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By Suresh Menon
At the Philadelphia Cricket Festival last year, there was – amazingly – a batsman who played like Shivnaraine Chanderpaul. The same ‘crabby’ stance, the same authority on the off side, the same mixture of obdurate defence and flashy hitting. Even more amazingly, it turned out to be Chanderpaul himself.
Later, when Chanderpaul returned to the pavilion unbeaten (batsmen had to retire when they had reached 40), someone asked him: “You play cricket professionally, and off season, for fun, you play cricket as a hobby?” Chanderpaul merely smiled. He wasn’t about to deviate from the habit of a lifetime by either arguing with the spectator or defending himself, however jocularly. There was a job to be done, he had done it and that was that.
In an age when the focus has been on the flashy player, the big hitter, the PR-soaked personality, Chanderpaul has been the exception to the rule: quiet, almost diffident, self-contained, and doing what he does best day in and day out like an old-fashioned professional. The game’s the thing, the performances are what matter to him. The rest is mere distraction.
He made just 47 in his team’s win over New Zealand in the Trinidad Test – now every West Indies win is characterized as a “rare” win – and among the top performers for his country, Chanderpaul has been involved in the least number of victories. Just 36 in 155 Tests, of which the West Indies lost 73. Compare that with Viv Richards’s 63 wins and 19 losses. Two decades ago, when Chanderpaul made his debut, it coincided with the decline in the fortunes of a once-great cricket team.
With little support around him, Chanderpaul focused on his own game, ensuring that he batted on and on, averaging over 52 and making over eleven thousand runs as teammates and captains and pundits and plans came and went. There is something about the boy on the burning deck about Chanderpaul; he usually hangs around long after everyone else has departed. This obsession has ensured that he has remained unbeaten more often than any top level batsman. Chris Gayle may be the greater crowd pleaser and possessor of a wider range of strokes, but Chanderpaul is the more consistent, especially after he gave up captaincy which he felt was interfering with his batting. He has averaged over 70 per innings since 2007, and along the way has exorcised the devil that caused him to be known as the hypochondriac of the team.
In August this year, Chanderpaul turns 40; there is little chance of his threatening the aggregate records of Ponting, Kallis or Tendulkar, but if he plays a bit longer he might finish as the highest run scorer for the West Indies. Brian Lara, current holder of the record is fewer than 600 runs ahead. The question mark is not over Chanderpaul’s fitness or indeed appetite for big cricket; it hangs over the number of Test matches West Indies are likely to play in the short term. Especially after the Big Three – India, England and Australia – have finished carving the cake up among themselves.
Lara’s record apart, there is another motivation – the possibility of playing Test cricket alongside his son Tagenarine, 19, winner of the award as the best Under-19 player in the West Indies. In a club game, the Chanderpauls, father and son, once put on 246 runs. In another couple of years, it is possible that junior might progress well enough to play for the country. And patience is what his father has plenty of, as the third most successful Test batsman currently playing.
Patience, and a technique that begins with his toes pointing down the wicket in stance, but quickly becomes textbook as the ball is met with a straight bat and under his nose (as coaches like to say). He cuts with authority anything served up for the shot and drives with a fluidity that his stance does not suggest he is capable of. It is his method, and it has worked for him, which is the important thing.
As he approaches 40 (and here there is no rule that you have to retire then, unlike in the Philadelphia tournament), he continues to bat as long in the nets – three hours sometimes – as others bat in the middle. He is in that wonderful stage of his career where there is nothing to prove. Yet, complacency was never a part of the make-up of this son of a fisherman. He has done it his way; not many sportsmen can claim that.