August 25, 2014

The Wilt Chamberlain of cricket

There is one current cricketer who is as dominant and unstoppable as the legendary basketball player was

Chris Gayle: a colossus on the pitch © BCCI

It is one thing to do well. It is another to win. It is quite another to dominate.

Domination in sports is something special; after all, there are winners at all levels and in all disciplines, but how many of those winners have been conferred with the classification of "dominant"? What does it mean to deem someone "dominant"?

The Latin noun "dominus" means a "lord" or "master". To establish mastery over one's foes implies much more than sheer winning. It speaks of a level of performance that is above and beyond the output of those among you, displaying marked advancement and being strikingly impressive. There is an aura to dominance too - a sense of invincibility, and a notion that, no matter what, when the dominant force pervades, everyone else is merely a notch below.

It would be fair to say that domination can be exerted by players with different styles; one of the most fascinating approaches to domination, though, is through the exercise of brutal power. Perhaps one of the best examples of this came from basketball in the form of "The Big Dipper", Wilt "The Stilt" Chamberlain. While names like Michael Jordan or Magic Johnson have been more popular, Chamberlain has always had a claim to being the most dominant force that the sport of basketball has ever seen - his mind-boggling performances include being the only man ever to average over 50 points per game in an NBA season, and, most notably, scoring the most points ever in a single NBA game with a cricketesque 100. Jordan's highest was 69.

Chamberlain's supremacy was primarily driven by his physically imposing presence: he was a seven-footer known for his uncanny strength and impressive agility. To play against him was not a question of stopping him, it was merely an attempt to limit his impact.

In cricket, the phenomenon of domination - of absolute control of a match - is rare. Batsmen may be in the zone from time to time, bowlers can be in purple patches occasionally, and either may enjoy extended runs of great success over matches or even series, but the variability of conditions in cricket makes domination in all settings quite unusual. Moreover, because dominance calls for a corresponding feeling of anxiety and bemusement to engulf opponents, it is unlikely to have entered the sport very often because of the undulating nature of Test cricket, and the notion that neither side is completely unstoppable when so many factors are in flux.

Gayle is simultaneously comedic, stoic, affable and intimidating. He's an enigmatic mix, seemingly relishing his title of "Mr Cool"

The advent of T20 cricket, though, has opened the sport up to greater displays of dominance because there is so little time to "get back on your feet" after being attacked. Indeed, as a result of the rise of this modern incarnation of our game, I suggest that cricket's answer to Wilt Chamberlain, a prevailing powerhouse on the pitch, is currently among us in world cricket.

Christopher Henry Gayle is, physically, one of the biggest men on the field of play in terms of height, build and sheer physical strength. He also harnesses that strength as the keystone of his performances, relying on a heavy bat and breathtaking might to wield a blade that sends balls screaming away for mercy. Also, like Chamberlain, Gayle has put up some heady numbers that test the limits of conceivability. Here is a man who has bludgeoned 175 runs in a 20-over match, a highest score that is best understood comparatively: the highest score in 50-over cricket is Virender Sehwag's 219, while five-day Tests boast Lara's 400. Gayle fashioned 175 in just 20 overs; while formats certainly change a batsman's approach, that score is still the sort of number that deserves raised eyebrows, shrugged shoulders and amazed stares.

The comparison of Gayle to one of the most dominant sportsmen of all time does not end at just power and the ability to put up large, dynamic scores. "Crampy" is also a "larger-than-life" personality, much like Wilt was, and is often in the spotlight wherever he goes and in whatever he does. That grand persona is his hallmark: Gayle is, simultaneously, comedic, stoic, affable and intimidating. He's an enigmatic mix, seemingly relishing his title of "Mr Cool".

The most telling comparison between Chamberlain and Gayle, though, must be in the air of invincibility that both men have enjoyed. Wilt was, simply, a goliath on the court; Gayle is a colossus on the pitch. When Wilt was in his prime, it was said that you could count success as merely grabbing hold of his arms to make scoring a little more challenging for him, such was his brutal dominance. Like past legendary dominating forces, when Gayle "turns it on", the world is whipped into a mad frenzy. Bowlers shudder, fielders scatter, spectators effervesce, and the cricket ball, more often than not, flies far. It is through the enviable combination of power and presence that the "Gayle Storm" has become cricket's most ominous tempest.

