Gone Crabbing

This post was originally posted on All Out Cricket on 19th Mar 2013.

Christian Ryan peels back the complexities of Shivnarine Chanderpaul, a man whose unique batting style still has bowlers befuddled, in a piece from Wisden Cricket Quarterly, The Nightwatchman.

Pleasure slices open the fan in one of three ways. Your team winning, the sight of a thrilling and/or close match, and that frozen moment of someone doing something with a blissful, hyper-natural radiance – that’s pleasure. The third pleasure is loosely termed style. Because one player’s failed attempt at style can dent his 10 annoyed teammates’ hopes of winning, this third pleasure is sometimes at cross-purposes with the first pleasure. 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, in Chanderpaul’s native 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 – of 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. Not one of the nearby thousands looking on from a grassy mound is still sitting. In the grandstand, a black boy in a red mobile-phone company T-shirt is dancing an uncontrollable jig, alone. His eyes are shut but the eyeballs, you can tell, are moonwalking underneath.

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 – Chanders!

This mapping of the winding road to his final (we presume) incarnation is not some lie-detection exercise disproving the it-was-written-in-the-Unity-Village-sand thesis. Footslogging research reveals a total of two interviews, four summers apart, in which Chanders actually mentions his stance’s origins. It’s just that the fable gets spun and re-spun.

Chanders is quiet. When sportsmen talk it tends to shrink them. Extraordinariness is made ordinary. Chanders gives us a vacuum. This lets us theorise into it. What’s important at this juncture is to separate fact from mis-repetition: just as Chanders may either block or freaky-sweep a fast ball pitching outside off stump, so he chooses to stand how he stands. Forsaking style, he has down-traded his beautiful face to be the ugly guy who gets the girl. In pre-90 degrees days his batting average was 44. Ever since, he’s averaged 61, and sustained that 61 average over eight years. Out of such unpromising stuffs – “crab” ranks many hundred rungs below Muhammad Ali’s self-bestowed “bee” in the sporting animal hierarchy – Chanders has made himself the epitome of “sound”.

(Remember when cricketers used to get praised or soft-damned as being “sound” or “unsound”? Unsound was a non-blame-pointing tentative stab of a word, ripe for a sport where, if batting is your task, so many things so baffling and so sketchily attributable to you can go wrong, and where the punishment for the crime you did not commit is brutal: no love-15, no deuce, simply OUT. There’s a lovely, malleable non-specificness to “unsound” that’s a pleasure to read. Terence Rattigan, the playwright, was a useful enough batsman to swing himself an obituary in the 1978 Wisden, the last sentence of which – “He was an elegant stroke player, but unsound” – throws open attics in my imagination that would otherwise have remained tragically padlocked. In Australia in 1978, coincidentally, we fielded an entirely unsound top order: Darling the unsound hooker, Wood the unsound runner between wickets, Hughes the unsound [depending on the day of the week] everything, Yallop the unsound throat-ball resistor, Cosier the unsound pickets-clearer, and Toohey, who was unsound in the sense that he seemed like too interesting a guy to squash and reduce himself to being “sound”… Imagination ran six-fold that summer, and it sure smashed the real thing.)

Chanders wears, for protection, two thigh pads instead of one. This tends not to create an impression among people that they are in the presence of batting’s new Atlas. Shane Warne, appraising his generation’s best players, rated Chanders 64th; journalist and broadcaster Christopher Martin-Jenkins, in his Top 100 Cricketers of All Time, rated Chanders not at all.

(The late Martin-Jenkins – CMJ – painted precise word pictures over radio airwaves. How many millimetres a ball deviated, did it swing, did it cut, the location of the batsman’s hands, also his feet, any facial/bodily reactions of note, which way the captain is pointing, the sun’s height in the sky, the ebb, the flow. His voice was posh, stern, considered, unhurried. “Unsound” sounded like nectar out of CMJ’s mouth: as if he had pored over a chap’s shortcomings, deemed it premature to pronounce judgment, so for now he was going with “unsound”. CMJ steered clear of inexactitude, dodgy analogies [“like a crab”, “sounded like nectar”] and the lazy commentator shorthand that assumes a person listening to the radio probably also owns a TV so to blazes with describing the finer details, they can see those for themselves. TV was no match for CMJ. To put cricket on TV was to rip wings off a butterfly. TV limited you to what your eyes saw: it pinned cricket down. CMJ made minds fly. The listener’s mind worked constantly in tandem with CMJ’s, absorbing his words, re-imagining them, turning them into pictures of their own, and meanwhile a firestorm of interconnected thoughts and images would be cross-exploding simultaneously, no horizons. The more exact the raw word pictures CMJ fed the listener, the wilder and more fabulous the listener’s trip. In this way, CMJ “got” Ernest J. Radio’s brilliant invention better, surely, than nearly any broadcaster [shocking inexactitude: CMJ would not approve] working in any field of human endeavour. What CMJ got was that a game which unfolds in the head is the grandest and greatest game there is.)

