Shivnarine Chanderpaul January 2, 2008

A different stripe

Crab-like and inelegant he may be, but it is his gritty determination and stomach for a fight that are more worth remarking on. "Tiger" Chanderpaul is a man driven by the simple mantra of just doing the best he can

The 'business of batting, batting and more batting' © AFP

On the face of it, the nickname just doesn't seem to fit. Shivnarine Chanderpaul The Tiger? Rampaging, mauling, utterly destructive? No man. It's got to be someone else. Not that dour nudger and deflecter with the crab-like shuffle across the stumps. Chanderpaul The Crustacean maybe, for surely those big cats would be deeply offended to be associated with someone who apparently lacks their feline grace, blood-curdling snarl and the ability to pounce like lightning and rip an unsuspecting victim to shreds.

Then again, maybe it's not so far-fetched, for in the same manner that stealth and determination are primary attributes of the tiger, so has the durable Guyanese left-hander emerged in his own understated manner as one of the most prolific and reliable batsmen in the midst of the darkest era in the long, proud history of West Indies cricket.

Brought up in an environment that cherishes a legacy of larger-than-life batting champions from George Headley to Brian Lara, Chanderpaul inevitably suffers in comparison with those legends. Not that he isn't capable of lifting the tempo when required, but even when he does, it lacks the panache, the flair and the almost regal arrogance associated with the maestros of yesterday, whose flashing blades typified the marriage of joyful exuberance and technical excellence that is celebrated as definitively West Indian.

As the first cricketer of East Indian descent to play over 100 Tests for the Caribbean side, he has been content to ply his trade in the shadows of the incomparable Brian Lara - and anyone else who happens to come along and shine brightly for a brief period before the indiscipline and inconsistency that have dogged the former kings of the game poison the latest pretender to the throne of batsman supreme.

Indeed, it is only since Lara's surprise retirement at the 2007 World Cup that Chanderpaul's value has become blindingly apparent. A tally of 446 runs at an average of 148.66 just two months later in England placed him in a different stratosphere from his struggling team-mates. And even when they all finally got it together as a team to produce a stunning series-opening victory at the end of year over South Africa in Port Elizabeth, the 33-year-old former captain remained a cut above the rest, with his 17th Test hundred anchoring the side to what proved a match-winning first-innings total.

He may not look the part, but this is one case where statistics don't lie: 7294 Test runs (average 46.75) and 7141 one-day international runs (average 39.67) to the end of 2007 are not figures to be taken lightly. But they only tell part of the story. It is Chanderpaul's single-minded determination to excel as a batsman for West Indies from a very young age that offers a greater understanding of just why he carries a nickname that seems so much at variance with his personality on and off the field.

Born in Guyana, Chanderpaul is the product of a society defined by economic hardships and racial divisions fuelled by inflammatory politics. In such a society, every opportunity for advancement is not only grasped with both hands but guarded with a jealousy that borders on selfishness. For a land of such bountiful natural resources and enormous economic potential, the harsh realities of everyday life have meant that those with the means to do so invariably take flight.

His comparative silence in the dressing room or limited, faltering comments in front of the microphones should not be mistaken for a lack of conviction - far from it. As one of his fellow countrymen, Clive Lloyd, publicly commented during his term as manager on the 1996-97 tour of Australia, Chanderpaul will stand his ground in any situation when he has to
Three former West Indies captains, Rohan Kanhai, Clive Lloyd and Alvin Kallicharran, are among the most notable of Guyanese natives who have made their homes in the United Kingdom, while another from that South American nation to have led the regional side more recently, Carl Hooper, now lives in Australia. In essence, the theme for most Guyanese seems to be to work hard, make good and get out.

It is difficult to see how such imperatives would not have had a deep influence on Chanderpaul's approach to his cricketing career. Just as talented boys on the other side of the country's southern border with Brazil see football as their ticket out of humble circumstances, the skinny little youngster from Unity Village on the east coast of Demerara River was obsessed with cricket not just for the aesthetic delights of batsmanship, but as an avenue to fame, fortune and a better life for himself and his family.

