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Keiran King: The significance of Shivnarine Chanderpaul

Published:Sunday | June 7, 2015 | 6:00 AMKeiran King, Contributor
Shivnarine Chanderpaul, a West Indies great.
Keiran King
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In a perfect world, it would have been his swansong. Two home games against arch rivals Australia, echoing the India tour only 18 months earlier, in which he and the sporting world said goodbye to Sachin Tendulkar. On recent evenings, he might have recalled the electric joy and sadness that filled Wankhede Stadium, and allowed himself a similar daydream — the cameras, the press, the handshakes, the interviews, the guard of honour led by Michael Clarke, and, above all, the cheering, jeering, gyrating crowd in Sabina Park, all gathered to witness his final walk from pavilion to pitch.

It was not to be. The West Indies selectors did not pick Shivnarine Chanderpaul against the men from Oz, creating a rather harsher exit for the 40-year-old veteran — dropped from his team, with all the ignominy and inadequacy of an ageing spouse left holding the alimony cheque.

When the glint of the axe appeared, Chanderpaul texted his old teammate and new coach Phil Simmons,  equesting clemency. There was none.

"Unfortunately,” Simmons replied, “length of service is not a criterion for selection.”

Were Chanderpaul regarded with the reverence accorded George Headley, Garry Sobers, Vivian Richards or compatriot Brian Lara, such a blunt coda would be inconceivable. But where those batsmen displayed panache and grace at the stumps, the elfin Guyanese has only ever had a kind of awkward utilitarianism to offer, full of quirks and oddities. We enjoy when great players make success look easy;
Chanderpaul, from start to finish, revealed cricket to be hard work. And his Indian heritage made entry to Windies sainthood difficult, since it is unfairly reserved for the more Afrocentric (witness our undying pride in the heroes that ‘blackwashed’ England in the 1980s).

Moreover, his dismissal seemed to fit one of the ur-stories of sport — the elite athlete, singularly focused, deaf to criticism and blind to his declining powers, who must finally be ushered off for his own sake as much as ours (see Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan, Lance Armstrong et al). But Chanderpaul deserves better, if not from the WICB then from us, the unwashed masses. He is likely gone from the international stage, but we can at least remember him well, and for what he was — the last of the great West Indian juju-men.

Of the 3,000 souls to ever play Test cricket, only 35 have retired with a batting average over fifty, only 24 have survived two decades, and only eight have done both, among them Headley, Sobers and Chanderpaul.

Even that illustrious company belies his unique contribution, because no one in those shortlists — which, lest you forget, contains the greatest batsmen of all time — remained unbeaten at the wicket more often (18%), a fitting crown for the man who Shane Warne complained, “You need[ed] to crowbar away from the crease.” The Guyanese ‘Tiger’ earned his stripes in 164 Tests, more than anyone else in a maroon cap, as many as Chris Gayle’s and Marlon Samuels’s entire careers combined. He was, in brief, the most reliable batsman in history.

What the numbers cannot divulge is that Chanderpaul was also the last West Indian with that special mystique, the last one who knew the pungent linseed-oil smell of dominance firsthand, who felt an unbroken lineage of calypso custodians behind every cover drive, who could ignite the spectre of defeat in his opponents simply by padding up. His disappearance marks the dying breath of the greatest dynasty in sport, from 1978 to 1995, when the West Indies ruled the world. All that’s left now are a bunch of orphans, scrounging for scraps at the foot of the ICC rankings table.

To be fair, the decline in Windies cricket is a misnomer, more accurately described as stagnation amidst a rise elsewhere. Just as sabermetrics upended baseball, creating new winners and losers, so cricket transformed itself in the 1990s from a game of talent to a game of training and technology, a change that benefited richer nations at the expense of the poorer. Thus Australia, England, and South Africa have batted the top spots between them since 1995, while Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the West Indies (alongside newcomers Zimbabwe and Bangladesh) continue to struggle.

This more precise, more demanding, more lucrative sport has less room for anomalies like the boy from Unity Village, whose crab-like stance, unorthodox shuffle-step and overall eccentricity would now be excised in the name of efficiency and an IPL contract. (Plus, you can’t take your guard with LCD light-up bails.) For better or worse, the game has moved on, rejuvenated for a new century, with restless impatience for nostalgia.

All the old generals (Jayawardene, Kallis, Tendulkar) have fallen. The last man standing — as always, as it should be — was Shivnarine Chanderpaul.

- Keiran King is a playwright and journalist, pursuing his master’s degree in California. His column appears on Sunday. Tweet @keiranwking or email columns@gleanerjm.com and yell@keiranking.com.