A week or so ago I was sitting with my father-in-law, a cricket fan from the 1960s, when he asked if I thought Chris Gayle would be making any runs going forward. My answer? “No!”
Pronouncing on when a player’s skills has diminished to the point where his team is better off without him can be a dicey exercise — you write off players, especially great ones, at your own risk.
It’s just that Gayle, to my eyes at least, had seemed past his best when I had seen him bat recently. And with the West Indies having a number of young players coming to the fore, maybe it was time to look to the future. Furthermore, the big Jamaican was almost immobile, being regularly outscored by his batting partners, and seemed more likely to get out than he was to score.
I understood, of course, the selector’s willingness to bring him back and trying to get him at his best for the approaching World Cup. Indeed, it would be a very brave decision to leave out someone of his reputation and capabilities.
What I thought was that Gayle was no longer Gayle. He was still capable of standing up and smashing a few sixes — he’ll probably be able to do that when he’s a hundred years old — but the dominant Chris Gayle, the Chris Gayle West Indian fans loved and opponents feared, was gone, I thought… forever.
I was wrong.
In this current One Day International (ODI) series, the powerful opening batsman is showing that he’s as dangerous and as dominant as ever. He scored 125 off 129 balls and 50 off 63 balls in the first two games in Barbados. He lit up the National Cricket Stadium in Grenada with a savage 162 off just 97 deliveries during the fourth game of the series, the third being abandoned due to rain.
In Barbados, it was apparent that Gayle had sought to employ a studious start before expanding his range. Not that it is a new approach for him — we have seen him do it occasionally. But just as often, or even more so, he has blazed away from early in his innings. He has scripted some amazing innings at blinding rates by going hard from the start. Sometimes, however, it has led to his early downfall.
The cautious start that blossoms into the full-fledged assault seems to be more his way these days. The "Universe Boss", as he styles himself, is now 39, and this tactic seems to be a nod, or even a concession, to his advancing years.
In the first Barbados game, he was 12 off 36 balls when he struck his first boundary, a six over long on off Moeen Ali. He was 26 off 54 when he slammed his second, again over long on and again off the same bowler.
His start, then, was laboured, and it would all have turned out badly had he been taken, as he should have been, when he offered a simple catch to Jason Roy off Liam Plunkett when batting on 9. In the end, none could quarrel with the runs he scored or the rate at which he scored them.
In the second game, he began cautiously as well. Batting conditions were slightly more difficult and so he’d have felt reasonably satisfied with his innings, though the strike rate was, for him, a rather pedestrian 79.3.
It was in this last game, however, that he really turned it on. Batting second and chasing a colossal 419, Gayle still took a few deliveries, eight to be exact, to get acclimatised to the conditions before depositing Chris Woakes over deep square leg for his first six. It was the first of 14 and they were accompanied by 11 fours.
It was a game of sixes. There were a record 46 of them — 22 by the West Indies and 24 by England. Jos Buttler struck 12 of them in the process of smashing a brutal 150 off just 77 balls. He and captain Eoin Morgan, who made 103 off 88, combined to add 204, and were the ones mainly responsible for the huge total the home side had to chase.
Yet, though they eventually fell 29 runs short, scoring 389, Caribbean fans would hardly complain, in hindsight, about the visitor’s total, for it allowed them to witness their biggest batting star at his extraordinary best.
Hitting the long ball comes easily to the big opening batsman. There is, often, a certain degree of nonchalance about his strokeplay, especially when he is hitting down the ground. "This is getting ridiculous now!" exclaimed Nick Knight on commentary after one lazy hit over long on off Ali. It just all seemed so casual, as if the batsman were taking a Sunday afternoon stroll in his neighbourhood.
While Gayle remained in the middle, the West Indies appeared to be sauntering to victory. When he fell, however, bowled by a full delivery from Ben Stokes, everyone was sure it was all over. There was 124 still to get and it is a credit to the batsmen that remained that they were able to get so close.
Still, the West Indies have Gayle to thank for keeping them in the game and ahead of the required scoring rate for such a long time. It was a good batting wicket but Gayle, and the West Indies, gave notice that they will not be pushovers when the World Cup comes around. They may have had to play qualifying matches to get a ticket to the party but they are showing, this series, that they belong in even the most esteemed company.
England are the highest-ranked ODI side in the world. If the West Indies are able to push them like they did, every other team should beware. Those who dismiss the chances of the men from the Caribbean may have to eat their words — just like Gayle has made me eat mine.