Gayle back to be West Indies' best
Chris Gayle was strolling around in Tino Best's shirt ahead of West Indies' opening NatWest Series international against England. Best might have the surname but Gayle has the reputation. "BEST" communicated emphatically enough that, after a 15-month absence, West Indies' most domineering batsman is back in the fold.
With Gayle one of a host of destructive batsmen back for West Indies for the one-day leg of the tour and Kevin Pietersen having entered premature retirement from England limited-overs duty, it is possible to present West Indies, after their recent drawn series against Australia, as strong favourites, only for the usual tale of unsettled weather to bring England hopes of swing and seam and a potential get-out clause.
England would be well advised to protect their sanity by not studying too many statistics on six-hitting. There might be more to winning a cricket match than hitting a long ball, but the comparisons are striking. Draw up a likely West Indies top seven and they have hit 418 sixes in ODIs. Compare England's top seven and they barely muster 100. Gayle has hit more than the whole of the England side put together.
It is hard to imagine England debating in the bar who hits the biggest sixes; it would probably be frowned on as a sign of immaturity. According to Ottis Gibson, the West Indies coach, they do it all the time. "We have always talked about who hits the biggest sixes," Gibson said before listing eight contenders for the prize. Not surprisingly, when pressed he named Gayle as the most dangerous hitter of all. "Gayle is the best one-day batsman in the world and most destructive so my money will always be on him when it comes to hitting the biggest sixes."
Gayle's return has certainly been well timed for Hampshire. Their renaming of the Rose Bowl in a six-year deal with Ageas has been crucial boost at a time of great financial hardship; ticket sales also quickened the moment Gayle made his peace with West Indies, ensuring a near-capacity 14,000 crowd.
This is a very different West Indies side than the one that despite its impressive spirit was largely outplayed in the Test series. Gibson expects "about eight changes" adding: "At the start of the tour I said the one-day series provides us with our best chance of success and we still believe that. We believe we have got a great chance of winning games in this series.
"Gayle is a world class player and will strengthen us. He has always been a bit of a joker and prankster around the dressing room. He is his normal self and the team has always integrated guys very well. That has not changed. He has fitted in well and is raring to go."
Gayle's stand-off with the West Indies board has been so prolonged that Gibson would be naive not to recognise that his reintroduction to the squad has needed careful handling. But as England would testify in Pietersen's absence, if handling a star player can be awkward, compensating for their absence can be harder still.
"Gayle has had his say," he said. "He said what he wanted to say and got things off his chest. He has seen the new environment. He has seen what we are trying to do. I am sure that coming back he will buy into it. We have spoken and he is very much on board with what is going on.
"It's a big thing to lose your best player. KP has been good in the last two one-day series and they were trialling him at the top of the order. It seemed it was going to work but now they have to put someone else in that spot and hope that person has the form KP had. Bell is very different and he is also a very capable replacement. We know we still have to work to get him out.
"Nothing KP does takes me by surprise. He is his own man and does what he wants to do whenever he wants to do it. That is his character. I am sort of surprised he is in such good form and chose to walk away from a format he likes.
"I kept playing until I was 38 because I loved game so much. It is disappointing to see a great player walking away from the game at a young age. But he is his own man and he makes his own calls. When he is sitting at home watching on TV he might miss it."
Ravi Bopara has rarely looked more hangdog before turning out for England. It could be that his endless run of misfortune makes him fear that, at 27, his international career is slipping away, not that he admits it, or it could just be that he expects to bat No. 4 in the first ODI against West Indies at West End on Saturday. Somebody told Bopara that he was batting in the "glamour position". Problem position would have been more accurate.
With Pietersen's retirement, England's 50-over plans are based around a top order of Alastair Cook, Ian Bell and Jonathan Trott, all very fine players, but all unlikely to leave Bopara with too much slack when he comes in to bat. The onus could be on Bopara to play enterprisingly from the outset and his career suggests that he prefers time to settle in.
Bell is fulfilling the opener's role that Bopara himself would have preferred to get: "Opening is not a bad role for him with the field up and his sweet timing of the ball," he said. "He can pierce those gaps like anyone and we've got to back him."
Bopara's task is to perform ably enough in one-day cricket against West Indies and Australia over the next month to regain his Test place against South Africa. Jonny Bairstow's troubled start at No. 6 gives him the opportunity. "It would be great if I could score heavily in this series and the Australian series," Bopara said. "It would put me in a good place. I'm not worried about the players coming through. I know what I'm capable of. My Test career is in my own hands."
David Hopps is the UK editor of ESPNcricinfo