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Chris Gayle's dazzling reminder of what might have been

Everything about Chris Gayle's 87 against New Zealand is what one has come to associate with him in recent years, but was that his final big effort in ODIs?

Sidharth Monga
Sidharth Monga
Chris Gayle pulls one to the boundary  •  Getty Images

Chris Gayle pulls one to the boundary  •  Getty Images

At about 7.50pm - the most glorious 7.50pm of this initially gloomy tournament, on the day after the longest day of the year - it suddenly strikes you. Chris Gayle is walking back. Dodgy lower back, troublesome groin, walking gingerly, his every step measured, as if - if not careful - he could dismantle a body put together before every innings. Along with the pads and other armour, you know. His knees are fine at least. He has been managing that falling-apart body for a few years now.
It is a slow walk. Gives you time to contemplate. By the time he reaches the 30-yard circle, the crowd rises for a generous standing ovation. He raises the bat. Takes off his helmet to reveal a black bandana and greying dreadlocks and beard.
That's when it comes to you. You might just have seen the last big innings of Christopher Henry Gayle's international career. He is pushing 40. He has already announced this is his last ODI tournament. His side is on the way out. There isn't much left. West Indies will come back strong, Gayle won't. Not after this tournament. He lets you soak it in with that slow walk.
Gayle is walking off with an entertaining 87 against New Zealand to his name. It is an innings that has given West Indies hope of resurrecting their campaign. It is an imperfect innings raging against the light that is fading on an imperfect career and an imperfect team campaign. Weather gods wanted to miss none of it; Manchester has turned out a beautiful sunny day, which leaves floodlights redundant even for an overtime finish.
It has been a day where Gayle has shown amply what has become the hallmark of his resurgence years: acute awareness of his strengths and how to maximise them, and how to shield the weaknesses. He starts with the almost customary maiden. At one point he has scored just 5 off 23 deliveries. For close to two hours he bats, and his side takes only three couples (including leg byes) in that period. He leaves alone balls that others look to take singles off. You know, length, outside off. Not in his wheelhouse, not threatening his stumps either. He hardly even lifts his bat, forget moving his feet when he leaves them. There can't be one wasted movement.
New Zealand have looked to bounce him, and he has hooked them. Sixty-eight of his 87 runs have come in boundaries. One of the six sixes is a top edge, another is a mis-hit, but Gayle knows what he is doing. He knows he doesn't have to absolutely nail it when he is trying to pump a left-arm spinner down the ground into the shorter straight boundary.
It's not that Gayle hasn't run quick singles. He has done so often, sometimes hitting balls straight to mid-on, but also knowing better than anyone how hard he has hit them. Every time he does go, though, you worry. He doesn't look quick but he knows the coverage of his strides. There is no misjudgment. There are few better judges of a run than Gayle. The last time he was run out in any form of official cricket was back in October 2018. The last time he was involved in an international run-out was last July. He has been run out only 18 times in 524 international innings. That's the most universe-boss thing he has ever done. Not only does he judge the runs well, others around him adjust with him, trust him to make up for missed singles.
And when Gayle steals a second run at Old Trafford, it draws the loudest cheer of the day. Bigger than when he hits sixes, which are majestic. Bigger arguably than when he bowled with his sunglasses on earlier in the day and took the wicket of Ross Taylor. He had a laugh at his own body when he pretended to have dislocated his shoulder when celebrating. Earlier in the tournament he bowled with a hat and sunglasses on. The fact that West Indies had to go to him shows desperation but he could find enough in the tank to roll his arm over.
This West Indies innings turns out to be a reminder of Gayle's career. The bright start, the lost years, and then that Carlos Brathwaite surge reminiscent of Gayle's resurgence as the wise old sage of limited-overs cricket. This is a reminder of what just might have been if he had been looked after well, if there had been a board to pamper him, protect him and then demand the best out of him as the boards in India and Australia do. Of what might just have been if he wasn't fighting a creaky body. And yet, despite all that, Gayle is walking off still a majestic and an intimidating batsman.
Cruelly West Indies finish just short of a miraculous win. Cricket is cruel. World Cups are even more cruel. You get only one shot at one team. They take away players from us. It is a reminder Gayle will be gone not too long from now. Also, in all likelihood, MS Dhoni. A few others won't even get a chance to say goodbye. If this is indeed Gayle's last big innings, his last big show, he has done well to remind us: cricket can be cruel, you will encounter more failure than success in it, but don't forget to have fun when you are there.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo