October 7, 2012

How do you stop Gayle and Co?

You wouldn't want to be in Mahela Jayawardene's shoes during the World Twenty20 final

It's a final matching power against precision, brawn versus brain. It's the highly colourful West Indies playing the clinical hosts, Sri Lanka.

There has never been a greater collection of power-hitters assembled in one team. Led by the belligerent Chris Gayle, West Indies boast Kieron Pollard, Marlon Samuels, Dwayne Bravo, Johnson Charles, Andre Russell, Dwayne Smith, and even the captain Darren Sammy - all players who can make any cricket boundary look like a 30-metre circle measured from the centre of the pitch. Keeping that lot in check is going to take all the tactical nous the mentally well-endowed Mahela Jayawardene can muster.

While all the West Indies sluggers can be dangerous in their own way, the one who keeps a captain awake the night before a game is the mammoth Gayle. He not only monsters bowlers, he does it against the new ball, he does it to the spinners, and he's smart enough to know when the odds are on his side and when they slightly favour his opponents.

Anybody who accuses Gayle of being a cricket mercenary should watch the video of his semi-final innings against Australia. What they will witness is a player producing his best when it really mattered. If he wasn't doing it for the West Indies administrators, then he was certainly giving his all for the team and the players he cares for. And there's no doubt those players return the sentiment and admire their spiritual leader greatly.

Gayle's daunting presence at the top of the order allows West Indies to attack the opposition bowling from ball one. Where other teams have been treading warily on the overworked Premadasa pitches, West Indies sailed into the Australian bowlers as if they were delivering party pies for a ten-year-old's birthday. And where other teams spoke cautiously about 140 being a respectable target under the conditions, the West Indies manager, the former international batsman Richie Richardson, talked on television about his team reaching 190.

In the end, the affable Richardson, not known for his conservatism with the bat, under-clubbed by 15 runs.

How do Sri Lanka stop this six-hitting juggernaut? Well, Jayawardene is one of the shrewdest skippers in world cricket and he has at his disposal an array of skilful and unorthodox bowlers no one can match. Nevertheless, if Gayle and company have another night "on" at the Premadasa, the trophy will be headed to the Caribbean, exactly where the highly confident left-hand opener predicted it would as he accepted his Player of the Match trophy for his semi-final mastery.

Jayawardene has the unenviable task of choosing how to try to get rid of Gayle early - spin or speed. It's likely he'll choose a mixture of both, like he did so cleverly for much of the semi-final against Pakistan.

The next question is which spinner and which fast bowler? There's probably only one sure bet: there won't be any volunteers. Jayawardene will have to resort to the army tactic where he points to two unfortunates and says, "You and you have just volunteered."

It may well be that Lasith Malinga, with his ability to swing the new ball back in to Gayle, and Tillakaratne Dilshan, who spins away from the left-hander, are the best choices. That pair also have another advantage - they are both highly experienced and have faced numerous challenges in the past with courage and conviction.

The nature of the pitch will provide as much mystery as Ajantha Mendis and Sunil Narine combined. Hopefully, it'll be closer in behaviour to the one in the second semi-final than the first.

Normally, I'd back brains over brawn, but having seen Gayle combine the two in the semi-final, I don't envy Jayawardene his task.

Former Australia captain Ian Chappell is now a cricket commentator and columnist