Just Doing What He Does

It is early Spring in England. As I write, the rain is lashing against the window. The West Indies are due back in England soon. This, and the fact that he has just completed ten thousand runs in Test cricket, means that people are writing about Shivnarine Chanderpaul again.

They do this every few years. The rest of the time he just goes on doing what he does.

I can only recommend the outstanding pieces by Alex Bowden and Rob Steen which Cricinfo has carried in the last few days, but I can also add a few thoughts of my own.

The essence of great West Indian batsmanship is as hard to define as most other things in the game. But, if you were going to try, you’d probably come up with something which comprised the trailblazing style and run-hunger of Headley, the savage power of Weekes, Lloyd and Richards, the technical rigour of Greenidge and the elegance and skill of Lara.

Would you even think about Shivnarine Chanderpaul? Well, unless you were Guyanese, or drunk, or possibly both, you wouldn’t. And you’d be right, because, unless you really look, there’s little that Chanderpaul does that is different, or unusual, or exceptional, apart, of course from the crabbiest stance seen in international cricket since the retirement of Peter Willey, and what sometimes appears to be an inability to get out. As with so many players, though, the sum of the parts is greater than the parts themselves, and, in the case of Shivnarine Chanderpaul, that sum is really superb.

But, as I say, you have to look.

I started looking back in the nineties. The first time I came across Chanderpaul was when England toured the West Indies in early 1994. When Brian Lara pulled Chris Lewis for four to break the world individual Test batting record at the Antigua Recreation Ground, a slight young left-hander was at the other end, 70-odd not out.

Other people were looking too. I didn’t have Sky at the time so I had to rely on TMS. Trevor Bailey, always a shrewd judge of a player, liked him. During the latter stages of their partnership he posed the question ‘was Lara any better when he was nineteen?’. Of course, nobody knew, but it was pretty obvious that, as players went, Chanderpaul wasn’t bad.

I first saw him in the flesh at Taunton, early in the West Indies tour of England in 1995. Apart from the way he stood at the wicket, the thing that first struck me was the contrast between the way he looked and the way he batted. Seeing him line up, all spiky limbs, furrowed brow and jumpy, unorthodox stance, you fancied him as a journeyman blocker. Then you saw him hit the ball.

In spite of the way he appeared, there was a co-ordinated ease of timing and speed of reaction about Chanderpaul which immediately marked him out as a class player. Anything full was defended with a straightness of bat which belied his whippy, angular backlift, while anything over-pitched and drifting towards his pads would be turned through the leg side with perfect timing, left hand firmly in control. Anything short would be cuffed through midwicket, the same left hand keeping the ball on the ground. The scoreboard always seemed to be ticking over.

Throughout the seventeen years that have since passed, Chanderpaul has remained the impregnable, impassive, rock upon which the fragile West Indies batting has been anchored. Even before Lara retired he was one of the three go-to men for crease occupation and run-hunger in the world, with only the more widely-lauded Rahul Dravid and Jacques Kallis anywhere close. But then Chanderpaul always had a counter-intuitive ability to take attacks apart which those two simply didn't have, and, while as he has grown older and more careworn because of his team's decline he has become more defensively obstinate, the strokes remain there, and, on a good day, when the situation demands, they can still be seen. An overall Twenty20 strike rate of 107, and the memory of innings such as this tell you all you need to know about that aspect of his game. If you need to know more you can just think about the fact that he has batted for more than 1000 Test match minutes without being dismissed on four occasions.

After he had defied England in defeat with unbeaten innings of 128 and 97 at Lord's in 2004, I was hanging around in the pavilion at the game's end when Chanderpaul came down the stairs from the West Indian dressing room. He was later than most of his team-mates, and you fancied that he had taken the defeat a bit harder than the rest. He cut a slight, childlike, pre-occupied figure, and there was more than a hint of distance and unease in his eyes as he prepared to face the crowd of fans outside the pavilion door. What this suggested, and the years since have done nothing to diminish the impression, was that Chanderpaul doesn't really like recognition, or adulation, or confrontation; he simply loves to bat. In fact, he exists to do so.

