Gayle marries brain with brawn
We could debate for hours on who's top dog in modern Test cricket, or who could win your one-day fantasy team the most points. When it comes to Twenty20 cricket, though, there are few who would dispute that Chris Gayle is No. 1. If you want a lesson in T20 batting, you couldn't do better than watching Gayle construct an innings. And on Thursday night, for Royal Challengers Bangalore, he put together another one of those incredible knocks that have earned him this reputation; the sort of innings he has proven time and again to be the template for T20 success, this time flattening Kolkata Knight Riders along the way.
Leading up to the match, Knight Riders captain Gautam Gambhir spoke of the challenge facing his team in a newspaper column. "Half my day is gone answering questions on how will we stop Chris Gayle," he wrote. "One suggestion from a more enlightened team-mate was to lock him in his room." Jocular that may be, but it does reflect the general perception. Because, really, how do you stop someone who marries awesome power with meticulous planning and flawless execution so consistently?
This was the case at the Chinnaswamy Stadium; Gayle's 85 not out off 50 balls reiterated that the shortest format is not so much about mindless slogging, as about launching calculated assaults. Royal Challengers were set 155, not a daunting total given the batsmen-friendly track and relatively short boundaries. Gayle was coming off two failures against Sunrisers Hyderabad - in the away game, he had fallen first up to the part-time offspin of little-known Hanuma Vihari, prompting talk of how he is prone to struggling early on against spin to resurface. Subsequently, the key battle in the Knight Riders game was touted to be Gayle v Sunil Narine.
How does Gayle respond? No egotistical attempts at blitzing Narine. No change in strategy at all. He just did what Gayle does: show caution where necessary, pick which bowlers to target, dispatch balls that deserve to be dealt with, play straight rather than resort to typical limited-overs fare - ramp shots, reverse-sweeps and the like.
Narine was nudged for singles and defended, even left alone when required. Gayle might have been beaten a couple of times, but he made sure he cut out the risks. In nine balls against Narine, he managed just four runs but did not let it worry him.
Neither did the Bangalore crowd let it worry them. If Virat Kohli swipes across the line and is dismissed, you might hear a few chuckles at IPL grounds. When MS Dhoni defends, questions of whether he is taking it too late arise. These days even Sachin Tendulkar cannot escape a few murmurs of disapproval when he scores too slowly. But in Bangalore, while Gayle remains at the crease, the crowd is never in doubt that Royal Challengers hold the upper hand. Even if he leaves balls outside the offstump; on Thursday, as Gayle saw off Narine, there were shouts of "well left" echoing around my stand, while a spectator in the row behind me was busy explaining to his family that "this is how he bats, watch, he will explode soon enough".
This crowd has good reason to put so much trust in their superstar and his methods. In 2012, Gayle scored 31% of Royal Challengers' runs. At the Chinnaswamy, he averages 60 and has a strike rate of 170. Second-best Kohli averages 30 at the ground, scoring those runs at the rate of 125 per 100 balls.
Gayle did not misplace that trust. Having survived Narine, he didn't spare the easier targets. He slammed seamers Ryan McLaren, L Balaji and Pradeep Sangwan, scoring off them at strike rates of 244, 218 and 200. But there was a certain rhythm to even this brutality: Royal Challengers' chase was built around three overs of madness, spread across the 17.3 it took them to chase down the target.
First, was the final Powerplay over, were Gayle lofted consecutive length balls from McLaren majestically over cow corner and cover. Kohli knocked off two fours in the over as well, as they shaved 22 runs off the target. In the ninth over, Gayle greeted 22-year-old Sangwan with four through mid-off before handing over the strike to Kohli; 19 came off the over.
The third focal over was all Gayle. The assault might or might not have been in response to a request from the adoring crowd. "We want six, we want six," they chanted, prodding him. On cue, he lifted a fullish ball from Jacques Kallis over long-off. Kallis, who had conceded 12 runs off 20 balls until that boundary, responded by changing the angles a bit, coming round the stumps. He overstepped in the process. Gayle deposited the delivery, which came into his body, over long-on. The free hit disappeared over point for four. That left Royal Challengers with 20 to get off the final four; match done and dusted.
Prior to that Kallis over, Gayle had 54 off 40 balls with a strike rate of 135. Those numbers were not too different from Gambhir's: Knight Riders' top-scorer, his 59 in 46 balls came at 128.26. If you had not watched the match, you could be excused for thinking the innings' - till that point at least - were alike. They were not. The numbers might have mirrored each other, but the character of the knocks was poles apart.
Gambhir and Knight Riders left you feeling rather ungratified. They looked like they were straining themselves for that final surge, and still it didn't come. Gayle and Royal Challengers battered their opponents even while staying well within themselves. Gambhir's 59 off 46 left you feeling that he hadn't quite done enough. Watching Gayle get to 54 off 40, you knew the game was already firmly beyond the opposition.
But then, Gambhir's effort was not the first that was made to look pedestrian by Gayle. He finished things off in typical brutal fashion, pulling Balaji over deep square leg before scorching one over long-on with 15 deliveries to spare. It was time for the electronic displays strung up on pillars around the ground to flash images of Royals Challengers players' caricatures doing the 'horse dance', Gangnam style. It is a Gayle celebration that is mimicked with regularity these days. It can't be long before Gayle's T20 batting template is even more imitated.
Nikita Bastian is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo