June 7, 2014

The Jamaican man mountain

In the last 14 years, Chris Gayle has produced some awe-inspiring innings and stood his ground whenever he perceived injustice from those in charge

The anxiety around Jamaica is palpable.

It is not triggered so much by whether or not Chris Gayle will, in that unflustered manner of his, saunter on to Sabina Park in his native Kingston on Sunday for the first Test against New Zealand that marks the momentous occasion of his 100th. He put the worriers' minds at rest on that score on Thursday by proclaiming, "I am fit, available and will be playing on Sunday, and I am looking forward to it".

He went further, dismissing talk that he was contemplating retirement from Test cricket after the series. It was a telling contradiction of his much-quoted comment prior to the 2009 tour of England that he wouldn't care if Test cricket died. Seduced by the appeal and his success in the T20 game, it was no more than a throwaway line.

The present lingering concern surrounds, not his attitude to Tests, but a complex back injury that, as he describes it, painfully affects a nerve in his leg. It flared during what, for him, was a substandard IPL season.

Could that prove a hindrance to the intimidating power of a 34-year-old, 6ft 2in man mountain who has pushed his body to the limit with non-stop cricket of every type in all the game's varied outposts?

It would be just a week after the left-hander's return from Germany, where he underwent specialist treatment for the complaint. As it was, his renowned physician administered a few palliative injections and sent Gayle back to West Indies' preparatory camp in Barbados in time to meet the board's cut-off date of June 1. He advised him to take a few days' rest before returning to training and gave him the all-clear for the Test and beyond.

Now Jamaica, West Indies and world cricket await the outcome. His previous response to adversity, psychological if not physical, encourages optimism.

The first time he batted after losing the captaincy to Darren Sammy in 2010, Gayle steeled himself for his 333 against Sri Lanka in Galle, his second triple-hundred placing him alongside Don Bradman, Brian Lara and Virender Sehwag, the only others to have scaled such heights.

When his protracted, acrimonious and ridiculous stand-off with the West Indies board ended after an international exile for a year and a half, Gayle returned in 2012 for the home series, coincidentally against New Zealand.

His Jamaican countrymen turned out to welcome him back in numbers not seen at Sabina Park since West Indies' heyday a quarter century earlier. In Sabina's only matches, Gayle thrilled them with 63 not out in the first ODI, 125 in the second. They are sure to pack the Sabina again on Sunday.

His transition back to the traditional red-ball game came three weeks after his Jamaica return, in the first Test at the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium in Antigua. It was just as emphatic - 150 and 64 not out in a West Indies victory by nine wickets.

He had missed 16 Tests in the interim, using the time to burnish his reputation as the most feared destroyer in the shortest format in the IPL, Australia's Big Bash and other domestic franchise tournaments.

As his salvos in the IPL made him an adored and richly paid superstar in India, West Indians could only watch in awe on their television screens on the other side of the planet as he lashed an unbeaten 175 off 66 balls for the Royal Challengers Bangalore last year, the most explosive of several similar performances.

The obvious effect was to intensify the pressure for his reinstatement, even if it eventually required the intervention of two Caribbean prime ministers to secure it.

For all the recent global recognition Jamaica has attracted through the brilliance of Usain Bolt and its remarkable host of track and field stars amidst the declining interest in cricket, Gayle remains an equally special favourite of his island home's three million people.

"He is a national icon, who has represented the country and the region well, and we want him and the world to know that we appreciate his efforts," Billy Heaven, the Jamaica Cricket Association president, said when announcing plans to mark the centenary. "The aim is to have presentations and activities before, during and after the match that will signify to the world how proud we are to have a Chris Gayle."

This pride is not confined to Gayle's cricket. His defiance of what he regards as unfair, autocratic authority has twice brought him into conflict with the West Indies board. It is an established Jamaican characteristic.

No more than a few weeks into his captaincy on the 2007 tour of England, Gayle castigated the WICB for its failure to deliver the new selectees for warm-up matches prior to the three ODIs against England. Ken Gordon, then president, had opposed Gayle's appointment, preferring Daren Ganga instead. Now he demanded an apology, which was resolutely refused.

