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