Solitary Chanderpaul Keep On Batting
Shivnarine Chanderpaul rarely gives interviews. It is remarkable that the ICC Cricketer of the Year and one of the best batsmen this decade has so little written about him. "I don't like to chat," he says with a shrug, his features retreating further under the peak of his cap. There is a pause. The dogged batsman who loves to stand at the crease and bat for hours is equally good at waiting out a silence.
While plenty of people can describe Chanderpaul's playing style or tell you about his records – prime among them is that he is the only player to bat for more than 1,000 minutes before being dismissed, four times – ask them to describe "Shiv" the man, and they would struggle. "I'm a private person," says the 34-year-old. "I'm reserved, not outgoing. I don't trouble anybody. I had some bad experiences with interviews. I said something and they changed it up and made it look bad so after a while I decided to hell with it." Since then the Guyanese has kept himself to himself.
There are few subjects that will shake Chanderpaul out of his private world, but Kevin Pietersen is one of them. The two batsmen are polar opposites – Pietersen loves the limelight, Chanderpaul detests "glamour"; Pietersen loves to take risks, Chanderpaul would rather stay at the crease. They meet again at Lord's on Wednesday as England take on West Indies. At the mention of KP, Chanderpaul's face grows very dark. On the recent West Indies tour Pietersen took a swipe at him, accusing him of "playing for himself". It was a comment that Chanderpaul did not take lightly.
"You can't assume or think someone's just playing for themselves. I don't know where he gets his stories from … I can't be playing for myself when I'm in Trinidad trying to save a match. Scoring 140 and I'm playing for myself?" Chanderpaul's expression is one of utter disgust.
Did Pietersen's comment make him angry? "What he said just motivated me more. It definitely made me better at what I was doing. If people come at me I just want to make sure that I can be out there even longer. You get angry and you just want to grind somebody out there longer, that's how I do my job." Chanderpaul folds his arms, his outburst a rare moment of expression.
Perhaps Pietersen's comment hit a nerve. No one could justifiably accuse Chanderpaul of not being a team player – in 1994 he famously helped Brian Lara break Sir Garry Sobers's Test record of 365 not out against England – but there is an undeniably solitary air about him.
Since he was a little boy learning to play cricket in Unity Village – a tiny fishing town on the north coast of Guyana – it has always been "Shiv" against the rest of the world. When he was eight years old he would stand at one end of a bumpy strip, a roughly cut cricket pitch grazed on by goats, and fend off concrete balls. Grown men from the village would turn out to bowl at him, by the end of the afternoon he would be covered in bruises, carefully soaking his skin in warm water to ease the sting. His father said it was training, to toughen him up.
"I think my father gave them a challenge to hit me and everybody wanted to," he says, "I had to defend myself. They threw concrete balls, it hurts when they hit you." Did he complain? "I couldn't tell my dad anything," he says, laughing. "He had a big wood inside waiting for me. He said if you want to play cricket you've got to tough it out."
This is the reason for his unusually open and crab-like stance. "I had to fend off these short balls, so I had my stance from then. Jumping out the way or shielding my body. Later, I tried to get side-on, but I found I kept falling over."
Chanderpaul spent a childhood immersed in cricket. His house was next door to the cricket pitch and every day after school he would slip out back and set up the nets, waiting for his father to come home from a day's fishing to start practice. Together they would play on a variety of surfaces – the uneven field, flat concrete and the wet sand of the beach – learning how to respond to different deliveries.
"He used to throw me a compressed rubber ball on the sand at the water's edge where the ball would take off very fast. We played on the concrete for bounce and then the beach for pace. I've been doing all this preparation since then. My father pushed me. He wanted me to be able to go out and fight, grab it and do whatever you have to do to make it go your way. This was a mentality he instilled in me from a long time." The two remain close. "Sometimes he still tries to tell me things, you shouldn't get out and dah dah dah, or I have to try and score a little bit quicker, dah dah dah." He rolls his eyes.
