Derek Pringle column – Force is strong as Gayle cashes in again

By posting 10,000 runs in Twenty20 cricket, Chris Gayle has taken a format still lingering in novelty firmly into the mainstream. It is a fitting symbiosis, both having needed the other as they swept aside cricket’s old world values in a whirl of fame, wealth and bling.

For Gayle, T20 has probably been the pre-eminent form of cricket for a while now, bringing him riches and renown beyond his wildest fantasies as a ‘mere’ West Indies cricketer. Like a batting Darth Vader, he has bestridden the shortest game like a malign colossus, wielding his bat not with the dextrous facility of a lightsaber, but with the bludgeoning force of a sledgehammer.

Power can be a thrilling spectacle on a sports field, but Gayle’s strength possesses a brutal quality that can destroy a bowler’s will. In the last World T20 in India, England only lost to the West Indies, including the final. Gayle didn’t feature in that, but he won the first-round match against them almost single-handedly with an unbeaten 100, his dismantling of England’s bowlers forcing a rethink as to who might best be deployed for the remainder of the tournament.

Gayle was T20’s poster boy right from the start, nailing his short-form colours to the mast with his infamous, “I wouldn’t be sad” reply to the hypothetical question: what if Test cricket died? That was in 2009, and he was West Indies Test captain at the time, so it did not go down well. But while many of his contemporaries around the world played to the gallery by declaring their abiding love for the longer format, Gayle, even if you disagreed with him, was refreshingly honest about where his priorities lay.

He reached the 10,000-run milestone playing for Royal Challengers Bangalore against Gujarat Lions in the Indian Premier League on Tuesday, an encounter RCB won. It was his 290th T20 match, which means he averages 34.5 runs a match at a strike-rate of 149.5 – easier to do when you open the innings as he does, but still an incredible feat given the constant risks required in that form of the game.

In the match, he made 77 off 33 balls, an innings which included seven sixes and five fours. It also contained the unusual, for him at least, running of three quick singles in the opening over, the last of which brought him to 10,000 runs – which suggests he was savvy to the situation.

As much a feature as his mighty ball-striking has been his reluctance to run between the wickets. Twos and threes are rare anyway in T20 cricket, but for Gayle they are collectors’ items. Like Friedrich Nietzsche’s Superman, his motto seems to be: “Never steal when one can plunder.”

The figures back it up, too, and when you have taken account of the 743 sixes and 769 fours he has struck in those 290 games, you discover, on average, that just 8.75 runs a match (just over 25 per cent) did not come from boundaries.

He also takes time to play himself in, a statistic in this year’s IPL revealing him to have the lowest strike-rate of all openers in the tournament who have faced at least 50 balls. It is deliberate. Whereas the younger Gayle was impetuous and eager to hit hard from the off, the mature one takes his time until he is seeing it well, safe in the knowledge that no bowler can constrain him and that he can catch up with the run-rate at the back end of his innings. Dot-dot-bash-bash, it is Morse Code for ‘Gayle is at the crease’.

He needs to savour it for it appears that the roving life of a T20 buccaneer is all he has got, at the age of 37, now the West Indies’ selectors appear to have lost his number. Although he has clocked up 103 Tests and 269 one-day internationals, he has not been picked for either format in the last two years. Indeed, he has not featured in a T20 international for the past 12 months, not since the West Indies’ acrimonious victory in the World T20. National duty, it seems, has been dispensed with, at least by one of the parties involved.

The stance of the West Indies Board is the opposite to that taken by Andrew Strauss, the England and Wales Cricket Board’s director of England cricket. Just as many Test-playing countries were eager to implant their better players in English county cricket during the 1980s, in order for them to improve by experiencing different conditions as well as an increased volume of cricket, so Strauss has encouraged England’s more promising T20 players to take part in the IPL, without prejudice. It is a never-mind-the-quality-feel-the-quantity sort of argument, though one that has seduced many of West Indies’ best players to the detriment of the national team.

What is interesting, given the innovation that T20 constantly throws up, is how little Gayle has changed his approach. As mentioned, he takes his time a bit more than he used to, but not for him the acquisition of ramp and dink shots that make bowling even good-looking yorkers such a nightmare for today’s T20 bowler. Instead, he relies on intimidation to force the bowler into error, nerves being a better generator of ‘hit-me’ balls than nifty footwork.

A bit like Tiger Woods’ sinew-straining golf swing, his failure to evolve as a batsman might cost him. Indeed, he was only able to post his 10,000th run because AB de Villiers fell ill before the match, allowing him the stage once more. But people have written Gayle off before only to be chastened by his thunderous return.

Anyway, as a destroyer of bowlers, Gayle remains a phenomenon and while T20 retains the gladiatorial flavour of the Coliseum, and sixes still bring the screams, there will always be demand for big-hitters like him.

This piece originally featured in The Cricket Paper, April 21 2017

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