In life, sometimes, we do not realise how privileged we are to see or experience something because we fail to appreciate how rare it is. The uniqueness of Chris Gayle, an exceptional cricket experience, may be lost on us occasionally. The package that "Dark and Stormy" brings to the pitch is one we ought not to ignore, however, for it is irregular, freakish and magnificent all at once. Chamberlain, it is claimed, may not be the greatest ever, but he is definitely one of the most dominant of all time. In the same way, Chris Gayle is an inimitable sensation before our very eyes, the likes of which may never be seen again. Enjoy the show.

Roger Sawh is a law student in Canada. He writes at @sawhoncricket

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on August 27, 2014, 18:44 GMT

    This is ridiculous. How can u compare the ever consistent Wilt the Stilt with the 'always inconsistent' Chris Gayle. The only common element is their tall heights. Gayle only performs when he is playing at the IPL or any other money rich circus arena. Seldom does he deliver when playing for the WI. Just look at his dismal scores even against Bangladesh on the current tour. 'Wilt the stilt' on the other hand scored 50 plus points night after night in a sport where even a 30 plus nightly score makes one a star. Please don't dishonour the late Wit Chamberlin's memory by making such ridiculous comparisons.

  • o on August 26, 2014, 23:41 GMT

    @ RKSawh In England T20 blast this year they were judging batsman with something called a batting index for T20 where they add the average with S/R and they say if you're above 150/60 you're very good player and the stand out comparison was Gayle who was 191 ! according to whatever Hussain was reading not sure if that was domestic,International or all T20, anyway nice article and respect for responding to people on here.

  • Roger on August 26, 2014, 14:47 GMT

    Thanks for all the discussion, be it in agreement or disagreement. My thinking was definitely most persuaded by Gayle's power and devastation when on song, and how that mirrored Wilt in his heyday. The consistency gap is, clearly, the biggest difference, as Wilt had 50 points per game while Gayle's average is not extraordinary. However, for T20s, I wonder if an 'average' is truly the right metric to use in order to consider a player's impact - Gayle has the most runs, highest score, three highest scoring years (2012, 2011, and 2013, respectively), most runs in a single tournament, most centuries, most 50+ scores, and most career sixes in the history of T20 cricket. As a matter of fact, he also has the highest average (41.72) of anyone that has played more than 33 T20s! All of this came from my rudimentary searching on Cricinfo Stats, but I suppose it shows that his numbers aren't as inadequate as thought by many. Of course, though, this is all subjective; thanks for the contributions!

  • Riaz on August 26, 2014, 10:50 GMT

    Oh, please! If you HAVE to compare a cricketer to Wilt, pick somebody like Gary Sobers or Viv Richards. Gayle only has an edge over his peers, making him comparable to Chares Barkley, not even Shaquille O'Neal.

  • Vikas on August 25, 2014, 21:24 GMT

    A ridiculus comparison ! Gayle is only consistent in his inconsistency where as Chamberlain averaged almost 50 pts in games day after day and night after night !

  • Stanley A on August 25, 2014, 17:55 GMT

    All Russell had over Chamberlain was better teammates. If Wilt played with Bill's teammates and Bill played with Wilt's, Chamberlain would have been totally unbeatable while Russell would have never won a thing! To compare Gayle with Chamberlain is ridiculous, even only comparing destructiveness. How often has Gayle been very destructive? Wilt was destructive almost on a nightly basis (50 pt average for entire season)(100 pt game that still stands as record). If Chamberlain did not destroy you in pts he did with rebounds or blocked shots. Most times he destroyed you in 2 and a few times in 3 categories. Wilt was the greatest basketball player of all time (Ali, Sobers, Pele, Willie Mays,Jim Brown, Mario Lemieux, Edwin Moses). Gayle is not a proper batsman and would not have made a good name in cricket outside of T20. He is average as a cricketer at best and only catches balls that come straight to him.

  • Dummy4 on August 25, 2014, 17:01 GMT

    Look, Chris Gayle, at his best is devastating. When he hits the ball for a six, the fielders become the spectators and the spectatos become the fielders.

  • Arif on August 25, 2014, 16:14 GMT

    Walt was a great player and dominated games due to his sheer size. But despite great physical attributes, he still ended up on losing causes against another NBA giant Bill Russell, who was a better leader, team player and intelligent tactician. Gayle is a great player, especially in the t20/odi format. But he could have done a lot more for the WI by being a more of a leader and team player, especially in test cricket. Just my opinion.

  • V on August 25, 2014, 15:53 GMT

    Gayle is no doubt a good player. But he is nowhere close to dominating T20 like Wilt Chamberlin did in basketball. A strike rate of 135 in nothing great in T20 and an average of 32 is good at best. As mentioned, Wilt averaged 50 points a game in an NBA season which indicates remarkable consistency. Gayle is yet to show anything near such consistency.

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