Strict as Khemraj Chanderpaul was with his son, missing school to play cricket did not warrant a beating and Chanderpaul junior happily skipped class most days. "As soon as the teacher back turned, she don't see me again," he says. "She'd look out the window and see me on the ground playing. My sister just used to pick up my schoolbag and bring it home." By then his parents already knew their son would make it to the highest level of the game and Chanderpaul never finished high school.
Sitting in a luxurious hotel in the Derbyshire hills, Chanderpaul chuckles as his West Indies team-mates file through the lobby clutching grease-spotted paper bags filled with spicy chicken and rice. His eyes widen when he hears that the Jamaica Olympic team take their own chef with them when they travel. "I wish we had that," he says, wistfully. When he played for Durham last season he had to manage with his own cooking. "I try," he says with a grin. "I don't know if it's cooked too well, but I try."
Chanderpaul describes Guyanese specials such as cook-up rice and metemgee, his recipe instructions as methodical and evenly paced as his batting. "It's like a soup," he says, "with coconut milk. You put provision and maybe chicken or whatever meat you want. Then you just boil it until it's finished. Then you put some dumplings in it. We call that metemgee." He is a homely soul. He misses his wife's home cooking and their 15-month-old son, Brandon.
It is impossible not to wonder how this quiet, intensely private man ever captained West Indies. Four years ago he was given the task after a sponsorship row ended in nine players – including Lara – being dropped. Chanderpaul admits it was not a role he enjoyed. "When I gave it up it felt like a big weight off my shoulders," he says. "As a captain you have more responsibilities, you have to say more things, you have to be more open, you can't be quiet, you have to try and get involved in everything. At times it can make you stressed out, doing these things over and over.
"You don't have time to focus on your own game, it's too much. There was a point where I couldn't actually focus on my batting. I was worrying about things, not winning, all these things play up on your mind and you just can't get things right.
"I had a run for a year and I knew things weren't going my way and it wasn't good for West Indies cricket so I wanted to let it go and give somebody else a chance."
His mental preparation for a game is a process so cerebral it is no surprise that he struggled to communicate with his players. "Before I step on the park I sit in my room and play the balls in my head. I bat each ball in my head. When I was a child we never had any television to watch replays so you have to have it in your head. Sometimes I still don't look at the tapes because I'm so much accustomed to replay things in my head. I can replay ball by ball, remembering the mistakes I make."
Chanderpaul is the longest-serving player in the side – he made his Test debut against England 15 years ago – and still his sense of isolation in the team is significant. As a Hindu one of his first challenges was overcoming that cultural difference. "I don't eat beef or pork because of my religion, so I'd turn up at the ground and not know if there would be any food for me. You'd have a tough session and sometimes there would only be rice or a bit of bread.
"From when I joined the team, everybody would play in the field and then after that everybody would just go and look after their own business. Together you're as a team and you help each other, but afterwards everybody just gone after their own business. That's the way it's been in this team for most of the time I've been here."
His attitude and approach to the game is unique. When he scored the fourth-fastest Test century, against Australia in 2003, he was disappointed that he had not stayed at the crease longer. "I was surprised at myself when the guy announced I scored 100. I was like, huh? But I would have preferred to bat for longer and for that reason I didn't enjoy it as much."
His recent form put him top of the ICC rankings, an event that coincided with his resignation from the captaincy and the retirement of Lara. "I guess if I think about it, after Brian left it was about having more responsibility. It is now more mine to make the younger players understand that this is what it takes."
That stepping up reaped rewards as the ICC handed him the coveted cricketer of the year award in 2008, a moment of huge significance. "It was really big for me. I never expected to win something like that knowing we have so many good players out there. To actually come out on top, it's a great honour." True to character he skipped the awards ceremony at Grosvenor House in London, preferring to play out a crucial championship decider for Durham.
Out of the limelight, sticking at the crease, Chanderpaul is unlikely to ever change. "I like to do things my way," he says, and as the best batsman in the world right now, who could question him?