Sri Lanka v West Indies, 1st Test, Galle, 2nd day November 16, 2010

Gluttonous Gayle adapts to West Indies' needs

If the first day had been all about making an emphatic statement to Sri Lanka, the second was about restraint and maturity

Hard-hitting opening batsmen are all the rage in Test cricket right now. Virender Sehwag, Shane Watson, Tillakaratne Dilshan, Tamim Iqbal, and lately - Brendon McCullum. Few however - Sehwag excepted - can claim the kind of voracious appetite for massive innings that Chris Gayle so patently displays. Six of Gayle's thirteen centuries have been scores of over 150. Three of those have been double-tons and two have been in excess of that magical 300 mark.

While Gayle might not have Brian Lara's prodigious ability or his effortless control, it seems that he has inherited the great West Indian's hunger to strive for something even greater when the battle already seems won; the hunger to not be sated by simply having one's opponents by the scruff of the neck, but to play the kinds of innings that would push them to the brink and further.

Like Lara, Gayle is no stranger to playing the lone hand. His valiant second-innings 165 against a formidable Australian attack, while his team-mates' resolve deserted them in Adelaide last year, ensured that West Indies salvaged a creditable draw from an otherwise arduous series. His unbeaten 63, however, was not enough to get them across the line in the semi-final of the World Twenty20 in 2009. The next highest score on the team card was just seven.

Little wonder then that, in an innings where the West Indies amassed their highest-ever total in the subcontinent, none of Gayle's team-mates passed 70. That's not to say, of course, that he didn't have support: Adrian Barath, Darren Bravo and Brendan Nash played second-fiddle admirably. But they were all exactly that: the forgettable back-up singers in a spectacular performance of the Chris Gayle show.

The zeal with which the Sri Lankans appealed for every half-chance betrayed the immense value that they had placed on his wicket. For a man who is so often derided as egotistical and self-serving, Gayle means a lot to this West Indian outfit. And had he perished early on Monday morning, perhaps the inexperienced youngsters in the top-order whose work was made that much more simple by the fireworks at the other end, would not have lasted long either. The dramatic collapse after Gayle's departure this evening simply highlighted his importance to a fledgling side who have struggled whenever he has failed.

It's not as if criticism of Gayle is unwarranted. A man who hauls in a tidy sum as captain of the West Indies in addition to the income from sponsors and the IPL might be expected to fall in line when the board makes demands. But to see Gayle through this one-sided lens - as a mercenary hack who sells out his national side for more money - is to obscure a more laudable piece of the Chris Gayle puzzle: a batsman whose team's fortunes depend so heavily upon him that he is more often than not, the difference between victory and defeat. The way he compiled his mammoth innings at Galle suggested that perhaps Gayle is himself aware of this fact.

The first day of a tour in which your side has already been written off is about impact, the need to convey to the opposition that you won't be beaten without a fight. And Gayle provided it in emphatic style - 219 not out from 241 deliveries and the record for most sixes in an innings by a West Indian. But the restraint and maturity with which he batted on day two, to not only complete his triple-century, but to consolidate his team's dominance and lift them to a first-innings total from where a maiden Test win in Sri Lanka was now a very real possibility, was perhaps even more impressive than his opening-day ballistics.

He had blasted 34 boundaries in all on the first day, hitting 26 fours and eight sixes. On Tuesday, in over two sessions of batting, he struck just nine, opting instead to exploit the defensive fields to keep the scoreboard ticking alongside Nash, who did the same. Instead of brutish pulls to the midwicket boundary, there were delicate glances and fends to the on-side. The crashing blows through cover and point became gentle nudges and late dabs. Even the majestic wallops high above the bowlers' heads - the highlight of his dazzling strokeplay yesterday, were replaced by stolen singles to long-off. The ceaseless slogger of the previous day's play had overnight transformed into a canny accumulator. And his team was far better for it.

The celebrations too, were muted. No belligerent fist pumps ensued, no yells, leaps in the air or extravagant flourishes of the bat. He simply knelt in the middle of the Galle pitch and raised his arms aloft. Perhaps the searing heat had sapped the energy necessary for the requisite amount of showmanship or maybe it's just not his style, but for a man who'd just been relieved of the captaincy, Gayle seemed to have surprisingly little to prove.

Andrew Fernando writes for The Pigeon and blogs here