When a man filled an entire stadium
Chris Gayle is a big fellow. When he walks down a corridor, he makes bystanders back onto the sidelines and turn into wall-paper. When he enters a room, he fills a door and in about five seconds, the entire room itself, no matter how large.
On Tuesday evening, he filled a stadium. To the point at which he emptied the opposition and the contest out of Bangalore's Chinnaswamy Stadium. At some stage of Gayle's record-buster, reality-bender and bowler-muncher of an innings of 175 not out, it was like the field had cleared of all other players. There was only Christopher Henry of Jamaica, a series of cricket balls heading towards his bat and departing from it in perfect trajectorial arcs heading towards the International Space Station with tens of thousands of fans around him shrieking, cheering, laughing and waving red flags.
Gayle's batting had deflated and destroyed Pune Warriors' intentions well within the first hour of the match. Around the time their harassed captain Aaron Finch came onto bowl his dolly-left-arm-whatz-its. By the time he was done, or rather Gayle was done with him, four sixes and a boundary in an over, Royal Challengers Bangalore had reached 124-0 in 9 overs and Gayle had leaped from 67 to 95. He was given a free-hit full toss from Ashok Dinda to get to his century off a ridiculous 30 balls. A record had been broken - is there a man in cricket today, apart from the owner, who could break this one?
For all that it must have been on television, the real power and glory of Gayle the batsman can be witnessed and understood only from the stands. The spectator sees him emerge from the recesses of the dressing room, clad in his golden helmet, black bandana flapping over his shoulders. By the time he has reached the stumps, he towers over the keeper, his batting partner, the fielders, the umpires. It is only when he brings his bat down on the ball with a clean swing that must groove on a golf course, that the force of his batting is truly understood, experienced and celebrated.
Television, for all its technological advantages cannot show how fast the ball travels off the bat. TV's two-dimensional perfection and detail hides an element that is very central to cricket and to its best practitioners - speed. Between Gayle and his bat swing making room against Ali Murtaza and the ball landing hard, flat and past the long-off boundary, slow motion is notional. Between those two instants, eyes cannot blink.
Similarly television can also compress and shrink distance, as much as it measures it. Gayle's six to reach his century off Dinda hit the roof. When in his 120s, he launched Murtaza again, out of the ground. The trackers have measurements for those things - 119m. Explain 119m to a kid. Or imagine in the mind's eye how far even 100m must be. How far the ball has gone.
But come to Chinnaswamy, become a speck in the stand, watch the man so far away in the middle have the curve of his bat meet the ascent or descent of the ball. Watch it travel, propelled through his torso, shoulders, arms in clean, sharp, crescents away from our sight and onto a place where there must be moving vehicles or scattering pedestrians or shaken shrubbery.
The television viewer marvels at the 119m, the spectator witnesses a batsman cover distance in its palpable, visible scale. Gayle's sixes were definitions of gigantism and enormity turned into physical form. The child in every spectator will never forget how everything soared with that six - the ball, the heart, the day itself. We don't need to hear the commentators shout, "And that's a huuuuuuge one" "oo, it's a biggie" "this is outta here." We can see it, we're shouting ourselves, thankyavermuch.
Gayle's innings was physics lesson, with music and noise. Momentum is mass times velocity.
It was biology class. This is what forces of nature can do.
Between the Bangalore crowd and Gayle, the chemistry was crackling.
Just before the rain interruption, lightning streaked over Chinnaswamy. That was a news flash: the thunder was coming.
What Gayle produced was not so much strokes, (other than his delicate dabs for singles) but shots. The ball spat off the middle of his bat to all corners, turning into parabolas that the crowd was hollering for. Gayle faced more than half the balls bowled by the Warriors and produced a compressed 20-over highlights package. At the other end, Tillakaratne Dilshan was struggling with his timing, Virat Kohli tried to cash in on the momentum and AB de Villiers' 31 off 8 balls was a sweet tribute to Gayle. But those were minor flickers when held against Gayle's approach through his innings. Detached, in a state of repose even as he carved up a line-up of bowlers who must bowl to him again in just over ten days.
It was an innings that led to spontaneous posters being produced: "When Gayle bats, fielders become spectators and spectators become fielders." The man writing up clever slogans over the PA booth produced around the 15th over: "Declare?"
In 2008, I had turned up at the Chinnaswamy for the first-ever IPL match and watched Brendon McCullum produce an innings of 158 that had blown away the boundaries of what T20 batting was capable of. Chris Gayle's 175 not out has once again extended the frontiers not merely of the IPL but of T20, making every other high-speed big-hitter look small.
Crowds at the IPL are part of the television experience. They can be controlled to a degree as to how they respond to the sound of the tournament bugle, when they chant. But on Tuesday night, Gayle controlled the crowd with the pace of his innings. Spectators were left breathless, applauding his post-100 slow-down. When the ground announcer asked them to launch into Mexican waves during the game, as many as three times, no one listened, no one moved.
Their waving and moving and hollering was restricted to the man at the centre who had fallen to his knees after hitting the fastest century in T20 and acknowledged every stand each time he crossed any landmark.
His own last words to the crowd were as expansive and magnanimous as his innings had been to the audience. "God's blessings," said Gayle, at the presentation, "to everyone." Hallelujah.
Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo