The man from unity

When Guyanese remember the first time they watched Shivnarine Chanderpaul bat, they remember how large the helmet sat on his little head, how his pads dwarfed his body, how inconceivable the idea was that he might be able to lift the bat let alone execute a swing.

Watching his 10-year old son Brandon - left-handed like Shiv, fidgety in stance like Shiv, thin and bony like Shiv - batting on the concrete strip his grandfather has marked for practice in the front yard is to think something similar. A few days ago the boy made 61 in a club game against players twice his age. He batted for five hours.

You know where it comes from: Shiv has done it for more than a decade. Nothing has meant more to Shiv than batting, and batting has meant more to few as much as it does to Shiv, and when West Indies face Sri Lanka in Sunday's crucial match, it will be another homecoming for the finest Guyanese batsman since Clive Lloyd and the best West Indian batsman of his generation after Brian Lara.

We're in Unity Village, on the lovely East Coast of Guyana in a backstreet full of flowering front yards and jhandis, flags, the symbol of Hindu ritual. Mr Chanderpaul's own house has two small shivlings installed by the practice strip. "Without god, without prayer, we are nothing."

Not a minute by foot is the community centre where Khemraj Chanderpaul would look after Shiv's cricket, as he does with Brandon's, though nowadays the ride is by SUV to the Gandhi cricket club in Georgetown, 45 minutes away.

Life was a little harder then. Like his father, Khemraj went out to sea to fish. But his greatest dedication was towards his son Shiv, whose obsession with the game matched his own. Khemraj is one of the great men of Guyanese local cricket. Talk to him at a game, even under-15s, and he will reply without ever taking his eyes off the field.

Together the Chanderpauls would roll the pitch at the Unity-Lancaster Community Centre and Shiv would bat for hours. Sometimes a fellow called Bharrat Jagdeo from up the road might come around and watch. The fellow is now president of Guyana. When Shiv was nine, a man of 6 feet 4 inches from Lancaster village across the road bowled at him and was impressed by the boy's defence. The man was Colin Croft.

From the beginning Shiv defended a lot and would cut anything, cut into the ground and in club games cut through gaps between five men in the cordon. It is only much later that he began playing to leg. Not so Brandon, who is a little more attacking, Khemraj will tell you, a little more rounded, though perhaps not quite as prodigious as Shiv was.

The training had to go beyond nets. In the derelict concrete ground floor of the pavilion building in the community centre Khemraj would fling a hard cork and rubber 'compo' ball at Shiv to sharpen his reflexes. Or he would walk him two minutes to the shore of the muddied Atlantic and, on a strip of wet sand, test him with a sponge 'bumper ball'. The ball would rear at his ribs and throat and, being light, swerve in the breeze. Always Shiv's appetite was for more. "Don't talk cricket," Khemraj would tell him, "play cricket."

It is the same advice he gives Brandon, who spends his time between his grandparents, and his mother, Annalee, of mixed white and Portugese extraction, who now runs a beer garden in the same village. Shiv himself lives in Miami with his second wife Amy.

The couple looked shiny bright at the Pegasus hotel in Georgetown last night as they socialised their way through the lobby. There is now a more urbane confidence about Shiv, a great progression from his palpable diffidence from his early years. Always shy, he entered a team of established black cricketers, a simple teenaged East Indian from an East Indian village, the first East Indian to break through into the West Indies team for over a decade. It was not a matter of exclusion but of not feeling fully understood.

Already his place in the annals of East Indian batsmanship is secure, second only to Rohan Kanhai and perhaps Alvin Kallicharran, both further up the coast in Berbice, the home of Indo-Guyanese cricket. Like those two predecessors, he is a source of great East Indian pride, and in a land embittered by racial tension, a figure of reconciliation.

"Ramotar and Joseph Henry/ Drinking two rum in Unity", begins the fine Tradewinds calypso, Hooper and Chanderpaul. "Planning the cricket game next day/ Ramotar turn to Joe and say/ We can win it in Guyana/ With Chanderpaul and big Hoopa."

On the television in Mr Chanderpaul's living room it appears that West Indies have just slipped to defeat against New Zealand, their second loss in three days. The thought, I'm afraid is inescapable: Unity and Providence must come together if West Indies are to win it in Guyana.