Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Shivnarine, The Run Machine

One hears much of the ‘art’ of batting. Connoisseurs can while away many a happy hour discussing the nature of this intangible and those who have come nearest to perfecting the imperfectible. A recurring cast of characters inevitably crop up in such conversations. Bradman, Lara, Sobers, Hutton and Tendulkar amongst others are such figures, generally considered to have at one point or another touched what Wordsworth would have us know as the sublime, transcending the limitations of mere mortals. Others, such as Viv Richards, Ian Botham and Sanath Jayasuriya have struck fear into opponents around the world by dint of their sheer ferocity. Shivnarine Chanderpaul, often likened by colour commentators to a crab at the wicket, rarely holds a place at the table in such exalted circles, and indeed it would be a stretch to consider him a sporting maestro or powerhouse. But Chanderpaul has perhaps achieved something equally as valuable in modern cricket, developing the skill of simply not getting out.

One of the oldest clichés in cricket and one of the first gems of wisdom imparted to every cricketing neophyte is that it is impossible to score runs from the pavilion. Taking this maxim to its logical and extreme conclusion, the man from Unity Village Guyana hardly seems to have been dismissed in the last two years. When he does actually get out he has typically faced at least a couple of hundred deliveries beforehand. The raw numbers themselves are staggering. In 2007 Chanderpaul averaged a Bradmanesque 111.60. Thus far this year he is faring hardly worse, scoring over 96 runs per dismissal. Approaching batting as being more akin to a mechanical process rather than an art, Chanderpaul has managed to reduce the complications and eccentricities inherent in any manifestation of the latter and instead play according to the certainties and quantifiable nature of the former. In a team where mercurial flashes of virtuosity are still valued above mere productivity, such an approach is all the more remarkable. His team-mates would be well served to follow his lead. Attempting to match the stroke play of a Lara or Tendulkar is a recipe for disaster for those of more limited talents and is a sure-fire route to an average in the mid-twenties at the highest level, a fact amply attested to by the majority of cricketers tried and recycled by the West Indian selectors over the last decade.

Of course, adopting the mindset of the West Indies’ most senior player is no easy task for players used to approaching the game in a manner so anathema to it and such discipline must be instilled at grassroots levels of the game in the region for it to become the norm rather than the exception. A dearth of genuinely exciting cricketing talent renders mental prowess and application at the crease even more vital and such an approach must be learned and practiced. Very few are born with such focus and concentration. Indeed, it has taken Chanderpaul himself nearly ten years of on the international circuit before he reached his current pinnacle of mental fortitude. An inability to consistently convert starts into hundreds had seriously marred Chanderpaul’s record up to 2002. In his first eight years of test cricket, Chanderpaul, despite an otherwise reasonable career, had managed a paltry two centuries. Over the next six and a half years that number had increased almost ten-fold to nineteen.

To conclude that Chanderpaul himself is a limited cricketer making the most of his talent based upon his batting style is misguided and unfair. In choosing to reduce risks to an absolute minimum during his lengthy stays at the crease, he is not attesting to his inability to play shots but rather accepting the self-evident truth that a cover drive on the up is more dangerous than a defensive prod or a circumspect leave. No one capable of scoring a 69 ball Test match hundred against Australia could be accused of being deficient in the stroke-play stakes. Even the stingiest of bowlers toss up the occasional pie, and Chanderpaul rarely fails to cash in. An unerringly correct selectivity rather than a purely defensive mindset has characterised Chanderpaul’s extraordinary recent success. Defensiveness for defensiveness’ sake can be every bit as fatal to an innings as cavalier statements of aggressive intent, and in the current series has led to two inexplicable dismissals where Devon Smith and Xavier Marshall simply padded up to straight deliveries. Chanderpaul is certainly a less attacking batsmen than either Smith or Marshall, but would never have attempted to leave such deliveries as doing so departs that other most helpful of cricketing clichés, that is playing each ball on its merit.

Very few individual strokes stand out in a Chanderpaul innings as being particularly memorable. Rarely does he render the viewer speechless in admiration and wonder or strike us as doing anything remarkable. The feeling that you are witnessing a piece of cricketing history in the making that so often stole over one when watching Brian Lara batting is not a characteristic response to a Chanderpaul knock. He can never aspire to join the pantheon of the elite, the cricketing gods of the sublime art of batting. But unlike these chosen few, every club cricketer in the world feels they can emulate the great man: what he has achieved does not seem so unattainable as the glittering achievements of Lara and Sobers. Such an idea is of course an illusion; we are no closer to being able to bat like Chanderpaul than we are of carting Shane Warne for six, but this comforting illusion is a testament to the simplicity of the man and his work. Far from being divine, he really is the everyman’s hero. Now, where’s my bat?

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