No good and accurate history of cricket’s T20 format can be written without acknowledging Christopher Gayle as one of its major prophets. He has been one of its earliest and most significant proselytizers and has inspired and rallied a large number of converts to its cause. He appeared to have taken a particular liking to the format from the beginning. Maybe he realized that it was the format for which he was most suited. You love what you’re good at and Gayle was good at hitting the ball long and often. Sixes are the largest and most important batting currency and made Gayle one of its outstanding performers.
And yet he has two Test-match triple centuries as part of an enviable Test record, 317 against South Africa in April 2005 at the Antigua Recreation Ground and 333 against Sri Lanka in November 2010 at the Galle International Stadium. The tall Jamaican averages 42.18 in cricket’s longest format, 37.83 in ODIs and 32.54 in T20Is, confirming that his capabilities span all three genres.
As things now stand, Gayle may already have played his last international game. Recently, the West Indies selectors announced squad for all three formats for upcoming games against Afghanistan. Gayle’s name was not among them. “Gayle told us he is unavailable for Afghanistan Series,” read a media release from Cricket West Indies (CWI), “but we all know Chris, he is a world class player with a tremendous record and of course it’s difficult to replace Chris Gayle.
“But I think going forward it is in a way an opportunity for young players to showcase their skills and make a name for themselves as we look ahead to the next two T20 World Cups in 2020 and 2021 and the future.”
If this is indeed the end of a maroon-clad Chris Gayle then it’s safe to say he’s had an international career he can be proud of. He first donned the West Indies’ colours in 1999 in Toronto, Canada in an ODI versus India. A few months later he played his first Test in Port of Spain against Zimbabwe. Batting at three, his innings had just started to blossom when he was runout for 33. “I cried like a baby,” he reminisced years later.
Playing for the West Indies, a boyhood dream, meant everything at the time. Two weeks after that first Test outing he expressed to Tony Cozier, in a post-match interview, the zeal he felt playing for the West Indies and his willingness to do whatever was required of him by his team. Demoted from three to five in the batting order for that game, he had just participated in an unbroken 125-run match-winning partnership with fellow Jamaican Wavell Hinds in the second of two back-to-back One Day Internationals (ODIs) at Sabina Park, and he was obviously proud of his unbeaten 58.
As his career progressed he grew in confidence and might. The evolution of the game, and especially the emergence of its briefest format, were well suited to his strengths as a batsman. The T20 leagues brought added fame, fortune and independence enough to loosen the grip the West Indies cricket authorities held over its players. The players, therefore, those who could afford to, countenanced no nonsense, real or perceived, from their governing body.
The atmosphere surrounding West Indies cricket, unsettled at the best of times, became even more discordant during that period. Never far from the centre of the acrimony, Gayle, was kept out of West Indies cricket for over a year after he made some unflattering comments about then coach Ottis Gibson in 2011.
It required the intervention of a number of Caribbean governments to get him back in the side. He returned for the ODI and T20 legs of the 2012 tour of England, though it meant he had to renege on a contract to represent county club Somerset. His message was clear: despite what some of you think West Indies cricket is a priority. Injury has sometimes limited his appearances, especially in Tests, but since then he has largely been available to the Caribbean side when fit.
Colourful and fun-loving, the Universe Boss, as he has titled himself, has attracted a huge global following. He has 4.4 million followers on twitter, 2.9 million on Instagram, and often regales them with pictures and videos of some of his more interesting adventures.
Unsurprisingly, his carefree personality also means he has not avoided controversy. The one he probably regrets the most is the “don’t blush baby” interview he gave to sports broadcaster Mel McLaughlin after a Big Bash game in Australia in 2016. He was roundly castigated for his comments and has since been prevented from participating in the tournament.
For certain, Gayle’s ego grew in tandem with his burgeoning fame. Yet, like most, he is a complicated soul. He can be exceedingly gracious. Recall the time, for example, when he celebrated with the Afghanistan team that had just beaten the West Indies during the 2016 Twenty20 World Cup.
He’s often extremely generous with his time and resources, especially to needy children in Jamaica. Teammates and opponents speak frequently of the respect they have for the Big Man and of his genuine concern for their well-being. Brendan Nash, White and from Australia, was not accepted by all when he decided to move to Jamaica in order to try and make the West Indies team. Gayle, he said, was superb. “You are one of us, don’t worry about what anyone’s saying to you. If anyone troubles you, I am here for you.”
Recently, not being drafted for the Hundred, a new 100-ball-format set to be introduced in England next year, would seem to indicate that the powerful Jamaican is no longer seen as indispensable. That’s not all that surprising. The batsman is 40, an age at which his powers may well be winding down. In the end, time overpowers all athletes, regardless of how great they are and regardless of how strenuously they rage against the creeping corrosion that advanced age brings. Past a certain point, age comes accompanied by regression: reaction time slows; eyesight becomes less acute; fast-twitch muscle fibers decrease. The body becomes less effective at transporting oxygen, leading to less aerobic capacity, and will require more time to recover from exertion.
A bad back has significantly restricted his mobility. He has therefore become a liability in the field and a sluggish runner between the wickets. His ability to score in boundaries often compensates. But as his batting wanes, those deficiencies have become more and more glaring.
This is not to say that he is finished; there likely are a number big hits and a few match-winning innings still left in him. Yet there is always a point -- and its difficult determining when -- beyond which his inclusion is not helpful to his team.
Recently asked about MS Dhoni, one of the greatest limited overs players, India’s Chief selector MSK Prasad was unequivocal: “We are moving on from MS Dhoni.” Gayle has given much to West Indies cricket but now is probably the right time for them to move on from the Universe Boss.