Saturday, April 28, 2012

A tribute to Chanderpaul

About 18 years ago, the marauding Calypso Kings are playing their former Colonial Masters England. The Calypso Kings consisting of highly talented cricketers, enthralled the cricketing public with their panache, elan and flair. Among those tall and big Bajans, Jamaicans, Antiguans, there was a 20 year old all of 110 pounds playing his first test for West Indies. He looked like a tiny man from Lilliput, who was playing in a side made up of giants like Walsh and Ambrose.

As the 20 year old came onto bat, you wondered whether this man not taller than a school ruler will survive the hard grind of test cricket. He would shuffle across his stumps with Crab like movements, had an open-chested stance, an ugly back-lift and scoring every run seemed to be a mighty struggle for him. In a team made up of players, with swagger and having the chutzpah to play across the line and smash the fastest of bowlers for a six, he was the odd man out.  In the last test of that series though, the odd man out in the team scores a gritty half century and even guides Prince of Trinidad to that monumental record breaking innings of 375. As a cricket enthusiast you start wondering how can he do it?

Yes, I am thinking about the Guyanese left-hander Chanderpaul, who 18 years after his debut scaled the  10000 run-mark in the just concluded series against Australia. So, just because Chanders has now crossed 10000 run-mark in test cricket, it doesn't mean that it has been all smooth sailing for him throughout his career. During his career, the Westindies team from an all conquering undisputed kings of world cricket, have become a side that struggles to win a solitary match. There were times, when he has struggled for form, in the mid and late 90's, he had fitness issues and when he was appointed as the captain of the side, Chanders looked completely lost.

As a microcosm of life, a sportsman's career will also have periods when they look lost, but true champions are the ones, who would be able to wade through all those swamps and marshes that come in their way and attain the ultimate goal of having a successful career.  Chanderpaul definitely belongs to category of champions, as he has overcome all those obstacles to become a successful test match batsman.

To describe the way the Guyanese left-hander plays, one has to look back at all those battling knocks he has played when Westindies were in dire straits. When I think of some of his monumental knocks, the one series that will always be etched in my memory would be the West Indies tour of England in 2007. The Windies had an inexperienced side and even the Prince of Trinidad Lara had retired. In alien conditions, everytime Windies played, they were blown away by England's seamers and Monty's spin. One man, who always stood up-to England's attack though was Chanders himself.

I vividly remember his hundred at Old Trafford in that series in 2007. The track was taking turn and there was variable for Monty to work with. Even in such treacherous conditions, Chanders made a gutsy hundred. A few deliveries spun sharply and a few kicked off the surface, but Chanders with his exaggerated shuffle and open stance handled it superbly. He waited, waited, waited and waited for the loose delivery and when that loose delivery came his way, England's fielders invariably had to pick the ball back from the boundary. Everyone else got out but not Chanders. Yes, England won that match, but the knock by Chanderpaul, won the hearts of cricket fans.

Chanderpaul went onto make another masterful hundred in the final test of that series at Chester Le Street. This time around, there was enough sideways movement to keep the seamers interested, but let it be seaming conditions, or conditions that tended to help the spinners, Chanders had answers for all.

I have to say a few words about Chanderpaul's quickfire half century at Sydney in 96/97 too, as it came on a track, where the ball was spitting and turning. West Indies had already lost quick wickets in pursuit of a huge target and with Wizard of OZ Warney in the opposition ranks, even going past the three figure mark looked like a tall order for West Indies. Chanderpaul though, again with his crab like movements kept Warne at bay. A few deliveries spun viciously, a few kept low, a few kicked off the rough and bounced awkwardly on the little lefthander, but even the man with a bagful of tricks Warne couldn't get Chanderpaul out. What more, Chanderpaul made Warne scratch his head as he started to score quickly and captain genius Taylor had to even remove him out of the attack.

Finally, one of those deliveries spun too much and even Chanders didn't have an answer to it as he was cleaned up by Warne. On expected lines, Australia went onto win the match, but most of them who saw that match would likely remember it for Chanderpual's exemplary knock on a wearing pitch.

Shiv is also a versatile player which can be seen by his century in the 2003 series against the marauding all conquering Aussies.Yes, the Aussies perhaps would admit that they weren't at their best  in that match yet, Chanderpaul's knock made my jaws drop, as he smashed the Aussie bowlers to all corners of the ground and got his century of just 69 balls! I surely didn't expect Chanders to come out in such an aggressive fashion against Lee and Bichel and pull them in front off square.

Chanderpaul hasn't played memorable knocks only against Australia and England, as he  has also been a  thorn in the flesh of subcontinental sides especially India. Everytime I watched West Indies play India, it looked like the Indian spinners were resigned to the fate that Guyanese lefthander would bat for the whole day and score a century.

