West Indies Cricket May 16, 2012

The Brown Headley

From Bhisham Ojha, USA

From Bhisham Ojha, USA

In the 1920’s and 1930’s, West Indies cricket was in its infancy and the side was a hodgepodge of amateurs and weekend cricketers. This team was often bettered by the stronger English and Australian sides. During those forlorn decades, one world-class batsman emerged. He was the bulwark of a frail batting line-up and the team’s fortunes often rested on his shoulders, so much so that CB Fry dubbed him “Atlas”. That player was George Headley.

His amazing consistency and penchant for run making earned him another epithet, “The Black Bradman”. Fast forward eight decades, and another batsman, cast in the same indomitable mould has materialised and is drawing comparisons with this great player. He is Shivnarine Chanderpaul, sometimes called Tiger or simply Shiv. For his obdurate batting, resolute temperament and consistent run scoring, almost always in lost causes, he is deserving of another accolade – the Brown Headley.

This comparison is not inapt. Chanderpaul came on the scene as the sun was setting on the glorious Lloyd –Richards’ era. In the lean years that followed, as West Indies plummeted from their lofty perch to ignominious lows, the little Guyanese left-hander has grown in stature. Since the retirement of Brian Lara in 2006, he has become the linchpin of a brittle and mediocre batting side. From then to now, in series after series against all-comers Shiv has stood in Casabiancan splendour, quietly accumulating thousands of runs and frustrating bowlers from Lord’s to Lahore.

His latest display of Headleyesque run-making came in the just-concluded Test series against Australia. Chanderpaul’s aggregate in that series was a quarter of the team’s total. His value is starkly evident. In this present West Indies squad [the playing XI in the third Test in Roseau] there is only one other player with a career batting average above thirty and the rest of the team has a total of four Test hundreds. In the last six years (since Jan 2006), he has scored 11 centuries out of the 40 that West Indies have managed. Since 2007 he has tallied over 3,000 runs at a Headley-like average of 66. In the 2007 and 2008 calendar years he averaged over 100, joining Don Bradman as only other player to do so in consecutive years. That period was a purple patch for Chanderpaul .He was ranked the No. 1 Test batsman for seven months in 2008 -2009. He was a Wisden Cricketer for 2008. That same year, the ICC named him the player of the year. All of this was accomplished with an undercurrent of endemic administrative problems that has plagued the West Indies in recent times.

Despite these problems, Shiv has maintained his consistency and kept getting better and better. He has done this by putting a high price on his wicket. In these days of fast-paced cricket he has persisted with the old-fashioned method of occupying the crease, playing each ball on merit and building his innings one run at a time.

Too often when he is dismissed it has precipitated a ‘calypso collapse’. On other days, as he dug in, preparing to play a significant innings his team-mates have committed hara kiri, leaving him stranded. This has happened so often that he holds the West Indian Test record for most not-out innings [among West Indian batsmen, excluding all bowlers]. His doughtiness’ has rewarded him with another quirky record: In the 2002 series against India he lasted 1,513 minutes between dismissals.

Chanderpaul, however, on infrequent occasions, can deviate from the path of stolidity. One rare and startling exhibition of uncharacteristic audacity was against Australia in 2003. On his home turf of Bourda, in Georgetown he came to the wicket with West Indies in trouble at 47 for 4. Everyone expected Shiv to prod and push in a typical rearguard innings. Against all logic he shed his barnacle shell and blasted the flabbergasted Aussie attack for 15 fours and two sixes on his way to the third fastest Test hundred [at the time]. Another instance of his uncommon ebullience was in a 2008 ODI against Sri Lanka .With 10 runs needed off the last two deliveries, Shiv drove Chaminda Vaas down the ground for four and then lofted him over mid-wicket for the six needed for an unlikely victory.

He began his unheralded career on 19 March 1994 against England , when as a frail nineteen-year-old he walked out in the Bourda sunlight and took guard with the now trademark hammering of the bail into the crease. After several bouts of nerves he blossomed and Wisden Almanac noted that “Chanderpaul made a debut half-century of wristy elegance”. He notched twelve other half centuries in 18 matches before scoring his first hundred. He now has 25 tons, the third most for West Indians, behind Sobers (26) and Lara (34). Shiv’s career aggregate of 10,055 makes him the second-highest run getter for the West Indies. His fifty-nine Test fifties are ahead of other West Indians and only Allan Border, Jacques Kallis, Rahul Dravid, Ricky Ponting, and Sachin Tendulkar have scored more. His career average of 50.02 is greater than his illustrious predecessors: Kanhai, Lloyd, Greenidge, Worrell, Kallicharran and Hunte, and he is only a few decimal points away from topping Viv Richard’s.

Shiv seems an unlikely choice for inclusion into a pantheon of batting titans. But his durable class, the dedicated occupation of the crease and the sheer weight of runs made against all countries in all conditions often in solitary, perilous circumstances has placed him in hallowed company. He has quietly crossed into the realm of greatness and can now be unapologetically mentioned in the same breath as Lara, Richards, Sobers and Headley. And as he continues to strive in adversity, confounding both critics and captains, there is the tantalising prospect of years from now whenever a dream team, an all-time West Indies Test side is again chosen, Shivnarine Chanderpaul will take his rightful place in that immortal eleven

Akhila Ranganna is assistant editor (Audio) at ESPNcricinfo