May 12, 2012

Gayle's return: boon or bane?

It's all down to how he gets along with the captain and coach, and whether he can fit into the team's new ethic

When Chris Gayle, Ottis Gibson and Darren Sammy get to serious talking again, it will be one of the most important conversations in West Indies cricket for some time.

Now that he has freed himself of his commitments to Somerset for later this summer, it is inconceivable that, barring injury, Gayle will not be part of the West Indies squad for the limited-overs segment of the current England tour. To not pick one of the world's most in-demand batsmen would be a political faux pas too serious for the selectors and the West Indies Cricket Board to contemplate.

However, in selecting him, the authorities will be taking a gamble. And managing Gayle's return to the fold will be the biggest challenge yet for Sammy as captain and Gibson as coach.

The pluses to the team are obvious. West Indies will be getting back an offensive weapon the likes of which few teams possess. Gayle on the go at the top of the order is an irresistible force, one that can throw bowling attacks into disarray. Repeatedly, over the last two seasons of the IPL, the world's best have been powerless to stop him - the consistency of his output has been as impressive.

At 32, Gayle is at the peak of his powers - a proven performer in all forms of the game, one full of experience, who can take the pressure to score off his less experienced team-mates. Always popular with his fellow professionals, Gayle can be a source of inspiration in tough times, and thus a valuable ally to both Sammy and Gibson.

But first they must settle matters between themselves.

Since signing an agreement brokered by the prime minster of St Vincent and the Grenadines, Dr Ralph Gonsalves, on behalf of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) last month, which ended a year-long impasse with the WICB, and Gayle getting out of his Somerset contract, all parties have been making the right noises.

Gayle said of his decision to break the Somerset contract: "I made it clear to them that my decision was made because of my commitment to West Indies cricket and to West Indies cricket fans." Gibson said: "It's great to hear that Chris is available again. I'm sure the selectors will pick him, because he's world-class." And just this week, the directors of the WICB issued a statement in which they said they were "pleased that, consistent with his previous commitment, Mr Chris Gayle has made himself available for selection to the West Indies team".

How happy and pleased everyone will be when the UK tour is over and West Indies come back to the Caribbean to face New Zealand remains to be seen. Much will depend on how Gayle, Gibson and Sammy deal with each other.

The carefully uttered statements will not have swept away the stinging words of last year that brought Gayle and Gibson into conflict and which were a major element of the post-World Cup standoff that led to Gayle's exile from the team.

It is difficult to believe that there is not still a level of distrust between the two. It took prime ministerial intervention and then some before Gayle agreed to a statement of "regret" over his public comments. As uncompromising in his views as in his batting, Gayle will need to adjust his approach if he is not to soon find himself in conflict with the coach again.

Gibson, evidently not impressed with what Gayle was previously contributing to his team-building project, has no choice now but to find a way of integrating a strong-willed personality into a fledgling unit. He may privately be happy to do without Gayle, but his side will be much the better for the big man's runs and experience. As coach, Gibson must find a way to get the best out of Gayle. So far he has been successful in motivating his upcoming charges, but how he handles Gayle's return may say much about his true ability to manage men.

Sammy has grown into his role as leader. And while he has welcomed the return of his predecessor in the job, these next comments, in which he seemed to lay down a marker, hint at his truest feelings: "In the last series we played, we came out with a new attitude where we are not going to let anybody keep us down. We are going to strive to move forward… When Chris joins the set-up, he will be coming into a very hard-working environment, which he has to fit into."

Will Gayle accept the boundaries set for him, or will he insist on going over the top? Fragile as it is at the moment, West Indies cricket can do without more distraction. Gayle's return has the potential to be just that, and an obstacle to the further development of this West Indies team. But it doesn't have to be that way, not if he is handled the right way, and not if Gayle proves his commitment to West Indies cricket, not only with the runs he scores but by being willing to toe the line, for the team.

There have been long months of conflict for Gayle. He has the chance now to make them seem just a bad memory.

Garth Wattley is a writer with the Trinidad Express