Watching him against Australia recently, especially in the field, you couldn't help thinking, as with Ponting, about the things he'd seen. This is a man who played with Desmond Haynes, and Richie Richardson, and Courtney, and Curtly, and Brian, who began his career at a time when the West Indies still had a hint of invincibility about them. A man who has done more than anyone else to stem the tide of decline but who has been forced to give best to it time and again while still coming back for more, mainly, you suspect, because he knows no other way.

Next week he will be back in England for his sixth tour. Despite the presence in the side of a young batsman of obvious quality in Darren Bravo, it will be down to him to hold his side together. And in an English early season, with Anderson or Broad or Finn or Bresnan or Onions coming at them, they'll need some holding.

With Chanderpaul, though, you know that there will be no self-pity or reflection or world-weariness. He will not lament his fate.

He will, simply, bat. It is what he does.


A Vague Feeling of Concern

My name is Brian. I like cricket.

Although I still like to think of myself as relatively young, I have been watching cricket for forty years. In many ways my life, especially during the English summer months, is dominated by cricket. I have to wash, and dress, and eat, and work for a living, but cricket is always somewhere near to the forefront of my mind. I've been going to Test and county matches regularly since 1975, and to say that I've watched a lot of cricket on television would be a ridiculous understatement. It would be a bit like saying that Sachin Tendulkar could just about hold a bat, or that Don Bradman made the odd run at a decent average.

I've read many cricket books and I've also been known to write about the game.

For all this, though, I have never seen a match in the Indian Premier League.

I've seen bits of it, of course, but never a complete game. In its formative years it was broadcast on Setanta and I didn't have a subscription. Therefore, I never got into the habit of watching it, and, now that I can see it, I find that I don't really want to bother. Besides which, I am always at work when the matches are taking place and I haven't yet managed to find a job in which I am allowed to watch cricket.

So, largely, it goes on without me.

I have heard about it, though. And I'm not sure I like it.

S.A.Rennie's recent piece Gamechangers, put some of the obvious concerns in typically punchy and elegant fashion:

'The death of Test cricket has been predicted before, and fair enough, it is still with us, but one could also say it’s these continually raised concerns that have reminded us of how much in the way of tradition and history we stand to lose. The erosion, though, has now reached a point of insidious acceleration. Pietersen was bought during the transfer window for this year’s IPL by Delhi in a deal reportedly worth US$2.3 million. For becoming the number one Test team, England received a cheque for US$175,000. Add to that the increasing frequency of two-Test series and the cancellation – sorry, “postponement” until 2017 – of the ICC Test Championship, and while it’s not quite barbarians-at-the-gates stuff, Test cricket’s fortifications could definitely do with some strengthening.

I do enjoy the IPL, albeit in moderation – like the coke-snorting yuppie who gatecrashes your party and drinks all your champagne, it does tend to go on a bit. I’m all for embracing change and accept that the game must adapt in this current economic climate. But some things are so valuable, you cannot measure them in money, and you cannot tear down a load-bearing beam in your house because the woodworm have taken a chomp at it and it doesn’t quite fit in with your snazzy new decor. It’s all about balance. Sure, you could probably make a home in the rubble if you needed to, but would you really want to live there?'

I concur with this. As I said earlier, I like to think of myself as being as young and trendy as the average forty-six year-old who remembers Stuart Binny's father bowling England out (which isn't very young or trendy, of course), and I don't have a problem with T20 per se. In fact, when you get home from work on a gloomy June evening and you just want to slump on the sofa and watch some six-hitting, good old English Twenty20 (the original, if not the best) fits the bill very nicely.

It's just that it's the long-form game that I see most of and which I prefer. And, in England, Test matches are still important. Lots of people, some of whom are sober, go to them and they are an indelible part of the nation's sporting fabric. Round my way, County Championship cricket even draws groups of people large enough to be termed crowds. It matters.

Is this still the case in India?