To be honest, Chanderpaul's concentration prowess never ceases to amaze. I have also wondered many times as to how can he be so successful with his technique. He plays with an exaggerated shuffle, where he just walks across the crease yet, you seldom see Chanderpaul being beaten outside the off-stump, or getting out LBW. Chanders has a very open chested stance and hardly plays anything straight down the ground and has a limited range of shots through the off-side. In-spite of those limitations, he is able to score runs on a consistent basis by deftly manoeuvring the ball into gaps on the on-side.

Now, it isn't like Chanderpaul has never been worked out by a team. I certainly remember in the early part of the last decade, a few teams trying to catch Chanders on the move so as to get him out LBW, or even target his legstump to get him out bowled. Here, one can think of the test series in Sharjah in 2002, when the likes of Younis and Razzaq got him out LBW, or bowled by catching Chanderpaul on the move. As Chanders wasn't in the best of nick, he was also getting out caught behind in that series.

The next time I saw Chanders though, he had even more of an exaggerated shuffle and open chested stance. What surprised me more was, Chanders making heaps of runs and looking more comfortable with that minor adjustment in his technique! Chanderpaul's great concentration prowess, his hardwork, self belief in his own method has worked wonders for him.

Chanderpaul's success as a batsman definitely tells you that a cricketer doesn't need a copybook technique to succeed at the test level. It also tells you that cricket isn't about how a batsman scores his runs, but how many runs a batsman scores. Purists may cringe at the way Chanderpaul bats, but in the end, it is the scoreboard that matters.

Yes, Chanderpaul lacks the panache and flair of Lara, the finesse of Afghan, Martyn and Jayawerdene, can't play breathtaking strokes like KP and S'wag, nor does he have the magical wrists of Azhar, VVS and Malik. As I said though, in the end, it is all about how many runs a batsman scores and not about how he gets those runs. So, for his dedication and hardwork, the price tag he puts on his wicket every-time he walks to the crease, the ability to weather the storm and invariably steer the weak Windies team to shores of safety and his self-effacing dignity on a cricket field, makes Chanderpaul an all time great player.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Jayawardene's batting masterclass

It was 13th May of 2006, under grey and overcast skies, Emerald Isle's cricket team seemed to be outclassed and outgunned by a band of tall fast bowlers from England. It didn't look like they had a hope in hell, as the Lankans were about trillion runs behind after the first innings and were made to follow on. Enter their captain fantastic Mahela Jayawardene, who for the next two days plays with the level of concentration and calmness of a Buddhist Monk and takes his team from the brink of a sure defeat to a respectable draw. The former colonial masters are shell shocked as to how could a player from the subcontinent counter the exigent conditions on display and help his team to draw the match.

Fast forward to the just completed series played in the beautiful Island of Srilanka, both England and the Lankans are again battling it out under hot and humid conditions. Yes, some of the personnel on both sides had changed, but the one familiar face, who would again thwart England's efforts to win a rare series in the subcontinent would be that man Jayawardene. Every-time Anderson, or Swann threatened to take the game away from Srilanka, Mahela rose like a phoenix and took the Lankans to safety. It made England's players and their band of supporters feel like even if as predicted by some, the life on Earth will end, Jayawardene will be ready to take strike to the next ball.

So, what makes Jayawardene so tough to bowl at? Is he a wizard with a magic wand in his hand that hypnotises a bowler to bowl long hops, or is he a batsman, who has a copybook technique that allows him to handle bowlers with ease?

In simple words, when Mahela is playing at his best, it is difficult to understand the essence of his batting and explain it in mere words. The way Jayawardene plays can perhaps be understood by the epic battles he had in the series against England with two bowlers, who are at top of their game, Anderson and Swann.

The first test of the series played at the beautiful scenic Galle stadium with the famous Dutch fort on one side and the clock-water on the other, also saw an enthralling contest between captain fantastic Jayawardene and Anderson.

On the first day of the first test, it looked like Srilanka were staring down the barrel as they had lost three quick wickets and England were right on top. The Burnley Bullet with his well polished craft of swing bowling was stealthily preying on the batsmen without their knowledge and sending them back to the pavilion one by one. Yes, the king of swing Anderson was making the batsmen feel like they were in hell, but one man he couldn't knock over and send him back to the pavilion was Jayawardene. Actually, the engrossing battle between Anderson and Mahela is what dreams are made of for a cricket aficionado like me.

In this epic battle, Anderson tries every trick in the trade. First up, he looks to get Mahela out LBW with a sharp in-ducker as MJ early in his innings doesn't move his feet.The captain fantastic though is up-to the task, as he doesn't move long way forward, but just enough to defend it with a straight bat.

