Cricket’s consummate showman acknowledges the weight of expectations to entertain each time he goes out to bat
Chris Gayle is an out-and-out entertainer. With bat in hand, he is one of the most arresting sights in any form of cricket, any grade of cricket, against any opposition in any conditions. With the ball, he fires those supposed off-spinners in, seldom allowing batsmen time or the luxury of getting under the ball and depositing him over the fence. He is lithe on the field without ever being expressly quick across the turf, and isn’t averse to breaking into a jig or three when either he or one of his other teammates picks up a wicket.
Few men bring fans in their thousands to the ground like Gayle does. Till such time that he is around, fun and games are guaranteed. If you are the hapless bowler or the clueless captain of the fielding team, then tough luck. You are in a minority. The whole world loves Chris Gayle, with perhaps the exception of the West Indies Cricket Board and a few of its mandarins from time to time, because Gayle time is entertainment time.
Gayle set the ICC World Twenty20 2012 alight in Sri Lanka, captivating fans with his power-packed ball-striking, delivered with minimum of fuss. Marlon Samuels, his fellow Jamaican, stole his thunder in the final against Sri Lanka but there was no questioning the role Gayle played in West Indies’ march to the title.
Having only just recovered from a hamstring injury that kept him out of One-Day International cricket against Ireland and England at home earlier this month, Gayle is ready to do his thing again as West Indies seeks to mount a successful defence of its title. He understands the expectations of people across the globe when he walks out to bat, and while he admits that there will be attendant pressure, he knows what he must do to insulate himself from extraneous factors.
“It creates a lot of pressure to be there, raising expectations,” Gayle concedes, the drawl all too obvious and the ready smile latent, just beneath the surface. “When you actually set a trend and people expect you to come good at all times and worldwide you have people who want Chris Gayle to do well and that’s what they pay for and want to see... It’s not going to happen all the time. But when I do get a chance, I try to entertain people as much as possible.
“We are here to retain the title and that’s not going to be easy but we are ready for it and we are ready for the challenges,” he adds, aware that with India, Pakistan and Australia in its group, things won’t be all that easy for West Indies. “Our first priority is to make it to the last four, it’s a tough group and everybody is looking to win the tournament.”
Gayle has played in T20 leagues across the world – he is one of the most popular players in the Indian Premier League, with Royal Challengers Bangalore’s fans having made him an honorary Bangalorean in every sense of the word – and admits that playing in the IPL and the Big Bash have helped him grow as a player and a person. “It (T20 leagues worldwide) does help a lot of players. I have played in all the leagues and I am really well experienced in the format,” he says. “You have a lot to share, lot of inputs for each and everybody in the team. But you still keep learning every day you go out there and the conditions keep changing. I am not just saying the outdoor conditions here, but things can actually change.”
Conditions? Chris Gayle talking conditions? “It will be nice to get a hundred, it all depends on the conditions as well and how the wicket is playing,” he says, and you wonder what has happened to Chris Gayle. Then, you breathe a sigh of relief as the man surfaces. “I am a batsman capable of scoring a century in any conditions and on any wicket in the world. I just want to give the team that kind of a start.”
Gayle is one of only two active batsmen, apart from Virender Sehwag, to have made two Test triple tons. A couple of years ago, Richie Richardson, the former captain and manager of the West Indian team, had said Gayle could have easily fit into Clive Lloyd’s all-conquering squads of the ’70s and the ’80s. “That’s a privilege,” Gayle says, all sincere humility. “To be in a team with Richards and all and Greenidge and the legends in that team. I am not in that comparison. But performances do speak, I am privileged to be given a chance to play. Those people are legends and it’s a privilege to be named among them.”
T20 cricket has led to massive improvisation from batsmen, with all kinds of strokes from switch hits to reverse scoops, and the ramp shot to the Dilscoop making their appearance. Gayle, however, has seldom felt the need to move away from his primary attacking options, which is to strike conventionally without resorting to cuteness. “It’s still bat hitting ball,” he counters when you ask him about improvisation. “I mean, players try to try something out all the time. As an individual player, you want to constantly improve. The batsman tries to manufacture a shot. The bowler tries to find a new variation.”
Gayle is intelligent enough not to anoint his team as favourites, well aware of the fickle nature of a T20 game whose course can change in double-quick time. “Honestly, if you look at the teams, almost everybody has a chance on paper. It’s difficult to pinpoint (a favourite). It’s like six teams can win it, it’s not like there are two teams you can single out,” he offers. “It’s all about what’s going to happen on a particular day, who plays better cricket on a particular day. Every team’s even-steven. This game can change quickly, it’s a tricky, tricky game.”
Made even trickier for West Indies by the absence of Kieron Pollard, the giant all-rounder just recovering from surgery. “We definitely will miss Kieron Pollard. He has done wonders for us. It’s not just with his batting, his bowling as well and it’s a big loss,” Gayle agrees. “But we are still confident and we are backing each other to get the job done. We have 12 guys here who have played in the last World Cup, so that’s a big plus for us.”
Gayle did more to promote the Gangnam dance across the cricketing world than perhaps Psy himself; now, it is maybe time to try his hand – and feet – at something else? “I just did a new dance during the press conference, where were you?” he mock-berates you. “Watch it on TV, maan. I will do it in two days.” Now, one more thing to watch out for when it comes to Chris Gayle.