Chris Gayle: The sleeping giant awakens

Jaideep Ghosh

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Zimbabwe’s Tinashe Panyangara sits on the ground after falling while bowling as West Indies batsmen Chris Gayle, left, and Marlon Samuels talk during their Cricket World Cup Pool B match in Canberra, Australia, Tuesday, Feb. 24, 2015

Christopher Henry Gayle is back, and how.

Sixteen 6s, ten boundaries, 215 runs and a world-record 372-run partnership with Marlon Samuels, it all came down like an avalanche on poor Zimbabwe in Canberra on Tuesday.

It was a lottery really, as to which side would come in for the treatment from this deceptively lazy and languid Jamaican. Unfortunately, it was the African who were chosen by providence, as the much abused phrase, ‘Gayle Storm’ hit land on the sleepy Australia capital.

West Indies’ cricketing fortunes have revolved around Gayle for a long time now. When he is doing well, they by and large come good. So it was no surprise that their form has been pretty poor in recent times. Gayle has been struggling.

There was a time when it looked almost certain that West Indies cricket would die a natural death. Facing stiff challenges of being so close to the US and its sports of choice – basketball, American football and athletics – the little islands’ love affair with cricket was fading away in the dazzle of the huge dollar signs those sports offered.

It took a collection of giants – literally and figuratively – to make them stay afloat in the world of cricket. Players like Kieron Pollard, Dwayne Bravo, and the unrated Darren Sammy. Players like Chris Gayle.

In a market where India hogs almost all the headlines, Gayle’s saleability is still undeniable, so his form was crucial not just for his side but also for the team.

But Gayle the cricketer was being overtaken by Gayle the rebel, as the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB) and the players seemed to be heading for a clash that would decisively end cricket in the region and leave the players as journeymen, making a living out of a series of T20 tournaments around the world.

Gayle was vocally critical of the WICB for dropping Bravo and Pollard from the World Cup squad. It wasn’t affordable that the West Indies went into the world’s top tournament without these two players. So the atmosphere wasn’t good.

Further, Gayle had not been contributing to the cause for a long time. It had been over 90 ODIs since he had crossed 50 runs, struggling to get away from the new-ball bowlers around the world.

Consequently, the team was always under pressure to get quick runs and if the other batsmen couldn’t step on the gas, they would struggle.

An estimate of Gayle’s struggle was the fact that his last ODI century had come as far back as June, 2013!

So naturally, he was under the microscope. As most top players are. His fans wanted him to come good and he wasn’t delivering. On top of that, he had this take on West Indian cricket politics. A dangerous combination that could script an end to his career.

Time isn’t a friend for any athlete and it was running out fast for Gayle as well. At 35 years of age, he was definitely losing out on reflexes and form.

The World Cup began, and the West Indies faced off against Ireland, a match they would have expected to win. But they laboured against the sustained attack and Gayle scored a painstaking 36.

It was a century by Lendl Simmons and a healthy contribution by Simmons that kept them alive and they did cross the 300-mark.

But Ireland had their own point to prove and they virtually cantered to a win. While that was a great victory for the Irish, no one was really surprised that the Windies had lost. Such was their equity in the world cricket.

But the West Indians aren’t anything if not proud. Underneath the casual body language and the reggae beats, there is a fierce pride. The loss against Ireland hurt them.

The implacable Curtly Ambrose did his bit as coach, coaxing them to get off their feet. They fired Pakistan out, winning by 150 runs. But even then, they weren’t really taken too seriously. Pakistan aren’t so great themselves either.

But after Tuesday, no one would take it easy against the West Indies. And Gayle.

Gayle was never a player who would score rapidly at the beginning of the innings. In fact, he actually took quite a bit of time to get things going. But once he did, he was virtually unstoppable.

Even against Zimbabwe, the West Indies were in a little bit of trouble in the beginning of the innings, losing Dwayne Smith in the first over. Gayle looked hesitant and one-drop Samuels is someone who seems to thrive on frustrating people with an extra slow approach.

But as the innings progressed, things changed. At one stage, Gayle scored at a strike rate of 460! It was absolute murder as he carved out the highest-ever individual World Cup score of 215, as well as the highest-ever ODI partnership of 372.

No doubt India and South Africa are looking at the Caribbeans with renewed interest now. This group has been thrown wide open with the West Indies joining the party. More so South Africa, since they were probably expecting an easier outing against the West Indies. But with the loss to India, this isn’t a test they want to fail.

India are sitting pretty, but still, they would be very interested in seeing the back of West Indies and Gayle.

So watch out. The giants have woken.