Gayle returns in terrific style
As far as comebacks go, it is tough to beat Michael Jordan's triumphant return in 1995, which inspired the Chicago Bulls to three more NBA championship wins, but Chris Gayle's emphatic 150 after a 19-month break from Test cricket must rank right up there. However, unlike Jordan, who had retired from basketball to try his hand at professional baseball, Gayle always knew he would be back in the whites.
"It was just a matter of time," Gayle said after leading West Indies to a dominant position on the second day of the first Test against New Zealand. "I knew I would come back at some stage, I never gave up. You know the thing is, even though it took a lot of time - as long as it did to rectify - I knew I'd come back. Even if it [took] two years. It was just a matter of time. I am here now."
West Indies had tried to fill Gayle's spot with several young openers but none could match his intimidating physical presence on the field and cheerful attitude to cricket and life off it. However, even for someone as formidable as Gayle, it was a tough reintroduction to Test cricket. Despite having played 91 Tests, Gayle had apprehensions coming into this match.
"I thought about it actually before the game started," he said. "First I had to get the mental aspect of my game right. I was telling myself that it was going to be challenging. It's tough cricket.
"To be out and about around the world, and to be back suddenly, I [had to] assess the conditions, assess day one, and then being on the outfield, very tired, and then I had to field again in the morning and then come out and open the batting. It was a mental thing. I surpassed that now. It was a bit challenging to come back and [play Test cricket] five days after playing so many shorter version games. It was challenging."
In his first over back, Gayle dispatched Chris Martin for four consecutive boundaries. It was the Gayle we remember quite well from his limited-overs exploits. And there was a method to his approach. "The start was very important to me, after being on the field for nearly a day and a half. Go on the counterattack, make them ease off a bit and then it actually gives me time to make necessary adjustments. Then things start playing in my favour."
The eyes were deep and focused, the chest puffed out and that characteristic swagger was intact as Gayle bossed the New Zealand bowlers for more than 75 overs. There was the odd hiccup - dropped on 36 by Daniel Flynn, inside edges, and another dropped chance well past his century - but New Zealand could not capitalise. Capitalise is a word Gayle uses often. "Once you get a start, you need to capitalise on it. In Test cricket, once you [get] a chance, you have got to make sure you take advantage of that and that's what I did. Getting a second lifeline, I punished them for that as well. Once you get a chance, you try to buckle down, get a bit more tight, dig deeper and score as many runs you can get with that chance."
His hunger remains. Gayle may have been a Twenty20 troubadour during his time out of the side but his commitment to West Indies endures. His partnership of 254 with Kieran Powell was the fourth-highest opening stand for West Indies and Gayle also surpassed Gordon Greenidge as West Indies' highest run-scorer against New Zealand.
"That's good. The great Double G. I am happy to be in the record books once more, and continue to contribute to West Indies cricket as much as possible," Gayle said. "At 150, I was looking to push to 200 and get a big total, but got tired a bit and I didn't get much of it. That's that."
There was a philosophical air about Gayle as he talked about events of the past 19 months. He said he did not like to hold grudges against the people and circumstances that prevented from representing West Indies. When he reached his century, there was no vengeful gesture or handwritten note. Instead, he took his helmet off and brandished that broad smile. The emotion was that of "big relief". "Remember what happened to [Martin] Guptill in the first innings [out on 97]?" he said. "These things actually cross your mind as a batter even though you have scored centuries before."
At the end of the first day, Powell had spoken of how batting with Gayle took the pressure off him, and Gayle said his return meant that opposition bowlers were likely to target him more, reducing the heat on his team-mates.
"From my personal point of view, it is a big effect, to be honest with you," Gayle said. "Because most of the bowlers will be worried and try to get me out quickly, and before they realise I am up to 30-40 runs, and the batsmen at the other end can use this as an advantage and capitalise and get some runs. Obviously I am an attacking batsman and I'll score runs once I am at the wicket. So they [bowlers] will pay more attention to that and not focus on the other batsman as much."
With West Indies ahead by 91 and four wickets in hand, Gayle is keen to close out the Test over the last two days. "The first game [of the Test series] is always important. We do not know what's going to happen in Jamaica. We have to be mindful. When you get a chance like this, capitalise and cash in … Hopefully [we] can actually get 50 runs or more and put ourselves in a winning position."
If that victory should come to pass, perhaps Jordan will have competition for being the touchstone for comebacks.
Subash Jayaraman is a freelancer, blogger and podcaster based in Pennsylvania. He tweets here