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Jon Hotten

Gayle at sunset

If these ODIs are his last bow in England, then he will go out as he came in, demanding to be watched (but not heard)

Jon Hotten
Not a great year for the Universe Boss so far, but he will always be remembered as a symbol of the revolution the IPL wrought  •  Getty Images

Not a great year for the Universe Boss so far, but he will always be remembered as a symbol of the revolution the IPL wrought  •  Getty Images

15 September 2005, Grace Road, Leicester. Sri Lanka's Chilaw Marians CC meet a PCA Masters XI in the opening game of Group B in the inaugural (and as it turns out, final) International T20 Club Championship. Chris Gayle steps onto the field to play T20 cricket for the first time. He opens the bowling and concedes 16 runs from his only over. The game is abandoned due to rain and decided by a bowl-off at the indoor school. His second match, later the same day against South Africa's champion club Titans, is also decided by bowl-off. Two days later, Gayle bats in a T20 match for the first time. He makes 11 from ten deliveries, clean bowled by Samiullah Khan of Faisalabad Wolves. T20 cricket is so new, there are no representatives from Australia, New Zealand or West Indies in the International T20 Club Championship because they don't yet have domestic competitions. Faisalabad Wolves win the tournament. They receive £25,000.
The totemic cricketer of the age makes what are probably his last appearances in England this month. He seems to be staggering towards the end now, the face-melting power intact and sharp but the body seizing up like scrap metal. He is unable to do anything other than trot between the wickets, run out in the T20I, juddering to a halt as the popping crease approached, and then picked up on the stump mike at the first ODI, complaining that he'd pulled a hamstring.
Gayle has been playing the shortest form in England since the summer it began. This last decade and a half has not quite enclosed his career - his international debut came in the final flickerings of the last millennia - but these years will be his legacy, the years in which cricket changed and he became a shaping force.
11 September 2007, the Wanderers, Johannesburg. West Indies play South Africa in the opening match of Group A of the first ICC World T20. As ESPNcricinfo's commentary says, "No one knows what to expect." South Africa win the toss and field first. Chris Gayle bats for 75 minutes, faces 57 deliveries, hitting ten of them for six, seven of them for four, and scores the first ever T20I century. West Indies make 205 for 6 and lose by eight wickets after Herschelle Gibbs gets 90 from 55 deliveries and Justin Kemp 46 from 22. Three days later, Gayle makes a three-ball duck against Bangladesh, and West Indies are eliminated from a tournament that will ignite the new format in its soon-to-be heartland of India. But its first day has its statement innings from its statement player. The tournament, and the format, appear blessed. When Gayle succeeds, so does T20.
The lineage of great West Indian batsmen is clear, a thread drawn through the Three Ws to Sobers, Richards and Lara. As a meaningful example of social change, as a symbol of hope and pride, Gayle's career could never have the same context as the ones of those who came before. Sobers' greatness sees him rated a dash below the Don on the all-time lists. Richards changed the methods of batting and flew at the tip of the arrow in the greatest teams ever assembled. Lara holds the really eye-catching batting records, compiled in an era of decline.
In considering Gayle's legacy, rather than just his impact, 2016 is the year that will define what is said and written about him, whether he likes it or not
Chris Gayle cannot be them, but he surely stands alongside. Not since Richards has such a sense of theatre accompanied a player as that which accompanies Gayle, in his gold helmet, with his gold bat, pounding the ball out of stadiums again and again, while half a billion people watch on television. As an avatar of cricket's new age, as the prime mover in its new currency of sixes, he has matched anyone. He is a player for the digital era, a walking, talking highlights package. The purists may baulk, but he has created an accelerated game for this accelerated, time-poor culture. He has made the future.
20 February 2008, Mumbai. Over the course of seven hours, London auctioneer Richard Madley conducts six rounds of bidding for players in Lalit Modi's IPL franchises. Gayle is awakened by a phone call to hear that he has been sold to Kolkata Knight Riders for US$800,000. Among those going for more are Andrew Symonds at $1.35m, Ishant Sharma at $950,000, Brett Lee and Jacques Kallis at $900,000, and RP Singh at $875,000. Gayle says that he responded to the news with an incredulous "How much?"
It's apt that he has arrived in England soon after the rights to an IPL franchise match sold for more than one featuring India's national team. If the game's administrators have been, as Mike Atherton said in the Times, "asleep at the wheel", Gayle seemed to grasp instinctively what was happening from the moment it began. Everyone wanted the money. This was the real conflict, the pragmatic future, and Gayle has epitomised it. His earning power as a freelance cricketer enabled him - in fact, it commanded him - to ignore his board in a way no player had before. And here is the disparity into which Gayle's career has fallen: the WICB receives around $15.8m per year for its TV rights. England's rights just sold for £1.1b (approximately $1.45b) for the four years of 2020-24, India's IPL TV and title rights for about $2.9b, with the rights to Indian cricket to come next year. Such is the financial power of the IPL, the English summer must now yield to its window or risk its own players disappearing through it.
23 April 2013, M Chinnaswami stadium, Bangalore. RCB play Pune Warriors in the 31st match of the sixth IPL. A storm delays the RCB innings. Upon resumption, Gayle reaches the fastest century in any form of cricket by hitting a full toss onto the stadium roof, the 30th delivery he has faced. He bats through the innings for 175 not out, another record, as RCB make 263 for 5 from 20 overs. It's not just Gayle. AB de Villiers bats for 12 minutes, faces eight balls, and scores 31.
The game takes place almost exactly ten years on from the very first T20 match, Hampshire Hawks v Sussex Sharks at the Rose Bowl in June 2003. Cricket has been through a paradigm shift. Gayle has set almost every T20 batting record. He has also, in that time, made two Test match triple-centuries (in 2005 and 2010) plus 11 of his 13 other Test tons. He has earned a million dollars for a single match playing for a disgraced billionaire. He will, within 18 months, score 215 in an ODI. He will score a 12-ball fifty in the Big Bash. He will become the first player to score 10,000 runs in T20 cricket. He will become the only cricketer to carry his bat in both a Test match and a T20 international. He will have made the art and the life of the batsman something new.
So this most implacable and certain of players stands at the crossroads. The deal he made with the devil was for that gimlet eye and his thunderous power. There are signs that both have diminished. His last 12 months have been, by the standards of his prime years, thin, or at least less spectacular. Freddie Wilde, an analyst with Cricviz who has watched Gayle throughout the recently concluded CPL, says: "I've noticed a change in him. It's as if he's acknowledging his limitations. He has scored two unbeaten first-innings fifties this season: 66 from 55 deliveries against Guyana Amazon Warriors and 54 from 51 versus Trinbago Knight Riders, that have been in wins for his team. He's been batting differently.
"In a way this mature batting and pragmatism perhaps tells us more about him than the half-decade of domination that came before. He's a thinking player. Few understand the rhythms of T20 like him. In both those fifties, he seemed to suss the pitch and a par score perfectly when no one else could."
4 January 2016, Bellerive Oval, Hobart. During a BBL game between Melbourne Renegades and Hobart Hurricanes, Chris Gayle is interviewed by Channel Ten pitch- side reporter Mel McLaughlin. "To see your eyes for the first time is nice," he tells her. "Hopefully we can have a drink afterwards… Don't blush, baby." He is fined $10,000 and reprimanded. During an interview with Grandstand, Chris Rogers calls it "a pattern of behaviour". Allegations of similar comments come after an interview with Charlotte Edwardes of the Times. Gayle apologises, but six months later tells the media that they were "trying to damage the brand that a lot of people love". In his autobiography, Six Machine, he rebukes Rogers, and also Ian Chappell, who has called for him to be banned by the ICC, writing: "How can you ban the Universe Boss? You'd have to ban cricket itself."
In considering Gayle's legacy, rather than just his impact, 2016 is the year that will define what is said and written about him, whether he likes it or not (and he doesn't). A lifestyle created and maintained on social media, made through photographs and emojis, hints and inferences, was always a highwire act, vulnerable to the slightest misstep. He didn't really believe all of that Universe Boss stuff did he? Well, perhaps he did after all.
It has added to the complexity of his reputation. It's hard to know how such things impact on the judgement of him as a great player. Success often carries the power of forgetting. In purely cricketing terms he has been an extraordinary external force, a deus ex machina for his times. If these ODIs are his last bow on English soil, then he will go out as he came in, demanding to be watched, to be seen and not heard.

Jon Hotten blogs at The Old Batsman. @theoldbatsman