Chanders wears two thigh pads because – I presume – his two thighs are exposed to the bowler as a result of the peculiarities of his stance.

When Chanders – Georgetown, 1994 – was still 70 degrees north-east of the batting exotica he would become, Phil Tufnell made England teammates laugh with his dressing-room Chanders impersonations. Warne favoured bowling full and wide and inviting Chanders to miscue or edge. Allan Donald, frightening and devious, thought early lbws were a chance because Chanders’ feet stayed back. Warne concurred: that could work too. Glenn McGrath, normally unflappable, found bowling to Chanders off-putting. Those men are gone now. Chanders’ curse these days is to play the match-saving-in-vain role in a feeble team, rendering plans against West Indies a superfluous luxury. All the same, it is striking that among bowlers today no agreed-upon plan exists to beat Chanders.

One far-reaching, big repercussion of the Chanderpaul batting stance, as promised: 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.) We might now be witnessing Autumn Stage Chanderpaul – the golden phase when technical dilemmas and life insecurities flake away and the old athlete peaks, surprising everyone – and we might also be seeing a kink in evolution, revolution indeed, only we are asleep to it, a period when children laugh at a funny-looking way of batting that one day will be taught to them.

The times conspire to help Chanders, in certain ways. His deep-crease vulnerability to the late inswinging ball, which Donald and Warne talked about, is offset by this being the age of the speed gun with swing bowling a neglected craft. 21st-century batsmen wear helmets. Once, the rear of his skull having been ring-a-ding-dinged by Brett Lee in Jamaica, Chanders fell, then took 40 seconds to move anything more than a curled left finger – making Lee worry he’d killed Chanders – and another 12 seconds to get up, at which point he sipped on some water and progressed his score from 86 to 118.

Chanders’ helmet is maroon-coloured with three horizontal bars. He takes it off on 100, 150, 200. You can see his eyes, blinking, adjusting to the subtly changed light, little eyes they are, and whatever he is feeling is written on them, with black anti-glare eye stickers underneath – the “Mueller” logo in white – like bruises, and every time, this past week of watching him, I notice the helmet come off I am reminded of a sub-sentence of WG Sebald’s:

… until well into the 19th century a few drops of liquid distilled from belladonna, a plant of the nightshade family, used to be applied to the retinas of operatic divas before they went on stage, and those of young women about to be introduced to a suitor, with the result that their eyes shone with a rapt and almost supernatural radiance, but they themselves could see almost nothing.

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. An innings begins with him removing the leg bail, bending, hammering with his bat’s handle the bail into the pitch, putting the bail back. His concentration, which is a thing of legend, is a gift from Shiva. He, a Hindu, carries an altar on his travels, prays when he wakes, knows “it’s only you and God out there” during the day, meditates at night. If pork or beef is on the ground’s lunch menu he must keep going on rice and bread. He tries to not hit balls in the air, which was the philosophy of Don Bradman, circa 1928. Thirty-seven per cent of his runs since 2009 have come in fours and sixes – two per cent lower than the fours-and-sixes rate of the olde worlde’s batsmen, calendar year 1921.

Helmets halve the fear of getting out or getting hit to the fear only of dismissal. Gum-trunk bats turn mis-hits to six-hits.

This, then, is now-cricket, but it is not end-cricket, and we know this through Chanders, who deflects balls into gaps. In an increasingly power-based sport he dominates by being smart. He left school at 13; watching him, his smartness makes us feel smarter. The rituals with the bail, and the pitch kiss, and the bowling machine hint at a partial machine-ness to his own personality – the bowling machine especially, which stays by his side whether he’s on tour or in Florida, where he lives with Amy, who’s Guyanese, and whose father’s garden he used to walk past, and when one day he saw Amy in the garden he would walk past it more often.

Where it matters, in the heart, and head, he 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.

Christian Ryan lives in Melbourne, writes and edits, and is the author of Golden Boy and Australia: Story of a Cricket Country.

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