When Chanders went bonkers
The engrossing 2011-12 Test season came to an end last week, as Australia sealed a 2-0 win in the West Indies. The series could have had a different result had West Indies not been undermined by IPL clashes, selectorial squabblings, and top-order batting with the solidity of a blancmange in a 1950s nuclear-weapons test. History will probably judge those three factors to have been interlinked.
Standing defiantly amidst the wreckage was Shivnarine Chanderpaul, the best batsman in the series by a significant margin, who became the tenth batsman to pass 10,000 Test runs, returned to the top of the Test batting rankings, and edged his career average back over 50. There may be few cricket lovers who drift off to sleep at night fondly reminiscing about the day they saw Chanderpaul stroke the ball effortlessly around the park, but he has been one of the most remarkable batsmen in an age of remarkable batsmen, a craftsman of infinite resource, capable of breaking out of his physics-defying stance with outbursts of truly sublime timing.
Chanderpaul will be remembered primarily as a dogged accumulator, but he was responsible for one of the most extraordinary innings ever played in Test cricket. On day one of the April 2003 Test against Australia in Guyana, he came to the wicket with West Indies wallowing in an especially sludgy mire at 47 for 4. Lara was soon dismissed at the other end to make it 53 for 5.
Chanderpaul, ever the man for a crisis, might have been expected to try to graft his team towards a moderate total. Instead, he plumped for an unexpected Plan B - he hammered a 69-ball century, batting as if someone had spiked his morning cornflakes with industrial-strength fireworks, and flaying the Australian bowling attack as if he had just discovered they had each eaten one of his beloved squad of pet terrapins, leaving behind only empty shells graffitied with the word "yum".
For a man with a career strike rate of 40, who less than a year before had ground his awkward way to 136 not out off 510 balls in an 11-hour megavigil against India, to slap what was then the third-fastest Test hundred of all time against the world's No. 1- ranked team has to go down as one of the most out-of-character innings in Test history. He has compiled some of the most remarkable individual series performances of recent times, but that one innings stands out on his CV like a freshly powerdrilled thumb.
At the other end of the "What on Earth Got Into Him?" scale of out-of-character batsmanship is Aravinda de Silva's epically unproductive performance against Zimbabwe in Bulawayo in October 1994. He followed a 14-ball first-innings duck with a staggeringly negative 27 off 191 balls ‒ the second-slowest recorded innings of 25 or more in Test history ‒ as Sri Lanka ground their way to a draw on the fifth day. It must have felt like watching Michelangelo paint a chapel ceiling in an especially featureless shade of beige.
Only Jack Russell's unbeaten 29 off 235 in Johannesburg in 1995-96 ‒ the Robin of Resistance to Atherton's Batman of Block ‒ has ever out-turgided de Silva's innings, and that was an innings that was certifiably in-character, a magnum slow-pus by one of cricket's most infuriating batsmen.
De Silva, on the other hand, was a cavalier and magician, one of the most bewitching batsmen of his era, capable of destroying the best attacks while under the utmost pressure, in a flurry of untouchable strokeplay. In Bulawayo, the cavalier became a roundhead, and the magician downed his magic wand, gave his rabbits the day off from appearing out of his top hat, and did his accounts.
Furthermore, he was up against a bowling attack none of whom had taken more than 16 Test wickets. And three of whom (Jarvis, Rennie and Peall) were so traumatised by the ordeal of bowling to him that they played a combined total of two more Test matches and took a collective one further Test wicket in the rest of their careers.
Behind de Silva on that list of epic grinds are some of the all-time legends of strokeless negativity ‒ Chris Tavaré (35 off 240), Trevor Bailey (68 off 427), Trevor Franklin (28 off 175), and the renowned snooze-inducing West Indian stodgemeister, Chris Gayle.
Hang on, is that the same Chris Gayle widely regarded as the best Twenty20 batsman in the loud history of the format? The Chris Gayle who hit a 70-ball Test hundred? Who flambéed 117 off 57 balls to register the first-ever century in a T20 international? Against South Africa? Who is third on the all-time list of Most-Sixes-Clonked In International Cricket? Who is one of only two players to have twice hit seven or more sixes in a Test innings (the other being Chris Cairns)? Who in his last two IPL matches has chunk-hammered 86 off 58 and 71 off 42, hitting one in every ten balls over the ropes and endangering innocent passers-by in the streets of Bangalore with his leviathan power? The Chris Gayle who can make bowlers inwardly beg for their mummies with one muscular flick of the shoulder? Yes. That Chris Gayle. That very same Chris Gayle.
In April 2001, early in his Test career, at the end of a testing series against South Africa, as West Indies battled towards a consolation fifth-Test victory against the potent Protean pacemen, Gayle anti-bludgeoned his way to a sub-Boycottian 32 off 180 balls. It remains the slowest Test innings of 25 or more ever played by a West Indian. If he batted at the same rate in the IPL, he would carry his bat for 11 not out.
Gayle did not find Test cricket an easy game in his early years. In his first 20 Tests he averaged under 30, and it was only in his 37th Test that his strike rate rose above 50. If he found Test cricket difficult then, however, now, he finds it impossible. Albeit for off-the-field reasons. Which is deeply regrettable. In what seem likely to prove his final 18 Tests, between December 2008 and December 2010, Gayle averaged 58, and hit 36 sixes.
Would England rather be bowling at Adrian Barath and Kieran Powell when the first Test begins at Lord's in two weeks' time? Was Don Bradman good at batting? And would world cricket rather be watching England bowl at Gayle? Ditto.
● Strap in for some curious stats. Since Brian Lara retired from Tests at the end of 2006, Chanderpaul has averaged 66 in Tests - the highest average of any Test batsman over that period. In the matches he played with Lara, Chanderpaul averaged 43. Was he cowed by Lara's presence?
Lara, in Tests when he played alongside Chanderpaul, averaged 47. In all the Tests he played without Chanderpaul in the team, Lara averaged 62. Was he cowed by Chanderpaul's presence? Maybe each was inspired by the extra responsibility of not being able to rely on the other. Maybe it is just coincidence. Maybe not.
Conclusion: West Indies should have played and dropped Lara and Chanderpaul in alternate Tests throughout their careers. Leaving out one of their two best players every match might not have been especially popular with the supporters, or with Lara or Chanderpaul, but you cannot argue with statistics. In any case, West Indian cricket has recently shown a relentless determination not to pick its strongest team anyway, so it might as well have done so from the mid-1990s.
Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on the BBC Radio 4, and a writer