A hundred years ago, a revolution was in the offing in baseball. The dead-ball era was about to come to an end. The greatest champion and mascot of the new baseball was Babe Ruth, a strong, larger-than-life power-hitter who played for the New York Yankees, and laid the foundation not only for baseball as we know it today but also for the dominance of the Yankees over the last 100 years. The rules of baseball were changed at the end of the dead-ball era to favour power-hitting.
It would not be wrong to view Christopher Henry Gayle as the Ruth-like talisman of the T20 game. Few elite international players have embraced the format as Gayle has. As he approaches 10,000 T20 runs, he is over 2500 ahead of the next on the list. He has also hit nearly 300 sixes more than the closest competitor. It is not just the magnitude of his records, it is the revolutionary manner in which he has produced those numbers that makes him not just the front runner to be considered T20's Ruth, but perhaps the only T20 veteran who can claim such a mantle.
T20 is now well into its adolescence. For many reasons, it has struggled to establish itself as a sport in its own right, distinct from cricket - significant among them is the absence of a language that describes this new sport's distinctive measures of virtue. Perhaps unsurprisingly, much of the language deployed by professional observers is wholly borrowed from limited-overs cricket and even Test cricket.
A second significant reason is that marketing international superstars who made their names in Test cricket was a central strategy for introducing T20 to spectators, especially in India, the sport's biggest, most consequential market. Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid, Yuvraj Singh, Virender Sehwag and VVS Laxman were offered roles as "icon players" at the start of the IPL in 2008. This meant not only that they were exempt from the auction process, but also that they were guaranteed 15% more than their team's highest purchase in the auction.
Fans, commentators and pundits alike have largely resisted the idea that good strategy in T20 might be different from good strategy in ODIs. Ideas about building an innings, or playing according to the situation (a euphemism for taking singles, which the opposition is happy to concede for a few overs) are still extremely popular. The assumption is that since a variety of situations arise in the 50-over game (where ten wickets are available over 300 balls), the same variety of situations must arise in the 20-over game (where ten wickets are available over 120 balls), and hence that a similar variety of tactics have merit. Fast running between the wickets, "turning twos into threes and ones into twos", and brilliant ground fielding are consistently lauded, despite the fact that the reduced size of the contest makes the big hit a significantly more attractive proposition than it is in the longer 50-over contest, and consequently makes these other smaller plays less significant.
Gayle understood T20 as few other elite international players of his generation did. He made his T20 debut for the PCA Masters XI in September 2005. Since then, he has played in nearly every T20 league in every major cricket-playing nation in the world. Perhaps uniquely among the elite players of his generation, he has done so during the prime of his international career.
He turned 26 in 2005, and was the automatic first- choice Test and ODI opener for West Indies. He appears throughout the early history of T20. He played for the notorious Stanford Superstars and the glorious double-world-champion West Indies. He has appeared most frequently for West Indies, Royal Challengers in the IPL and Jamaica Tallawahs in the Caribbean Premier League.
Gayle's game is centred around his unrivalled ability to score boundaries. No other cricketer in the 21st century has cleared the boundary with the same frequency as him. None of the top 100 run-getters in T20 (at the time of writing, Darren Sammy occupies the 100th position, with 2829 career T20 runs) has matched Gayle's 1.12 boundary runs per delivery faced.
The table below shows the top 25 players who have scored at least 1000 T20 career runs (organised by boundary runs per ball faced), of the total of 437 T20 players who have scored at least 1000 runs.
Of these, only eight have hit 95 or more sixes per 100 fours (most players hit fours significantly more frequently than they hit sixes). Gayle is one of these eight players. A few players have excelled at hitting fours, others have excelled at hitting sixes, but no one matches Gayle when it comes to combining these two skills. What's more, Gayle has achieved this at the top of the order. His 18 T20 hundreds are 11 more than the next best player (Brendon McCullum).
Gayle is dismissed once every 27 balls in T20s. Of the 25 openers who have scored at least 1000 T20 runs at a strike rate of at least 140, only Virat Kohli has been dismissed less frequently than Gayle, and Kohli scores eight runs fewer per 100 balls. Gayle is one of only six openers to have made at least 1000 T20 runs at a strike rate of at least 150. With the exception of Graeme Hick (dismissed every 23 balls) none of the others do better than a dismissal every 20 balls.
The chart above shows how many balls a T20 opener faces per boundary (four or six) scored, for each over of a first innings in a T20. The first innings is considered because it can be safely assumed that all batsmen are trying to score as many runs as possible instead of playing for a set target. The red line represents all T20 openers. After a quiet first over, the boundary frequency steadily increases during the Powerplay (overs 1-6). There is a steep drop in the boundary rate in the seventh over, before steady improvement to about a boundary every four balls faced in the final over. In Gayle's case, not only does he perform better than average during the Powerplay, he does not let up after the seventh over. If he lasts into the 12th over, he hits at least every fourth ball to the boundary, and he's equally likely to hit a six or a four. Even though Gayle has made his T20 career as an opener, he significantly outshines the average T20 openers in the period after the Powerplay.
When considered by the delivery in the over, T20 openers are more likely to hit a boundary in the middle of the over than they are to hit one off the first or last delivery of the over. Gayle does not demonstrate this peculiarity. Not only is he generally better at hitting boundaries compared to the average T20 opener, he is most likely to score boundaries off the second, third, fifth or sixth balls of the over. He is least likely to hit the fourth ball of the over to the boundary.
One likely explanation for this is that Gayle sets out to score boundaries instead of setting out to score runs. He faces more dot balls than the average T20 opener (despite his overall scoring rate), is not particularly quick between wickets in the way that MS Dhoni or Kohli or AB de Villiers are, and does not seem to be too keen to steal a quick second the way more conventional players are.
Against bowlers who have bowled in at least one Test, Gayle scores at 134 runs per 100 balls. Against non-Test bowlers he scores at 154 runs per 100 balls.
Mohammad Hafeez has troubled Gayle the most among all bowlers, dismissing him five times in 46 balls, conceding 21 runs. His West Indies colleague Dwayne Bravo has bowled to him more than any other bowler, conceding 187 in 124 balls. Bravo has dismissed Gayle eight times.
Gayle's career T20 numbers are formidable. But they ought to be seen as a symptom of the way he seems to see the T20 contest. Gayle plays as an unapologetic power-hitter. He has embraced the franchise era in a way that few other international cricketers have done in their prime. He is, in more ways than one, a purer T20 player than others like Dhoni, Kohli or de Villiers, who might be more readily embraced as T20 icons.
One way to think about the first 14 years of T20 is to compare them to the first 14 years of ODI cricket. Viv Richards dominated ODI records in that era in the same way that Gayle dominates T20 records today. Think of where the ODI game is now. Even by today's ODI standards, Richards' ODI career record is exceptional. It would not be surprising, even if David Warner eventually breaks Gayle's records, if Gayle's T20 career similarly stands the test of time 30 years from now.