Gayle clearly possesses the keen eyesight and reflexes that all ball-sport champions require. And, as crucial as anything, he exudes complete self-confidence that permits him, for instance, to pummel the first ball of a Test over the ropes

"Will I stand up to the board?" Gayle asked rhetorically. "Yes, that's me. I always stand up for what I believe in, and when I'm wrong, I'm wrong, but when I'm right, I'm right."

His words echoed those of Bob Marley, another legendary Jamaican, in his reggae classic "Get up, Stand up": "Get up, stand up, stand up for your rights".

Gayle's more recent contretemps followed his retort to coach Ottis Gibson's censure of "senior players… for lacking hunger and desire" after the quarter-final exit from the 2011 World Cup, and chief executive Ernest Hilaire's scarcely veiled comment that "no one man is bigger than the team".

Gayle hit back, calling Gibson "a user" and charging him with undermining the players' comment by his methods.

Again, Gayle was told that unless he withdrew his comments he would not be selected. Again he refused. It took political mediation to close the confrontation.

Jamaicans, and West Indians as a whole, can also identify with Gayle's other side, the smiling, fun-loving skylarker who, team-mates agree, is the spark in the dressing room.

A players' poll in a 2009 tour chose him as the "coolest dude" in the game. His own answer to the question on the form was: "myself".

His initiation of the "Gangnam Style" celebration after the triumph in the 2012 World Twenty20 in Sri Lanka was typically West Indian. It is a vitality that appeals to youthful crowds and franchise owners everywhere.

Cricket has brought him fame and not a little wealth (Forbes magazine recently placed his worth at US$35 million). He earned further respect from his countrymen for his Chris Gayle Academy that he himself launched in Kingston during the week, at Lucas, the club he shares with one of the greatest West Indies batsmen, George Headley. It follows the first in England last year; the initial intake in Jamaica is 20 players, aged 16-20, from disadvantaged backgrounds who will stay 12 months at the academy.

It may be stretching the bounds of credibility to expect a new Headley (ten hundreds in 22 Tests, average 60.83, before the Second World War). In this era, with its focus on all-action, abbreviated versions, Gayle is more certain to be their model.

He has long since established himself as one of the most fearsome hitters the game has known. He is surely the all-time king of sixes. He has launched 366 of them in 396 internationals for West Indies (90 in 99 Tests, 204 in 255 ODIs and 72 in 40 T20Is). These don't count the 435 in 173 domestic T20s around the world.

Such statistics and Gayle's unconventional, stand-and-deliver technique cause him to be dismissed by the perfectionists as nothing more than a leaden-footed slogger who relies almost exclusively on brute force and a tree trunk of a bat. He's all right for the artificiality of the abbreviated game, goes the reasoning, but not for the genuine article of Test cricket, which more accurately examines every facet of batting.

Such condescension ignores Gayle's overall record.

His triple-hundreds each took him more than ten and a half hours to accumulate. They go with five other Test scores of 150 or over. Of West Indians, only Lara and Garry Sobers have as many.

Against Australia in Adelaide in 2009, when captain, he carried his bat through the second innings for 165 off 285 balls as West Indies pressed for a victory they couldn't quite pull off. In the next Test, a few days later in Perth, he paraded his versatility with 102 off 72 balls, with six sixes.

My favourite remains his 197 when West Indies threatened to collapse against New Zealand in Napier in 2008. He spent 396 balls repairing the innings, adding 124 with the reliable Brendan Nash. Yet it didn't prevent him hoisting seven huge sixes whenever the relevant ball came along. It was then a West Indies record, which he himself broke with nine in his 333 two years later.

Gayle's ability is not based on his physical strength alone. He clearly possesses the keen eyesight and reflexes that all ball-sport champions require. And, as crucial as anything, he exudes complete self-confidence that permits him, for instance, to pummel the first ball of a Test over the ropes, as he did in Bangladesh last November. No one else has ever done that.

Prior to the injuries that have plagued him over the past year or so, he had reasonable claim to being the most complete all-round batsman in the modern game.

The coming six weeks are certain to answer the question as to how much longer can he continue. As of now, 100 Tests is an outstanding milestone, previously reached by only eight other West Indians.

Tony Cozier has written about and commentated on cricket in the Caribbean for 50 years