How does one bowl to Chris Gayle?
Following the incredible Chris Gayle spectacle in Bangalore earlier this week, cricketers around the world must be wondering exactly what this man did to produce such a performance - besides having pancakes, an omelette and hot chocolate for breakfast, which will now probably be declared the staple diet for T20 batsmen everywhere.
Gayle made the Pune Warriors bowlers look schoolboyish, and an international stadium like a backyard (though his cause was helped quite a bit by a bit of a pedestrian performance by the opposition).
Gayle's aura is such that most teams now opt for a radically different approach to assess what total would be par for course when playing Royal Challengers Bangalore. The consensus - and not without reason - is that the aim should be to post a total and hope Gayle gets out cheaply, because when he fires, no total is insurmountable, no bowler threatening enough, no ground big enough.
Once set, Gayle hits sixes at will, and does so with percentage cricket shots at that. He isn't one to look for a lap shot or a reverse sweep; he prefers to hit in the V, and so connects more often than not. And his power does the rest, taking the ball over the ropes.
In spite of the heroics he produces regularly, Gayle has his weak spots, like the rest of us. While he possesses an air of invincibility, he is liable to bungling occasionally. Here are some points for teams to consider when putting down plans for Gayle.
Attack first up
As a T20 freelancer, Gayle is acutely aware of the importance of being consistent in this volatile format. He needed to find a template that allowed him to optimise his strengths and also score consistently. So he has looked to resist the temptation to try to exploit the field restrictions at the start, and has looked to give the first few balls or overs to the bowlers instead. By playing a few balls out quietly, he gives himself more chances to succeed.
This offers the opposition a small window to dismiss him in, by bowling attacking lines and lengths, with fielders in catching positions. It makes sense at this point to shelve the typical T20 lines and lengths and adopt a more conventional Test match bowling strategy. If there's some swing on offer and the bowler has the ability to move it away from the left-hander, he must pitch the ball fuller and pitch outside the off stump, inviting him to drive through the off. While Gayle plays most shots in the book, he isn't the best driver of the cricket ball when it is new and moving. Though he doesn't mind leaving a few deliveries alone, there's a chance that he might fall for one that's too tempting to resist.
However, right-arm bowlers angling the ball across him with the swing don't quite do it, for Gayle, like most left-handers, gauges the angle quickly and leaves them alone. If a left-arm quick is capable of taking the ball away at pace, he has a reasonable chance of dislodging Gayle.
Cramp him for room
Chris Morris and Dirk Nannes discovered another way of getting the better of Gayle in Royal Challengers' match against Chennai Super Kings. Instead of bowling length on the fourth-stump line, they bowled quick and into his body. It wasn't a barrage of bouncers but more just cramping him for room, with most balls finishing at thigh height.
Both bowlers peppered him so much with that line that they got Gayle to abandon his template. He played a couple of uncharacteristic shots, trying to put the bowlers off their game, seemingly not realising that they were trying to do the same to him. Eventually Morris succeeded, getting Gayle caught as he attempted a wild heave to a wide delivery - a ball he would have left alone on other occasions.
Morris and Nannes made a concerted and relentless effort to bring Gayle out of his comfort zone and they succeeded. The contest may have lasted only ten balls, but it was worth watching for the drama.
Spin it away
This is a bit of a hit-or-miss strategy to counter Gayle. If it was guaranteed to work, every team would play an offspinner against him. While even part-time offspinners have managed to dismiss him a couple of times, it is the quality ones who have earned respect consistently from the big Jamaican.
R Ashwin got him a couple of times in last year's IPL by inducing a false stroke, and since then, Gayle has changed his approach against offspinners: instead of going after them, he prefers to milk them for singles and attack the bowler at the other end.
"To make a batsman play an attacking shot is the biggest challenge a spinner faces," Stuart MacGill said recently on his show The Cricket Club. While T20 cricket does that bit for a spinner by default, for everyone is trying to hit the spinners out of the ground, it's not a given with Gayle, who is likely to play safe early on. So even if it's worth gambling with a spinner early on, the quality of the bowler makes all the difference - you need one who can make Gayle play an attacking shot and induce a mistake.
It would be worth watching someone get the better of him. The small battles between batsman and bowler are what make the big contest fascinating. While most bowling plans go out of the window once Gayle gets going, it is better to plan and fail than to not plan at all.