Next up, Anderson tries couple of well pitched tempters outside the off-stump to again test Jayawardene's footwork, but MJ doesn't fall to the bait as he leaves them with ease. Finally, Anderson goes back to his trademark outswinger that tends to slant in to the right-handed batsman before it leaves the batsman late. Jayawardene is again up-to the task as he is able to leave even those deliveries, or occasionally when he edges it, plays it with soft hands and it doesn't carry to the slip cordon.

The key point to note here is, economy of movement. There is always a lot of talk about trigger movements, but with Mahela, his technique is simple and wonderful to watch. If a quick bowler pitches it up, he won't move long way forward, but just enough to defend it and when  it is short, he moves back just enough and either defends it, or plays a shot. So, we won't see any extraneous trigger  movements with Jayawardene at the crease.

MJ came up with another classy knock at Colombo, where yet again Anderson sliced through the top-order. Unfortunately for Anderson, the number four batsman captain fantastic took Srilanka to a decent score.

The highlight of Anderson v Jayawardene battle in the second test was the way MJ handled a masterclass of reverse swing by Anderson. Late on the first day with the old ball, Anderson was reversing it both ways and was using the crease beautifully to create those slight differences in angles. Jayawardene though, showed great prowess of concentration and just moved forward, or back as and when required to take Lanka yet again to safety.

The beauty of his batting against a quick bowler could also be seen, when he was able to play the late cut against a  bowler of the class of Anderson by just opening the face of the bat and guiding it to the boundary. It was again a case of  Mahela's economy of movement, his balance and his great hands that came into play.

The other shot I remember would be that check drive he played against England's Mr Reliable Bresnan in the second test at Colombo. For the umpteenth time, he took a small stride forward and played the straight drive, but checked the shot just enough to make sure that it doesn't go in the air on a wearing pitch. A shot of sheer class and Mahela was in complete control of that shot. In the entire series, I can't remember many times Jayawardene looking off balance and when he played, it looked like a batsman was batting on a different track.

The other epic battle that Jayawardene had was against England's premier spinner Swann. Now, Swann just like Anderson is at the top of his game. Just like any other good or great spinner, he varies his pace, has variations like the under cutter, gets more revolutions on the ball than any other present day spinner and to put doubts inside a batsman's head, will bowl couple of them that would turn big in a particular over.

I thought Mahela was at his best against Swann in the first innings of the first test, when he played a gem of an innings. Just like most of the Asian batsmen, he picks the spinners from the hand which in turn helped MJ to use the depth of the crease to flick Swann onto the on-side. He also bats with softest of hands and that allows him to frustrate the best of spinners like Swann by just rotating the strike.  Of course, he is very wristy which helps him to escape from getting out even if he is beaten by the flight, or turn.

The one shot that drove Swann crazy throughout the series especially, in the first innings of the first test was the sweep shot. Every-time, Swann bowled slightly outside the off-stump, Mahela was able to sweep him as though he is facing a club level bowler. This was a shot played by Mahela to show to Swann that he was the boss in the middle.

 The greatest strength of Mahela in the entire series was his shot selection. The tracks in Srilanka were  offering enough assistance for a spinner to come into play and were very slow too, so it required a batsman to show great shot selection.

MJ's shot selection was just phenomenal, as even when it was short and asking to be pulled, he just used the depth of the crease to take singles.  He would also play those elegant drives mainly when Swann over-pitched it. Yes, at times those sweep shots were risky, but it just showed that Mahela was in complete control and when a batsman is in such great form, he starts believing that he can play any shot in the book. MJ is a batsman, who just doesn't seem to get unperturbed by anything that is happening around him, has the concentration prowess of a Buddhist monk and gargantuan stamina to handle tough conditions.

Yes, it wasn't like Jayawardene completely dominated Swann, as Swann had his moments too as he got him out thrice. I especially, remember the first innings of the second test, when Swann did what some fans including me were thinking that he could use it as a plan against MJ.

The plan was for Swann to go around the wicket and straighten it down the line to get Mahela out LBW. There was always a chance of Mahela occasionally misjudging the length and with him taking a small stride forward, Swann in theory could get him out LBW. The plan worked for once, as MJ used his pad instead of bat and Swann got him out LBW. Mahela never used his pad to Swann again though and  it finally took a monstrous delivery from Swann which kicked off a wearing surface, turned sharply and took the edge in the second innings to dismiss the great man.  

To be frank, just mere words won't be enough to describe the way Mahela played. It would require a cricket aficionado to watch the entire day's play made up of elegant drives, how well he uses the depth of the crease, those surgical like precision sweeps and flicks and his beautiful, but simple technique based on economy of movement to understand what a great player Jayawardene is. In short, I am just thankful that I was able to watch couple of tests of Jayawardene's wizardry though, it came against the team I support!