Mentor, funny man, match-winner Gayle
Having reached dizzy heights that no No. 11 in the history of Test cricket had before, with his 95, Tino Best returned to bowl an aggressive first spell with the new ball. He then retreated to the third-man region at the Pavilion End at Edgbaston. Sweat glistened on his clean-shaven pate as Best shouted to "Castro" (Fidel Edwards) to get some water. Then, spotting a familiar figure sitting outside the West Indies dressing room, the showman from Barbados assumed a stand-to-attention pose, raising his right hand to salute Chris Gayle. Both men smiled and then chuckled.
At Lord's, two days later, Gayle, Best and Edwards walked towards the indoor centre in overcast conditions. Gayle spotted a television camera off to one corner and put his arms around Best, shouting theatrically: "Don't get him angry. Don't get him angry. He'll kill you. He's an animal."
Gayle went on to bat for about an hour on his own. Afterwards, as he was taking off his pads, Best walked up to him and lifted Gayle's heavy, meaty bat with the "Spartan" label on its shoulder. Assuming his best actor's voice, Best pointed the bat towards Gayle and said: "Spartan - this bat is illegal and harmful for the health of fast bowlers," cracking Gayle up. "The way it looks, it is so intimidating to bowlers," Best explains later.
For Best, Gayle has always been "Crampy" because of his susceptibility to cramp. "As a youngster, he would bat for long and cramp up, and that is how the boys from the old school refer to him." Best first met Gayle in a regional match in Barbados, and immediately took a liking to the Jamaican's attitude. "I was 20 and he looked just so cool with all his charisma," Best says. "I said to myself, 'One of these days I hope to be playing in a team alongside him.'" They played together when Best made his debut against Australia in 2003.
Best and Gayle are not quite peas from the same pod. Gayle keeps his cards close to his chest, Best shows his hand easily. But though Best is given to hyperbole, his admiration for Gayle is genuine. "Everybody thinks he doesn't really care about cricket, but he does. He is a very, very good student of the game," Best says. "He is a very intelligent person. That is a phenomenal thing for person who is so quiet. He can get bored at times but he is very funny as well. I totally adore him."
At 30, Best is among the senior players in the current West Indies squad. He has trained with various coaches and played under various captains, both at regional and international level. According to him, Gayle stands out as a leader mainly because of the way he communicates.
"Whenever I play in a game with Chris, both of us encourage each other. Chris always tells me, 'Pull down the handbrake and bowl quick. You get picked to bowl quick, so bowl quick.' That is something that is always intriguing about him - the way he says it. Some people tell me, 'Tino, bowl fast.' But it is the way that people say things to you that gets you going. And he is one of those guys that gets you going."
The respect for Gayle among the current side is seemingly universal. Kieron Pollard, one of the most popular players among West Indies' younger brigade, says Gayle is the only cricketer he consciously decided never to sledge. "I don't know [why]. Maybe out of respect, or maybe it is out of knowing that when I'm bowling he can smash me out of the park," Pollard says. "At the end the day, you need to know which fights to pick."
"Sledge him, sledge him," Gayle, tying the laces of his eye-catching blue and red sneakers nearby, urges Pollard. But Pollard refuses to fall for the bait. "Smarter than that, ain't I?" Pollard quips. Ottis Gibson, the West Indies coach who is passing by, cautions Pollard too: "Careful, Polly, careful."
He may have been out of the West Indies dressing room for more than a year, but Gayle remains ever a magnetic force. Richie Richardson, the former West Indies captain who shared a dressing room with the likes of Viv Richards, Courtney Walsh, Curtly Ambrose and Brian Lara, has no doubt that Gayle's return can only be for the good. "It is very important to have big names, players who have done well, players who have a big personality," Richardson, currently West Indies' team manager, says. "They encourage the youngsters, make them feel secure, build more comfort, and also provide someone the young players can aspire to be."
Gayle, Richardson says, commands "tremendous" respect despite being quiet. "Players around him look up to him, and look forward to him doing big things for the team. He is an individual who doesn't have to say much for people to feel his presence. He just naturally has that command."
Pollard remembers when he first he walked into the West Indies dressing room, one full of stars like Lara, Ramnaresh Sarwan and Gayle. "When you see that imposing figure and you are sitting next to him… I just stood my ground, stood in my corner for a bit, tried to see what he is thinking, tried to see how he approached the game… But as you watch, you don't know what is going on in his mind," Pollard says, even as Gayle taps my shoulder, saying, "That is enough, maan."
Gayle may usually be quiet, walking slowly, with the gait of a judoka, but his lightheartedness is attractive. "Whatever he does, he is funny," Pollard says. He says Gayle is "a gentle, gentle, giant".
Richardson says Gayle has been supportive of the captain, Darren Sammy. "I can say this since I have seen it. Darren was appointed the captain when Chris was there. Chris gave him a lot of support. I can't recall there being an instance of Chris trying to supersede Darren. He just continued to be his calm self and did the work he had to do."
At the beginning of the England tour Sammy had said that if and when Gayle returned, he would enter a different dressing-room culture from the one he had left last year, with the emphasis now more on hard work.
For Richardson, Gayle has always been a competent cricketer, but more than that, highly committed to his trade. "You can't just be scoring so many runs, especially like he has done in the past and now in the IPL [without working] hard. To compete at the highest level you have got to put in a lot of mental and physical effort. You can't just sit down and turn up on the day of a game."
Richardson says the biggest thing Gayle brings in is the confidence that West Indies can win. "If Chris is playing, especially in the shorter versions, you fancy your chances. If he bats even 50% of the overs, you know you are going to produce a match-winning total. He is powerful, strong, destructive, a sort of batsman any team would like in the side."
Under Sammy and Gibson, West Indies have taken more than a few measures to correct the wrongs of the past 17-odd years. But they need Gayle on their side. He has been in the news over the last year or so for his hard posturing with the WICB, but both parties recently resolved their issues and Gayle has said he is now ready to commit himself to West Indies in all three formats.
Among those that announcement has pleased is Pollard, who thinks Gayle is very important for West Indies. He says: "The way Chris does things, he just does bring a different sort of a feel and a different sort of sense to everything."
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo