First impressions tend to linger. My first memory of Chris Gayle is of him on the beach at Mount Lavinia in September 2002. Along with the Champions Trophy, Sri Lanka was hosting a Ms. Tourism International pageant, and a group of players and journalists had been invited to mingle with the contestants on that most picturesque of beaches. What could possibly go wrong?
West Indies had somehow contrived to lose their opening game against South Africa, as Mervyn Dillon bowled a wide down the leg-side with South Africa needing three off the last ball. Victory against Kenya was mere consolation, with only one team from each group going through to the final four.
Gayle had scored 49 and 33 in the two matches and was one of those to attend the party. As the sun went down and the spirits started to flow, players (and journalists) made a beeline for the beauty queens, trying to overcome language barriers in order to exchange numbers and other missives.
Gayle stood in a corner, leaning against a pillar, his face impassive. The girls went to him, at least a couple of dozen of them. Even at that nascent stage of his career, the Jamaican was a man apart.
For the Indian Premier League (IPL), he was so much more. His two seasons with Kolkata Knight Riders had been relatively ordinary, and there had been no takers at the auction before the fourth season. In the wake of a disastrous 2011 World Cup, and with no central contract forthcoming from the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB), Gayle’s career appeared to be headed for the scrap heap.
Then, Dirk Nannes got injured, and Royal Challengers Bangalore took a punt. To understand the impact it had, you had to have been at the various venues. This was what many of us referred to as the morning-after IPL. It had started less than a week after India’s emotionally draining World Cup triumph, and there was little passion in evidence as a bloated ten-team caravan wound its way around India.
In Kochi, for the Tuskers’ opening game, the stadium was nearly half-empty. There was similar apathy elsewhere too, until Gayle arrived and lit a fuse under the competition. Sachin Tendulkar had scored a record 618 runs the previous season. Gayle managed ten less, but in three fewer innings. More importantly, his runs came at an eye-popping strike-rate of 183.13. Tendulkar’s had been a prosaic 132.61.
Gayle exploded the six-and-out myth, showing that you could keep clearing the rope with minimal risk. Not for him excessive improvisation or innovation. He left that to others, scoring most of his runs with meaty cleaves in the arc between extra-cover and midwicket. He struck 44 sixes that season, and would add 110 (59 and 51) over the next two, when he smashed the 700-run barrier.
Long before Virat Kohli or David Warner, there was Gayle, marrying precise strokeplay, power and nonchalance with incredible consistency. And he did that while moving as little as he had done that night in Colombo years earlier.
The runs dried up in 2014, and though there was a revival of sorts the following season (491 runs at a strike-rate of 147.44), the passage of time eroded both reflexes and skills. These days, Gayle is like the aging boxer fighting from memory. Half a step slow, he finds the bowlers beating him to the punch every single time.
When a team bowls without a plan, or executes it poorly, as Gujarat Lions did earlier this season, he can still look devastating. But with data analytics so far advanced compared to 2011, the better sides zone in on your weaknesses ruthlessly. Gayle, who turns 38 in September, now has a fair few chinks in the batting armour.
On Sunday (May 14) night, in an otherwise inconsequential game, he could be playing his 101st and last IPL game. His bowling is no longer a part of the quiver, and he is a liability in the field unless the ball goes straight to him. Dwindling returns with the bat make him an unappealing proposition for most franchises, especially with the auction for the 2018 season likely to be about building for the future.
If he enters the auction at a low base price, Gayle may yet get a contract. But if he seeks pay parity with the likes of Warner and Andre Russell, his West Indies teammate who will surely be back, that isn’t going to happen.
In a revealing interview with Wisden India, Gayle spoke of how important the Delhi game was to him, and his mates in red and black. “We still have one more game to play and we still want to put on a show, finish on a high because sometimes people remember you for your last innings,” he said.
Regardless of whether he can hit against time and give us one more day of summer, Gayle will be remembered for so much more than that.