You can't take your eyes off Shivnarine Chanderpaul when he is batting. Watching him live at the ground is a disorienting experience; bowling at him must be even more disorienting. His stance reminds you of a batsman at a crowded park on a Sunday in India, where multiple teams jostle for space and where you will often find another batsman standing next to you but playing a different game, on a pitch that runs diagonally across your strip. The present scenario in West Indies cricket, in particular the outlook the board seems to have on the senior players in the side, has made it even more fascinating to watch Chanderpaul bat.
He is at a crossroads in his career. "New direction" is the new buzz on the Caribbean circuit these days. There is a feeling in the region that there are people in power who are almost waiting for Chanderpaul to fail so they can dump him. It's not a great time to be a senior player. Chris Gayle has been sidelined by the board, Ramnaresh Sarwan has just lost his place and the guns are now trained on Chanderpaul.
A couple of months ago, Chanderpaul was involved in a spat with the board and the team management. Chanderpaul had felt his commitment had been questioned and retaliated with an angry outburst in which, among other things, he accused the selectors of asking him to retire, the board of not arranging adequate treatment for his injuries and the team management of trying to micromanage his batting. After meetings with the board, he was included in the team for the Tests against Pakistan and India
Chanderpaul is also, according to people close to him, currently grappling with some personal issues. Overall, he isn't in a great frame of mind. Ironically, cricket offers him the best escape from all his issues. He can shut his critics up with his bat, and earn himself some mental relief with runs. It's the one thing that is under his control. In that context, he must have been gutted when he got a shocking lbw decision in the second innings at the Kensington Oval. He, however, did not throw a fit. He did not even linger at the crease. He just turned and walked away. It must have taken tremendous mental discipline.
But then, discipline is what defines Chanderpaul's batting. Abhinav Mukund, the young India opener, said he learnt a lot by just crouching at short-leg during the Barbados Test and watching Chanderpaul bat. "He was leaving deliveries that were so close to the off stump," Abhinav said. "He always played late. I learned a lot. I also want to leave and play late like that." The runs, though, aren't coming for Chanderpaul. He has spent 852 minutes at the crease in his last six innings, but managed only 165 runs at a strike-rate of 29.41. Dominica may not be the last-chance saloon but it's pretty important that he gets some runs.
Another man struggling for runs is someone who, like Chanderpaul, is known for his unorthodox style of batting: India's captain MS Dhoni. Unlike Chanderpaul, Dhoni is under no pressure. He has been winning everything as a captain and if he wins in Dominica he will be the first India captain to win 2-0 in the West Indies. In fact, India have won two Tests in a series outside the subcontinent only three times: in New Zealand in 1967-68, in England in 1986 and in Zimbabwe in 2005.
Dhoni's scores in this series read 0,16, 2, and 5, and though his position is under no threat it is still an issue he would like to address. He has this knack of coming up with a substantial knock just when you begin to notice his failures. He hit a 98 in November 2010 against New Zealand after going seven innings without a half-century, and followed it up with 90 in Centurion against South Africa. It has since been seven innings in which he hasn't got a half-century.
But these patterns are typical of Dhoni the Test batsman. He is impressively consistent in ODIs but in Tests he often slips into anonymity before coming up with a sparkling knock. He can surprise you sometimes with his poor shot selection: a cut straight to cover point, an uppish drive to mid-off, a tame, lunging push with the bat way ahead of the body. Then, on his good days, that same cut would just clear cover point, the uppish drive would fly past mid-off and the lunging drive would result in an edge past gully. And he would be up and running.
Dhoni would probably take a team victory in Dominica, but some runs, ahead of the tougher England series, won't hurt. Two batsmen, with unorthodox but effective batting styles, will set out on a hunt for runs in Dominica.