Shivnarine Chanderpaul: A Tribute

In the week that Shiv Chanderpaul waved goodbye to international cricket, we thought we’d share an abridged version of Christian Ryan’s fascinating analysis of the West Indian’s unique approach to batting, the full version of which appeared in our very first issue. Enjoy…


Pleasure is a noun almost no one hooked up to a near-daily TV drip feed of hit-and-giggle has ever heard used in conjunction with Shivnarine Chanderpaul. The word they hear used is crab.


The Providence Stadium cricket pitch looks a straw-coloured place of peace in a field of lushest green, a half-hour’s ride from sub-sea level Georgetown, on Chanderpaul’s home island of Guyana. It’s the first one-dayer in a soon-to-be-forgotten series of five, West Indies playing England, and right on five o’clock on a Friday afternoon, 20 March 2009, Chanders welcomes a ball outside his off stump with a calming tap straight to a fielder. Twenty minutes later he receives a ball in a good-as-identical spot. We’re late in the run-chase. This ball is coming at 82.9 mph, pitching about three-quarter-length and it is, I repeat, outside off stump, only this time Chanders does a lightning feet-off-the-ground skip sideways followed by a slow backward slide – so leisurely it’s almost taunting – off his down-tilting left leg, on to which his body then sinks, his front foot acting as the anchor, the pivot, while his left knee takes his body weight and his bat becomes a sort of high-tech egg-lifter, the bat-face pointing up, not side-on, when it intercepts the ball and his wrists tensing then relaxing as they – and if we’re to call this a sweep shot let’s all take to our coaching manuals with cigarette lighters right now – caress the ball deftly round the corner and up, up.


And David Gower, who once was to batting artistry what Emmanuelle Béart is to the smouldering lazy-gaze cross a late-night Parisian jazz club, is slow-motion commentating – “Well, he’s, uhhh … played that … with extraordinary flair.” And up, up it keeps going. Monitoring the ball’s arc on our screens, our eyes can see sugarcane fields, and that looks like savannah country over there, till finally the ball peaks, and dips, bouncing to the right of a wheeled carry-case belonging to one of three men, each of the men swaying away, like poplars, for fear of impalement, as the ball spirals past them and crashes into a wall beneath a maroon staircase. The innocent bowler, Steve Harmison, who’s been watching as well, blows a short (disbelieving, I’m guessing) puff of wind through his bearded lips.


Watching Chanders bat invites the fan, in a strange way, to peer inside their own self, and ask questions. Like: why play this shot, why not that? And, is there a place for style in cricket?


Two more Chanderpaul scenes …


Antigua: he’s 19, short sleeves and a helmet, armguard on, Angus Fraser comes clumping in over the wicket and Chanders drives him left of mid-on.


Dhaka: late afternoon, last November, Chanders is helmeted and short-sleeved, he’s 38 years old, 72 not out, armguard on, Rubel Hossain bowls around the wicket and Chanders drives to mid-on’s right.


Watch them slow. Wrists like horse muscle – the key both times. Freeze the footage two frames after impact. Chanders’ feet have landed way outside off stump, left foot twisting behind right foot … head position, bat angle, elbow pointiness … same perfect finish. It is the getting there that has changed. As young Rubel gallops in, his footsteps leaving no imprint on the hard imitation space-turf of Bangladesh’s Shere Bangla National Stadium, Chanders’ own feet and toes are 90 degrees forward of every published recommendation of where they should be. Ninety degrees, do the maths: they are twinkling straight at Rubel. This has one far-reaching repercussion (which we’ll get to: it’s big) plus various smaller spin-off oddities, these including Chanders’ right shoulder, which is aiming westwards when it is supposed to be facing south, and Chanders’ bat, which appears to be eagerly anticipating the square-leg umpire’s next delivery. Disconcerting to bowl at; funny-looking on TV. Yet by the time the ball’s arrived and he’s hitting it normal transmission has resumed, all appendages and accoutrements present and correct, courtesy of a neither airborne nor strictly earthbound step-hover-squirm manoeuvre.


Just like a crab, says the critic to the fan.


Chanders explains it like this – he developed his way of batting in Unity Village, a fishing town, where his father Kemraj, nickname of ‘Cow-Fly’, was sometimes away for days, at work, on a boat, fishing for bottlefish, for crab. The boy Chanders began cricket when he was eight, though cricket was beseeching him nine years before that. “When he in his mother’s belly,” Kemraj once said, “she bowl to me.” With balls made of concrete or rubber, they practised on the community hall’s hard floor for bounce and on the sand beside the ocean’s edge for pace. Villagers joined in. Often their challenge was to hit the boy. “No crying here,” Kemraj would say. Thus did Chanders’ makeshift floating fortress of a batting stance allegedly evolve. It enabled him, Chanders has explained, to hurry his bat and hands in front of his face in self-protection – an amazing story, romantic, the sort of set piece the sportswriter can pull out three times, five even, over and over anew, a fresh and touching lilt to it for every occasion. Crab man grooms crab boy.


Facts are that by 19, and all through his promising maiden series against England, Chanders’ batting stance resembled a kindergarten child’s back-to-front “7”. That is, his stance was the stance of the normal left-hand batsman. Nearly, anyway: on debut in Georgetown, March 1994, he had a mild hunchback aura and his feet were tipping 20 degrees forward of normal. By series end he had tidied that to 15 degrees, and seemed taller. Come Sydney, late 1996, he rose upright and at zero degrees, a touch of the peacock. One prancing off-drive off Shane Warne tricked the close-in Australians into emitting an audible admiring moan. With the same zero-degrees classic stance came his first Test hundred, against India. In January 1999 he hit South Africa for 150 sporting a semi-discernible five-degrees pose, had reverted to near-enough zero degrees during an 11 not out in Dublin mid-year, and was still standing zero at Lord’s the summer after that. Over in Georgetown again, April 2003, we glimpsed Chanders in transition. Entering on a shambolic first morning, with the Australian chinaman bowler Brad Hogg on a hat-trick, Chanders struck a 69-ball ton – a feat beyond most mortals or geniuses, and previously, and largely since, reckoned to be miles beyond Chanders’ means, yet Chanders did it with orthodox cricketing strokes of deepest purity, each shot a just-right reaction to the ball just bowled. More interesting than the sight of the regularly disappearing ball is to watch, knowing what we know now, Chanders’ feet: ten degrees forward of normal against Andy Bichel, alternately five or zero degrees against Hogg, zero degrees against everyone else. In common against whoever’s bowling is this – Chanders is wandering, virtually loping, across his crease, so that he ends up in something approaching the 90-degree position we now know to be his ultimate aspiration. His bat is raised and fluttering, casually, above his head. He is still recognisably “batting” as we know batting to be. But by the middle of the  2004 English summer he made for a curious sight: spinner Ashley Giles bowling, Chanders bullied back deep in his crease, feet pointing 50 degrees south of normality. That was on August 1st. On September 25th he hit 47 in the Champions Trophy final with his feet at 80 degrees and his bat’s fluttering baseball-style aloftness at its zenith of weirdness. In his next international match, an MCG day-nighter the following January, a big house of 51,000 saw a man strange yet strangely familiar plant his feet at 88 degrees with the bat facing square leg (cripes!), although he’d then jettison the square-leg bit early to re-assume the baseball hitter’s dangle. Finally the South Africans arrived in the Caribbean in late March 2005. Waiting for them was the full-blown, unmistakable and pretty much inimitable except in a poking-fun sort of way version of Chanders.


One far-reaching, big repercussion of the Chanderpaul batting stance: he sees the ball, and bowler, with two eyes.


It’s an advantage, no? Every other batsman on the planet (sounds like a generalisation but there lives nobody who bats like Chanders) stands basically side-on to the bowler. One eye has a clear view and the other eye is straining to circumnavigate a small, invisible traffic roundabout. Even the non-squinty eyeball is never totally relaxed: the angle is not totally straight on. Also, the neck is twisted, which you get used to, but … Try to conjure up what it must be like to bat from a place with no inconveniences to accustom oneself to, no roundabouts to peer round – a pure place, with a gunbarrel view.


The rest of Chanders’ repertoire of tics and movements obeys the textbook. His head stays still. His feet are in a state of suspended liquidity, ready to pounce. At the base of small hands are wrists supple and powerful enough to strangle a would-be mugger. (Bizarre happenstance: Chanders once shot a policeman in the hand thinking the policeman was a mugger.)


On reaching 100 Chanders always, once the helmet is lifted, lowers his body down flat and kisses the pitch.


“A bit ridiculous,” thought Jason Gillespie of the Australians when first he observed this.


“This is ridiculous,” said David Warner, also Australian, when he and Chanders were Durham clubmates and Chanders faced a bowling machine for six hours.


“A really great batsman,” wrote CLR James, “is to me as strange a human being as a man seven feet tall or a man I once heard of who could not read but spoke six languages.”


Chanders, it is very apparent, seems a man from out of this time, and not totally of this sport. If you wish to bat six hours he believes you should first practise batting six hours, and in an increasingly power-based sport he dominates by being smart.


Where it matters, in the heart, and head, Chanders is the unprogrammable man. In his hotel room before batting he bats each ball in his head. After batting he often does not look at the tape. Yet he still watches the replay – in his head. Sportspeople sometimes claim they do this. Chanders honestly does it, every ball. Studying the tape would seek to make explicable, predictable, repeatable, something that should, morally, be left mysterious and free-floating, inside our heads – cricket – so that to see Chanders batting, though it may not involve notions like sexy, is to dream possibility, and be lifted out of our selves, by the simple act of watching.


This is an edited version of Christian Ryan’s ‘Gone Crabbing’, originally published in issue 1 of The Nightwatchman