February 1, 2016

Chanderpaul's greatness goes beyond numbers

His unconventional, underappreciated technique helped him dominate and suppress the best bowling attacks through his career

His front-on stance helped him achieve balance, maintain a still head, and enabled him to watch the ball at all times © Gallo Images

Shivnarine Chanderpaul made his Test debut in a team that had not lost a Test series for 14 years. Its bowling attack was the envy of the cricket world and its batsmen were experienced, seasoned professionals. The XI for the second Test of the 1993-94 Wisden Trophy included Desmond Haynes, Richie Richardson, Jimmy Adams, Brian Lara, Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh. Back then a tour to the West Indies was tougher than one to Australia and England.

In the 21st century, West Indies have won one and lost 45 of their 62 away Tests, and won only four out of 20 home series against Test opponents other than Bangladesh and Zimbabwe. Chanderpaul made 9185 Test runs at 55.7 in this period. Only Jacques Kallis and Kumar Sangakkara have done better. In the history of West Indies cricket, only Brian Lara made more runs. The West Indies top seven, including Chanderpaul, made 25,351 runs at an average of 32 in away Tests (excluding those in Bangladesh and Zimbabwe) from the start of 2001. Excluding the runs contributed by Chanderpaul and Lara, who averaged 48 and 60 respectively, the rest of the top seven contributed 19,231 runs at 28.5! This means that the other five or six spots in the West Indies top order in these Tests have been occupied on average by a specialist Test batsman who averaged 28.5.

Lara's is a recurring presence in Chanderpaul's story. In Chanderpaul's debut Test, Lara made an imperious 167 in less than five hours; Chanderpaul made a relatively cautious 62. In Antigua later in that series, Chanderpaul was at the other end when Lara went past Garfield Sobers' world record for the highest Test score. While Lara was in the West Indies side, Chanderpaul lived in his shadow, much like Rahul Dravid lived in Sachin Tendulkar's. What turned out to be Lara's final Test, in November 2006 against Pakistan in Karachi, was Chanderpaul's 101st Test match. West Indies lost, Lara was dismissed for 49 in his final Test innings, and Chanderpaul played two fighting hands of 36 and 69 out of West Indian totals of 260 and 244.

At the start of his career, Chanderpaul had a problem converting starts into centuries. His first 50 Tests produced two centuries and 23 half-centuries. He would go on to make 30 Test hundreds and average at least 40 against all Test opponents, with the exception of, oddly enough, Zimbabwe. Only Graeme Smith and Michael Clarke made more Test runs as visiting batsmen in England in the 21st century, and Clarke played nearly twice as many Tests as Chanderpaul. Lara wasn't at his best against India, but Chanderpaul relished their bowling, scoring seven hundreds and driving Indian fans to distraction.

Chanderpaul's numbers speak for themselves. He was as prolific as Lara in Tests at home and his record of 19 Test hundreds in the West Indies may never be beaten.

A player's greatness does not merely rest on the sheer weight of his record. It also depends on other things. It has become something of a truism in cricket that Chanderpaul's methods were out of the ordinary. Some call them "quirky". Others describe his batting as "crab-like". Dravid scored at about the same rate as Chanderpaul, but he would never be described as "crab-like". Javed Miandad and Kevin Pietersen had unusual batting stances, but these would never be described as "quirky". Alastair Cook uses a massive shuffle across his stumps, but this is not considered weird. Chanderpaul's many experiments with method were viewed, for the most part, as exotic anomalies. When Graham Gooch chose a stance that involved him standing upright with the toe of his bat raised up to the level of his shoulder, the rationale behind this was repeatedly explained by observers: Gooch was doing it to save the time required to pick the bat up as the ball is delivered. This meant that he could keep his head still and had some extra time to bring the bat down to meet the ball.

Chanderpaul was as prolific as Lara in home Tests © AFP

Chanderpaul's front-on stance made him one of the great sights in world cricket. The remarkable thing about it was that even though it was wrong according to all conventional lessons, by the time the ball reached him, Chanderpaul was always in the perfect position to play it.

He always knew exactly where his off stump was, and his ability to time the ball was perhaps unrivalled in the age of massive bats and the power game. Touch, timing, control, Chanderpaul had it all. He was a magnificent strokemaker off both front and back feet, with vertical bat and horizontal, against pace and spin alike. And it all came from a two-eyed, front-on stance, which he first adopted as a young boy in Guyana. As he has explained many times over the years, the point was to achieve balance, a still head, and to watch the ball at all times.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that Chanderpaul's successful demonstration of the two-eyed, front-on batting stance (in its moderate early form, and its more drastic, later form), far from being a quirky anachronism, has been the greatest technical advancement in cricket so far in the 21st century, on par with the development of the googly in the first decade of the 20th.

His trigger movement made the stance successful. When he met the ball, Chanderpaul was always perfectly side-on. He rarely got turned inside-out, either by pace or spin, and invariably had time to spare when he met the ball. These are marks of great class in a batsman. That he achieved all this using a novel method must be a factor that adds to his greatness. Chanderpaul wasn't a great player despite his methods but because of them.

Unfortunately, we are prone to regarding lesser variations, like the Dilscoop or the switch hit, far more readily as innovations. These fit more readily in highlights reels. But perhaps they belong alongside Rohan Kanhai's famous falling sweep as the quirks of supremely gifted individuals, rather than methodical meditations on the art of batting. Chanderpaul's contribution was undoubtedly among the latter.

As stunning as his longevity and run-scoring were, they do not complete the description of his achievements. His record must be seen in the context of the larger story of West Indian decline. After Lara retired, there were worries that West Indies would be dismantled, especially away from home, where the frailties in their batting would be exposed more cruelly than in more familiar conditions in the Caribbean. As it turned out, West Indies lost, and lost badly, but not before Chanderpaul had his say: 2087 runs in 27 away Tests (excluding visits to Bangladesh, on which too he was prolific). The constant battles between the players' association and the WICB seemed to have little effect on his scores. His wicket came dearly - once every 123 deliveries.

The Guyanese have contributed some magnificent players to cricket. Rohan Kanhai, Clive Lloyd, Alvin Kallicharran and Lance Gibbs will rank among the all-time greats of the game. Shivnarine Chanderpaul is perhaps the greatest of them all.

Kartikeya Date writes at A Cricketing View and tweets here

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