TONY COZIER: Shiv’s career winding down
TO USE THE CONTEMPORARY IDIOM, there will be an elephant in the room when Clive Lloyd and his fellow selectors choose the West Indies team for the first Test against Australia in Dominica from June 3-7.
The expression is somewhat incongruous since it applies to a player with the nickname of an altogether more ferocious animal but, however much the panel finds it difficult to determine the immediate future of Shivnarine Chanderpaul, a cricketer with an outstanding past, the issue cannot be dodged.
The questions to be answered are obvious.
Does the sudden, dramatic slump of the one consistently reliable West Indies batsman during the continuing period of decline signal the end of his extraordinary career?
Even as he turned 40 last August, it appeared the slender left-hander, tagged “Tiger” for his fierce, single-minded resistance in the face of repeated lost causes, would well carry on to become the game’s Methuselah.
A month after the birthday that carried him into his fifth decade, he bumped up his aggregate with scores of 85, 84 and 101 against Bangladesh without being dismissed in two Tests in the Caribbean.
With the abruptness of a Caribbean sunset, he has had to face the inevitability that, whatever the lyrics of the song might claim, life does not begin at 40, certainly not for Test batsmen depending on their reflexes and eyesight to deal with a five-and-a-half ounce of leather ball aimed in their direction from a distance of less than 22 yards.
In his last six Tests, he managed 91 runs in five innings in South Africa in December and 92 in six innings against England over the past month. He has succumbed to eight different bowlers of various types. The inference from figures that so starkly contrast his overall record is undeniable.
Even now, after 164 Tests (more than any of the 302 players who have worn West Indies colours in their 87 years of Test cricket) spread over 21 years, he has tallied 11 867 runs, averaged 51.37 and scored 30 hundreds, all carefully achieved with neat deflections and gap-seeking strokes from an ungainly, exaggerated open stance that defies reason and instantly identifies him.
It isn’t worth contemplating how much worse the West Indies’ downfall would have been without him; now the reality is that, whether selected against Australia or not, his lengthy career is winding down.
Before it ends, the determination that has always been the most significant characteristic of a boy raised to be a cricketer by his father and uncle in the humble Guyana village of Unity might somehow drive him to one final flourish against the Aussies, a favourite opponent with an average touching 50 and five hundreds in 20 Tests against them.
While Lloyd and his colleagues also take the entirety of his career into consideration, the most pertinent issue likely to occupy their attention is whether the young alternatives are yet ready to face up to the strongest bowling attack in Test cricket.
As the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB) continues to separate its first-class tournament from home Tests, it precludes a ready appraisal of any player required in case of injury or loss of form to an incumbent.
When 21-year-old Shai Hope was chosen for his debut in the final Test against England – and placed in the unfamiliar role of opener – he had played no serious cricket for a month. It was hardly proper preparation. The list of prospective replacements for Chanderpaul is short as it is; by the Dominica Test, none would have had a first-class match for 41 days.
It is a scenario likely to retain Chanderpaul his place. The better option for introducing new, young players would be on the tours of Zimbabwe and Sri Lanka later in the year.
In the widespread discussions on the subject (we are, after all, dealing with a special, long-standing, committed West Indian cricketer), an absurd, if not surprising, idea has gained currency.
It is that Chanderpaul be given the two Tests solely to allow him the possibility of adding the 47 runs he needs to surpass Brian Lara’s 11 912 runs as the most in West Indies’ Tests.
The unfortunate upshot is that if he is, indeed, picked – as is likely in the circumstances – it will be perceived as precisely for that reason. It would serve absolutely no purpose except to one-dimensional statisticians.
It certainly wouldn’t establish who is better between two complete opposites whose left-handedness and extraordinary records are the only things they have in common.
Lara was, quite simply, a genius to whom batting was second nature. Even compiling unimaginable scores of 500 not out, 400 not out and 375 seemed to require minimal effort, maximum enjoyment.
Chanderpaul was clearly not endowed with such natural talent; he has battled for every run, at his best scrapping against the odds, relishing every crisis to come along.
Lara is eight years into his premature, enforced retirement. Chanderpaul’s is soon upon him. For different reasons, it is unlikely we will ever see their likes again.
Tony Cozier is the most experienced cricket writer and broadcaster in the Caribbean.