July 12, 2007

Dude looks like a leader

From too cool for school to inspirational captain, the transformation of Chris Gayle

Top lad: Gayle led from the front while still being one of the boys © Getty Images
Nearly three years went by before West Indies were able to hold aloft a trophy. The young side's exuberance as they celebrated the NatWest one-day series win over England after two miserable defeats in the Tests was contagious.

Contagious, and infectious enough to ignite the old talk about the team's new outlook and the beginning of a turnaround. But is it really? And is it realistic to credit it all to the captaincy of Chris Gayle? Fairer to say that Gayle's captaincy was inspiring and that the team victory certainly must earn him plaudits.

As a captain, he brought everything necessary to the table. He led from the front, playing the kind of innings we had been hankering for (what had happened to him?), he mustered a team that had been lacking in spirit. He seemed to be enjoying himself tremendously, and this zest was transmitted to his team members, who all seemed to play with much more confidence, pleasure and focus.

Gayle was able to translate his role as the team joker, the cool man in the dressing room, the affable one with no relationship conflicts, into that of a team leader who was able to lead from the front without removing himself from within the pack. It is not an easy transition for many. The idea of being one of the boys is important to players, and to have one of them suddenly positioned to tell them what to do requires a mental shift that not all can manage.

Gayle handled it well, and it is perhaps because he has not been seen as someone weaving his way towards the captaincy, as others have been accused of doing in the past.

The victory must be one that he should celebrate fully. But it would not be fair to him or to the team, or to the road ahead, to foist on him the mantle of the new messiah. It will crush him, broad as his shoulders appear. And this victory should not be heralded as the sign that all has been made well; it is simply a sign of what can be accomplished under certain circumstances.

Gayle had the support of his bowlers in this series: Ravi Rampaul, Fidel Edwards, Daren Powell, and Dwayne Bravo. What was evident was the rare occurrence of all members of the team coming forward at the same time. It didn't happen in the Test series, and if this was Gayle's doing, then he has a vital quality for leadership.

We must remember that this team arrived in England for the Tests, the Twenty20 matches and the ODIs, with no time to acclimatise. They suffered through the Tests from lack of exposure to English conditions, and this was compounded by their collective inexperience. At various stages, things were exacerbated by an outstanding array of maladies and mishaps. Ramnaresh Sarwan, the captain, was injured early, as were several others, including Shivnarine Chanderpaul, who, once he was healed, revealed beautiful form.

It is tempting to say that the team were making a stand against their board, but the players have been entrenched in an oppositional stance towards the WICB for so long, that it is doubtful that even the most recent episode could have fired them up this way.

From the start of the tour, the team were plagued by their unhappy relationship with their employer. Contract disputes formed the first backdrop for the series, before being replaced in turn by the logistical disaster of replacement players not being sent to England in good time; a spat between the board and its selectors over whether Gayle or Daren Ganga should captain the team for the ODIs; and the most disgraceful contretemps of all: Gayle's tour diary for Cricinfo becoming the subject of the WICB president's call for an apology from him. Gayle refused, with the consequence that he now faces disciplinary action.

Like most everyone, I believe Gayle's explanation that the diary had been vetted by a WICB official, simply because that is standard procedure. That Ken Gordon, the WICB president, should demand an apology is not surprising, because that is how people like him operate. Wes Hall, who understands the innards of these WICB operatives, was incensed enough to declare that after Gordon had so rudely dismissed Rawle Brancker's recommendations for the restructuring of West Indies cricket (Gordon called Brancker petulant, and other things), he needed to first apologise to Brancker before regaining the moral authority necessary to ask for apologies from anyone.

This is still the environment of West Indies cricket, and if Gayle and his team want to celebrate their victory like mad, they should, because it was won under the ugly cloud that has been hanging over it for years, and there is every sign that it will continue to do so for many more.

Vaneisa Baksh is a freelance journalist based in Trinidad