The annals of Twenty20 (T20) franchise cricket were recently shaken by a quite momentous occurrence: at the end of the Pakistan Super League (PSL) 2018 draft, Chris Gayle remained unselected.
Those paying close attention knew it was approaching, but it was stunning nonetheless. Quite simply, the powerful Jamaican is the greatest batsman to adorn the T20 game. Very few possess anything like his power and ability to strike a cricket ball. He is the only batsman with over 10,000 T20 runs. He has most centuries and half-centuries, has struck most sixes, most fours, and very few batsmen score at a faster rate. He has even been called the Bradman of the genre. There can't possibly be a higher praise.
Gayle was, until now, amongst the first players chosen for any T20 league. And so, this snub is a sign that the times, in the words of Bob Dylan “are a changin’.”
This is what it comes down to: the tall left-hander is just not the destructive force he was five or so years ago. He was at his apex in the years leading up to 2014. Easily the most dominant Indian Premier League (IPL) batsman during that time, he finished at the top of the run-scoring list in 2011 and 2012 before slipping to second in 2013. His totals were 608, 733 and 708 runs respectively and his lowest average those three seasons was 59.
The last few years have seen him sputtering along. Injury has probably robbed him of some fitness but there is no doubt his powers as the game’s most punishing batsman are waning. Make no mistake, he is still capable of the incendiary, match-winning innings. But, those displays now occur less often than they did in his prime, and his mobility between the wickets and in the field is well below the usual standard.
Representing the St Kitts and Nevis Patriots in the 2017 Caribbean Premier League (CPL), he scored 376 runs from 11 innings at a whopping average of 62.66. His strike-rate, however, was a pedestrian 127.02. His career strike-rate is over 145. As captain, Gayle might have decided to play the “sheet-anchor” role — if such a role can even exist in T20 cricket — as his five not-outs suggest. Or, it could be that he recognises he is no longer the great destroyer and adjusted his game accordingly. For context, Evin Lewis, his opening partner and protégé, slammed 371 runs in this year’s CPL at a strike-rate of 184.57.
Gayle’s record in the PSL has not been stellar. During the inaugural edition in 2016, he scored just 103 runs from five matches at an average of 20.60 for the Lahore Qalanders. Playing for the Karachi Kings in the second edition, he was similarly disappointing, managing only 160 runs from nine matches at an average of 17.77.
One argument given as explanation for Gayle not being employed by any team is that West Indies duties may prevent him from being available for the duration of the competition. But his colleagues, such as Evin Lewis, Sunil Narine and Carlos Brathwaite, are in exactly the same position and they have been hired. As one unnamed owner remarked, “We were told that Gayle is partially available so that was one of the reasons, but even if he was available, we would not have picked him because he is no more the Gayle force he once was.”
That he is no longer the “Gayle force he once was” is not unexpected. He is now 38 and time’s deleterious effects take a toll on everyone. Things he could once do in his sleep are now likely to be more difficult to accomplish. We all age at different rates. In the end, however, even the greatest athletes must succumb to the changes that accompanies advancing age. Reaction time slows, eyesight becomes less acute, fast-twitch muscle fibers decrease, body becomes less effective at transporting oxygen which leads to less aerobic capacity, and to the body requiring more time to recover from exertion.
These problems are, of course, irreversible. That is not to say that Gayle will no longer be able to construct the big, rousing innings. Babe Ruth was on his last legs when he stood up in one of his last games and blasted two homeruns that recalled headier days and had the fans roaring in the stands. Gayle’s outstanding knocks, however, once a par for course, have already become less immense and now occur less frequently.
'One Tour Too Many' is the title of a chapter in David Foot’s book, Wally Hammond: The Reasons Why. There, the author argues that the batsman who Sir Leonard Hutton describes as “the most perfect batsman I ever saw, more enjoyable to watch than Sir Don,” might have gone on too long.
“Hammond was now 43,” Foot wrote, “his eyes were tired and his teeth stained from nicotine. Some of the natural exuberances had gone from his exquisite stroke-play, even though he had just topped the first-class averages again and at times batted quite beautifully in limited appearances for his county.”
Deciding when to go can be tricky. It is an issue with which all great athletes must grapple. Despite having some good games left in him, it is likely that retirement is occupying the Jamaican’s thoughts more and more.
The end usually comes softly to sportsmen. And they often don’t see it coming. It doesn’t come in a straight line or at constant speed either. It speeds up a touch and slows down. It takes a detour or two and is probably invisible for bit. But it’s there and it’s coming. It might not have gotten to Gayle quite yet but it’s on its way. And there may be little he can do to turn it back.