The IPL chimes with contemporary India's perception of itself as a vibrant, thriving, commercially articulate democracy. Increasingly, you have to wonder whether Test cricket, with its recent overtones of decay and repeated humiliation, can ever be made to feel important there again. The IPL is India, modern and highly educated, the world at its feet and at its cricket grounds. Test cricket carries echoes and reminders of a less glorious past. For every cover-driven six (Or 'DLF maximum'. See, I've absorbed the language by osmosis.) by Sachin Tendulkar that hints at the game's (and, by extension, India's) glamorous future there are Praveen Kumar's stumps being shattered by Stuart Broad, which hints at the past, a past where India are 0 for 4 at Headingley or they are bowled out for 42 at Lord's, or it is Sabina Park and half the team is injured as they slide to defeat.

In England the future of the longer game appears assured by a respect for tradition that can be hard to define and explain. In India, it seems (and, writing from distance, I may be wrong), this is a feeling that is not so pervasive or strong. The IPL is modern, it is brash, it is glamorous and it is commercially successful in the free market. For that it is king. Test cricket, in its turn, is left to wither on the vine.

And, increasingly in cricket, where India leads, others follow.

And I'm not sure I like it.


Taunton, Early Season

It is early in April. A long way away, on an island off the south-eastern coast of India, England are playing a Test match against Sri Lanka.

There it is fiercely hot and sappingly humid. At least once in every hour the players take drinks in an attempt to guard against dangerous dehydration.

This is contemporary Test cricket. Except when England are playing, few people watch, but the match is urgently covered by the multi-faceted beast that is the modern media. People, some of whom have even played the game to a high standard, observe what is happening, analyse it and write about it for newspapers, for magazines, for websites. They talk about it on television and on radio. They blog and they tweet. Sometimes, for them, the temperature becomes hard to bear and they complain about the air conditioning in the press box. In a sense they are lucky, but in another they are not to be envied. They are missing the start of the county cricket season.

I am not there. I might wish to be, but I cannot afford to take the time away from work or pay the air fare. No, I am in a small town in the provincial south-west of England, waiting in vain for Somerset’s first match of the 2012 County Championship to start.

The sky over Taunton is a deep cast of grey. Indeed, at times, it barely appears to be properly light. It is also raining. Not very hard - for every English cricket follower knows proper rain all too well - but with too much momentum and persistence to allow a prompt start. It is also jarringly, numbingly, sickeningly, cold. Unlike at the P.Saravanamuttu Stadium, nobody is removing any items of clothing. Instead they are wearing gloves, scarves and coats in an attempt to protect themselves from the north-easterly wind. For many, as a futile final line of defence, a blanket is draped across their knees. The last two weeks of March, when the sun shone incessantly from an azure sky, is a now a distant and unreliable memory.

We are among the faithful. Most of these people will have waited all winter for this, anticipating the time when they can fill their trusty old bags - and many, like their owners, have seen much better days - with their flasks, their sandwiches and their printed works of statistical reference. Indeed, interest in events in Sri Lanka is only lukewarm, but, when an announcement over the public address system informs the ‘crowd’ that the 2012 edition of the Playfair Cricket Annual has just been delivered and is available to be bought from the shop, a murmur of anticipation ripples around the ground. These are people who know what they like and what gives them pleasure.

After the rain stops, the players tentatively make their way on to the field to warm up. For the game’s native Englishmen the conditions are familiar, if far from pleasant, but for a man such as Vernon Philander, born and bred on the Western Cape of South Africa, they are alien and strange. He moves slowly and tentatively, as if fearing that to break into even a brief trot is to invite his taut bowler’s muscles to rebel. But within a while, he, and his new team-mates, are ready to play.

Somerset win the toss and invite Middlesex to bat. On the first afternoon of the game the London county lose four wickets, three of them to Philander, who exhibits the virtues which have enabled him to make an exceptional start to his Test career. But these virtues are, in fact, unexceptional and old-fashioned. He bowls at a brisk fast-medium and hits an off-stump line with painstaking, repetitive accuracy. Occasionally he will move the ball away just enough to pass or catch the edge of the bat and he gains plenty of bounce from the responsive pitch.

Only thirty-six overs are possible before the umpires decide that it is too dark to play on. However, to most people in the ground, the light is no worse than it was when play started and there is a suspicion that the men in white coats simply want to put everyone, themselves included, out of their misery.

