be batting on a plane quite different from that of his teammates, in one memorable series in Sri Lanka making 42 percent of his team's runs. Yet he was never accused of selfishness. Perhaps because he made the runs with authority and panache. It was thrilling to watch, which is at the other end of the spectrum from Chanderpaul's approach which is based on patience and wearing down the bowler and spectator alike.
Yet, if years from now if all media and eyewitness descriptions of matches were lost and only the score cards remained, would it matter if one batsman was pleasing to the eye while the other was not? Great sportsmen are not obliged to be visually pleasing; such a gift is a bonus. Would you rather have a Christian Ronaldo score a pedestrian goal or weave his way past half a dozen players and shoot wide? A lot can be told about a person from his answer to that question.
What we need to admire is the kind of thought that has gone into the making of a batsman like Chanderpaul. In his early years, the Guyanese player did attempt to imitate Lara (or at least the Lara type of batsmanship), but realised soon enough that he lacked the equipment. Where many like him might have given up the game in frustration in acknowledgement of the fact that they could never become another Lara, Chanderpaul kept at it. He worked out a system that worked for him. The essence of the game, as a batsman, is to keep bowling at bay and to score runs, both of which he does with extraordinary consistency.
The Laras of the world might attract more youngsters to the game, but it is the Chanderpauls who ensure that they keep at it. The promise of the journeyman's effectiveness has more allure than fantasy about the great.