Chris Gayle knows how to make an entrance in the IPL.
In IPL 2011, after going unsold in the auction, he flew in as a replacement for an injured Dirk Nannes and hit 102 not out off 55 against the Kolkata Knight Riders, his old franchise then, when he ought to have been jet-lagged. In IPL 2018, having almost gone unsold in the auction but picked up by Kings XI Punjab at the last moment, he smashed 63 off 33 at the top of the order against eventual champions Chennai Super Kings.
IPL 2020 had been spent with Gayle on the bench or in the sick bay for more than half the league stage. The first match he was available after recovery was against the franchise with which he became a superstar in 2011 but who didn't even bid for him in 2018, the Royal Challengers Bangalore. A successful outing was pre-ordained.
The Royal Challengers had come prepared to counter Gayle. Gayle's strike rate against off-spin in the IPL before this game was 111.78, notches below his overall IPL strike rate, north of 150. The Royal Challengers had Washington Sundar, an offspinner at the top of his game in this tournament, with the best economy rate of any bowler. If Gayle opened, Sundar could bowl in the powerplay, he had done it often. If he didn't, Sundar could bowl whenever he came on. He had done that too. Gayle walked out to bat after the last ball of the eighth over, and the ninth was bowled by Sundar.
At first, it seemed like the plan would work. In Sundar's first two overs, Gayle faced seven balls and took only four singles off them. Then, like he has done several times in his T20 career, Gayle tore that plan to shreds.
Not that Sundar bowled badly, but the exemplary command over length that he had shown all tournament long was destroyed. Gayle would face nine more balls from Sundar, and they disappeared for 28 runs. Almost all of them scored in Gayle fashion, through six-hitting.
That Gayle ended up with 53 off 45 is almost incidental. What he showed in his innings was yet another iteration of the Gayle method. He is unconcerned with strike rates at the start of his innings. His main focus is to gauge the pace of the pitch, and assess bowlers. He can be unconcerned because he knows he has T20 cricket's most precious commodity in abundance: hitting sixes.
The Gayle method in T20s once his batting is calibrated to the surface and the bowling attack is to treat every ball by default as if it is a six-hitting opportunity. That's how he sets himself up, the stance, the front leg always on the verge of clearing out, the bat swing high. He has to think that way to hit the number of sixes he has: 983 and counting in T20 cricket. Kieron Pollard is in second-place at 685, and nobody else has breached even 500. What's the quickest way to cover 100 kilometres? You can get there in an hour by driving fast in a hatchback. But if you could spend 10 minutes covering the first 10 kilometres while your racing car warms up, and then zoom across the next 90 in 45 minutes, you'd arrive faster.
On Thursday, Gayle was on 7 off 15 balls at one point. It's almost natural that he should have made 46 off his next 30 balls. Gayle's strike rate in the first ten balls of his innings in all IPLs is barely above a run a ball. That strike rate has never been an issue because of the way in which Gayle trades off the slow start with his ability to clear boundaries. In his autobiography, Six Machine, he gives a glimpse of his process, writing, "Wild swinging won't win you games… I tear attacks to pieces, but I stalk my prey first."
He elaborates on that by listing out what he calculates when batting in a T20: how many overs which bowler will bowl, who might be given the ball at what stage, which bowler to target for a big over and force the bowling captain to change his plans. "Who am I up against? How can they hurt me? How can I hurt them more?"
This is how T20 works. And this is how Gayle, who has deep understanding of the format and his own game, works. He has done it arguably better than anyone has in the history of the game.
The science behind Gayle's batting is covered up by his showboating façade, but it's there. Before this game he said he was more happy for the fans than himself because they would finally get to see him bat in the IPL. After it, he said, "Now I can finish IPL for 2020, make myself available for 2021. Get out of the bubble now, and go!"
But in between, he also came out with: "It's disappointing to be honest with you. You don't come here to actually sit around, but it is what it is…. It's a bit of relief for me, but absolutely no pressure. Been there, done that too often."
In his pomp, Gayle was almost invulnerable in T20s. Six-hitting mayhem was almost guaranteed if he had sussed out the conditions. He's no longer in that prime, the eyes might not spot length as quickly, the reflexes at 41 aren't what they were in the early 30s, and the body protests more too. But Gayle showed that given the right circumstances, he can still be a force. The taking down of Sundar was proof of that. Brought on to bowl the 17th over, Sundar managed to largely land balls on the length that has troubled all batsmen this IPL: not full enough to drive, too short to pull, darting through quicker than most spinners. Gayle still hit two of those balls for dismissive sixes, generating the immense power of old to balls that most batsmen wouldn't have been able to.
He had been there, done that. More than often. And now he's come back to do it again.