March 2, 2012

A bouncer for Gayle

How Chris Gayle responds to the WICB's latest move will show how interested he is in playing for West Indies

Chris Gayle the batsman does not deal in half-measures. When he goes for his shots, the ball usually goes a long way, very quickly. Chris Gayle the man also does not specialise in subtlety. He calls it as he sees it. However, he now finds himself in a battle where frontal attack has left him on a sticky wicket.

It is now nearly a full year since the former West Indies captain gave the West Indies Cricket Board and team coach Ottis Gibson a public piece of his mind following another disappointing World Cup campaign by the Caribbean side. He is still, though, a bat for hire, estranged from his national team. There has been verbal tit for tat between player and board, claim and counter-claim, but as yet, no resolution to an issue that has even got the politicians involved.

New Jamaica prime minister Portia Simpson Miller now has her own beef with the WICB after what she and the Jamaica Cricket Association termed the board's "disrespectful" response to her complaints about Jamaica not receiving a Test match for the series against Australia. She has also spoken out over the lengthy delay in resolving the Gayle impasse.

From the boardroom to the bar room, the Gayle issue has divided opinion through the islands.

Stretching past six feet, broad of shoulder, a left-hander, and as severe a striker of the ball as any, he is in manner a descendant of Clive Lloyd, a player carrying on with his business in the best West Indian style. But with his dreadlocks, ever-present shades and languid movements in the field, Gayle cuts a picture too cool for some who acquaint such a demeanour with not caring.

Gayle has for long had run-ins with West Indian officialdom. Early in his career, the selectors left him out of a tour to Australia in 2000-01 for attitudinal reasons. Later, as captain in 2007, then board president Ken Gordon wanted action taken against Gayle for his public criticisms of tour arrangements in England, statements he refused to retract. Current president Dr Julian Hunte, Gordon's successor, let that matter die, but Gayle's defiant tongue has come back to haunt the Hunte regime.

It has been a game of brinksmanship, these past 12 months. Last April, in that now infamous radio interview with Jamaican station KLAS Sports, he accused the WICB of not looking after an injury with which he had played during the World Cup in Asia. Worse, he labelled coach Gibson a "user", claimed Gibson had "messed up" Ramnaresh Sarwan mentally, and that the team as a whole had not been in the right frame of mind to perform at the World Cup.

That caused an already uneasy relationship between Gayle and the board to reach boiling point. There has been no cooling down of tensions since. Like Monsterrat's Soufriere volcano, which has burst forth at intervals over the past 17 years, the Gayle-WICB standoff has had flashpoints but no decisive climax. There was that heated meeting in Jamaica last June where it was claimed the board's CEO, Dr Ernest Hilaire, was threatened with a chair by West Indies Players Association president Dinanath Ramnarine. Then came a long lull and a more "cordial" meeting.

Last month, though, the WICB made public a letter to Gayle outlining what was required for his return to the team. The timing was curious, coming soon after the Simpson Miller's statements about the standoff. Retract the offensive statements, it said, and accept that you will only be eligible for conditional No Objection Certificates (NOCs) for T20 gigs, and we take you back.

"...We do not consider that you will be ineligible for selection for the foreseeable future, as you have expressed publicly a strong desire to play for the West Indies," Hilare's letter read. "It is WICB's position that if a player wishes to play official cricket and to be considered for selection to play for the West Indies, and whether or not he signs a retainer contract, he must expect NOCs to be issued subject to international commitments, in accordance with the rules of the ICC which govern the overseas tournaments in which he wishes to play."

How is Gayle to play this one? To refuse to accept such "reasonable" terms would be to cast doubt on how serious he is about wearing the maroon cap again. The WICB has delivered what they hope will be a public-relations masterstroke. Responding to this bouncer requires a deft touch.

Depending on which camp you listen to, Gayle is either a rebel with his own cause or a big man standing up to a dictatorial regime. Proud as he is, Gayle is unlikely to change his style; nothing in his history suggests that he will. He sees no sense in apologising for the "truth." That sense of being in the right is reinforced by thinking of himself as the victim. Like the players' association of which he is a vocal advocate, Gayle sees himself as a target of the establishment. It is simply not in his nature to back down; on the field, damaged legs and broken thumbs have not forced a retreat from him.

Gayle and Sammy in the same dressing room could make for some awkward, tense times, which Gibson may see as counter-productive to the building of a new team. Gayle's presence ought to be an asset to the West Indies fledglings and his captain

The business of the NOCs is a contentious one, and the current subject of a US$20million restraint-of-trade lawsuit filed by WIPA against the WICB. At the heart of that issue is Gayle's inability to sign a retainer with the Kolkata Knight Riders for 2011 through to 2013, or to attract a new team in the 2011 IPL auction, a development Gayle believes was linked to him not receiving an NOC from the WICB in October-November 2010.

In October of that year, Gayle had refused to sign a retainer contract with the board. His belated hiring by Royal Challengers Bangalore came only after an unconditional NOC was obtained from the WICB.

Gibson, another man of strong personality and conviction, is as unlikely to take Gayle back without a retraction as Gayle is to give one. It is difficult to see, even if somehow a resolution was officially arranged, how the damage done between coach and influential player can really be mended when neither man seems convinced about the true value of the other.

How Gayle and Darren Sammy can effectively coexist is another matter still. In the eyes of many West Indians, the incumbent captain is an establishment man. When Gayle, Ramnaresh Sarwan, Shivnarine Chanderpaul and the other first teamers withheld their services for the disastrous home series against Bangladesh in 2009, the dutiful Sammy did not. When WIPA held its awards in Trinidad last year, while the local leg of the one-day series against India was in progress, Sammy was not present. (Though he later vigorously denied reports that he tried to stop other players from attending.)

Gayle and Sammy in the same dressing room could make for some awkward, tense times, which Gibson may see as counter-productive to the building of a new team. Gayle's presence ought to be an asset to the West Indies fledglings and his captain. One true test of a coach is his ability to blend in all a team's personalities. Gibson is not passing that test at present.

On the other side, Gayle cannot play the team man and at the same time be a T20 gun for hire. There must be compromise. He doesn't seem to accept that.

This issue has become another among West Indies cricket's many sad stories. There are no heroes in this game. No one will win. Another top West Indian player is set to walk away bitter.

Because pride is getting in everyone's way.

Garth Wattley is a writer with the Trinidad Express