The following day, Good Friday, dawns bright, but it is still cold. I recklessly decide to spend the first session of the day sitting in the Old Pavilion, where the re-upholstered cinema seats afford a peerless view of the cricket, but I am compelled to leave when my fingers and toes start to go numb. Whatever the difficulties experienced by the England bowlers as they try to work their way through the determined Sri Lankan batting in far away Colombo, frostbite is not among them.

Somerset make relatively short work of the Middlesex batting and begin their own first innings fluently. They are pegged back when Arul Suppiah and the seemingly invulnerable Marcus Trescothick are dismissed, but Nick Compton and Craig Kieswetter bring the innings round, first slowly and then with increasing fluency, as the day fades to the gloom and cold of early evening.

Compton, playing against his former county, bats with a self-conscious diligence which his illustrious grandfather can rarely have emulated, although any bad balls are dismissed with power and timing to spare.

Kieswetter is different. His crouched stance is slightly ungainly, but, as he begins to feel more secure at the crease, he plays a series of cuts and drives which are distinctive for their clean, unfettered, timing and power. Like his partner he learned to bat on the hard, true pitches of South Africa, but, in his case, it is instantly noticeable. Natural batting class can be hard to define, but you always know when you’ve seen it.

On the following day play is again shortened by the weather but Somerset manoeuvre themselves into a dominant position, with Kieswetter making 83 and Compton finally falling for 99. On Easter Sunday the game is won.

It has been said before, but watching English county cricket is still, for those who love and respect it, one of the finest sporting experiences available in Britain. Crowds are never large - though they are usually larger than the sceptics would claim - and standards are never what they were, but a day or two at a ground such as Taunton gives you a sense that you are inhabiting an oasis, away from all the world’s madnesses.

The game has a lineage that goes back to the middle of the nineteenth century, and, while they may not realize it - modern professional sporting culture allows little time for contemplation or sentimentality - the players, in their sponsored whites and their sunglasses, are the heirs to the tradition of Grace, Hobbs, Mead, Woolley, the Langridges and so many more. We, the spectators, are the ones who have the time to consider such things, but it is the players themselves who inherit the tradition and maintain it.

And it’s worth something. Even when it’s really, really cold.



If this long and miserable winter for England's Test team has a recurring theme beyond the obvious one of being skewered by spin, it is the fact that, if you believe what you hear on TMS or on Sky, they've contrived to be repeatedly dismissed by a series of people who, by our, English, oh-so-elevated standards, can't really bowl.

During the Galle demise we had both Geoff Boycott (who at least has some experience of batting against quality bowling to fall back on) and Charles Colvile (who hasn't) dismissing the Sri Lankan attack as a scattergun collection of pedestrian journeymen. While there may be an element of truth in this - Sri Lanka obviously no longer have anyone of the calibre of Murali or Vaas and have suffered for it - they were still too good for a hot and bothered England team that swept too much, too soon and to the wrong balls, weren't (with the magnificent exception of Jonathan Trott) prepared to tough it out and finished the game with their 'World Number One' status beginning to fade into the seaside dust almost as quickly as Andrew Strauss's reputation as an opening batsman.

Boycott, of course, has previous. Shortly before he started to go through England in the UAE in January he had described Abdur Rehman as little better than a club bowler (and, in the insulated and often condescending world of the professional cricketer turned pundit, there are few greater insults).

Herath and Rehman may not be up to much, but, if they are, where on earth does that leave England's batsmen?

The reality, of course, is more nuanced. Sure, in the world of Lock or Wardle or Underwood, neither Herath nor Rehman would be bowlers who should scare anybody, but it's hardly as if the majority of England's batsmen inhabit such a bygone world either. Years of batting on uncovered roads against spinners of limited guile and variation in circumstances in which fast scoring is all, have seen to that.

Herath and Rehman can bowl. That either of them has played Test cricket with any success at all is testament to that, and they have done so for countries with rich spin bowling heritages.

Their efforts deserve a little more respect than they've been given. No wonder, in virtually any sport you can name, everyone who doesn't come from England thinks we're superior and arrogant.

Very often we are.

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