While others with much more natural talent from the relatively affluent tourist havens of the Caribbean squandered their many opportunities at making it on the big stage, Chanderpaul's credo has been pretty much the same as when he first strode out at Bourda for his Test debut as a 19-year-old against England in 1994. It is not for him to play with the extravagance of a millionaire, even though he can obviously afford to live the good life now as he heads into his 14th year as an international cricketer. His wicket is still to be guarded jealously. Runs are still runs, whether acquired by flair or graft. And even as the senior man by some distance in the West Indies squad, he is still prepared to do whatever is necessary for the cause of the team and his own pivotal role in it.

On the basis of his vast experience and status as a former captain, it would probably be expected that he should demand every now and then to have his own way. Yet he has returned in the last year to opening the batting in ODIs, not so much because it his favoured position but because it is in the best interests of the West Indies. In his own way he is very much a team man without being the loud-mouthed, cheerleading type that seems so much in vogue in this modern, media-driven era. But his comparative silence in the dressing room or limited, faltering comments in front of the microphones should not be mistaken for a lack of conviction - far from it. As one of his fellow countrymen, Lloyd, publicly commented during his term as manager on the 1996-97 tour of Australia, Chanderpaul will stand his ground in any situation when he has to.

I alone: Chanderpaul has made an art form of playing the solo hand, especially over the last two years © Getty Images

That fierce determination and willingness to take on any challenge was very much in evidence on that arduous campaign, where the 22-year-old relative newcomer took on the responsibility of the No. 3 spot in the batting order from a struggling Lara. It was also during that series that he launched a scintillating assault on Shane Warne on the final morning of the Sydney Test, racing to 71 before being undone by a sensational ripper that the legspinner has since often described as one of the best deliveries he has ever bowled in his outstanding career. It was therefore ironic that the same batsman had been ignored for the entire home series against the same Australians in 1995, partially on the premise that he would have been unable to cope with the wiles of Warne. It was not the first time, and certainly not the last, that he has been underestimated.

Chanderpaul doesn't fit into the standard mould of the modern cricketing superstar and has suffered for it. When all the popular, chatty, fashionably attired pretty boys were selected for the ill-fated ICC Super Series two years ago, no serious protestations were raised about the omission of the crab-like left-hander, who just happened to have one of the best Test averages of the previous 12 months.

But that will always be his lot, because he isn't bothered by it enough to attempt to reinvent himself for the sake of being more marketable. Whether or not anyone cares to notice, his is the business of batting, batting and more batting. From living in the considerable shadow of Lara for more than a decade (he will forever be associated with Lara after having partnered him to his first world record-breaking Test innings of 375 in Antigua in 1994) to carrying the frail West Indies batting on his shoulders in the last English summer, Chanderpaul is driven by the simple mantra of just doing the best he can, whatever the circumstances.

He knows the game, as someone who has played at the highest level for as long as he has should, but is not comfortable as a leader, as his brief tenure as West Indies captain confirmed. That painful experience in 2005-06 showed that while he may be able to adapt to any challenge in the middle - his generally phlegmatic style is belied by a 71-ball Test hundred against Australia at Bourda in 2003, among other examples of quick scoring - the burden of such overall responsibility was too much for him. Whatever his shortcomings as spokesman, skipper or tactical wizard, all of his opponents respect him for that tigerish determination and ability to creep along almost unnoticed towards another significant score. Despite never figuring in any discussion about contemporary batting greats, he has compiled 15 Test centuries in the last five years.

So it seems the "Tiger" nickname is right on the ball after all, for by the time anyone really takes notice of Chanderpaul, it's too late: he has already pounced on the chance to devour the bowling in his own deliberate, undemonstrative style.

Fazeer Mohammed is a writer and broadcaster in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad