How Chris Gayle went from good batter to Universe Boss and beyond

When he reinvented himself near the start of the last decade, he ended up setting a template for an era of West Indies T20 cricket

Osman Samiuddin
Osman Samiuddin
Chris Gayle raises his bat as he steps off the field, Australia vs West Indies, Men's T20 World Cup 2021, Super 12s, Abu Dhabi, November 6, 2021

T20 titan: it's going to be a long while before anyone breaks Chris Gayle's records of most runs and hundreds in the format  •  Gareth Copley/ICC/Getty Images

Chris Gayle is half-retired, and given how cricketers do it these days, there's probably no better description of his status. Maybe he gets one last game for West Indies. Maybe he features in some high-profile setting somewhere. Maybe we don't see him again. Exits are never clean anymore, in which case, let's call this a half-goodbye.
And let's begin with this fact: that sometime in the latter half of the last decade, Gayle ceased to be a cricketer. He became, instead, an event and nothing other than the main event either. Life would be happening and suddenly, without warning, Christopher Henry was in the house; more accurately perhaps, we were in his.
Could be West Indies, could be Kings XI, could be Renegades, but they'd be on, say, 60 in under four overs, 100 in less than 10, or 200 in 16 and Gayle would be at the wheel: 50 off 12, 60 off 30, 150 off 50, ludicrous off ridiculous. Life as a series of double takes.
Herein lay a universal experience (well, he was the self-designated Universe Boss and all). There was always some game somewhere in some league, even one that had hitherto existed only at the very periphery of your consciousness, where Gayle was main-eventing. Get there double quick. Find channel, locate stream, get on Twitter, something, anything. You always looked for him. Like you would for not that many. Lara? The Ws? Warne? Sachin, AB, KP, Rashid? Different platforms these days but the same urges and desires, the same hopes and expectations.
Other batters played the kind of berserker innings that Gayle became renowned for. Other batters did it more consistently. Still others played a wider range of genuinely berserker shots. Gayle knew he didn't need those, that what he had was more than enough. And anyway, those were others. None of them were Gayle and it was great that he wasn't them.
He stood out not so much because of the distinctive physical figure he cut - once tall and lean, lately tall and buff - but because of his interpretation of batting, or at least what it had become, or even what he thought it needed to become. He had chipped and chiselled away all frills. Batting was either defence or attack, nothing else: Batting 0.0. You defend long enough so you can start attacking. No steady accumulation, no field manipulations, no running hard - no running at all, if possible. Defend, and if not defend, then attack; as close to binary as batting can be.
Over the years, like someone slowly disappearing off the grid, he divested himself of everything that was unnecessary, that was baggage about batting. Complete clarity. Pick this ball, leave that one; pick this bowler, leave that one; take 15 off him, play this one out. So crystal clear that it became a strategy for a team to win two World Cups. Gayle was not just a batter in 2012 and 2016, he was the blueprint for West Indies. How many players get to say that?
There's a story, and fair warning that in this retelling the odd detail might be misplaced and some exaggeration has crept in. But it's legit. We're at the 2013 Champions Trophy. West Indies are about to play Pakistan at The Oval. It is a pre-match meeting and Mohammad Irfan has been on West Indian minds. Irfan is still fairly novel - the height, of course, and then the pace. But from fuller-than-usual lengths there's also the bounce, the ball rising at your throat. West Indies are anxious and spend a fair bit of time discussing those exact things: the angles, the height of release, the bounce, the lengths.
Gayle sits quiet throughout, speaking only at the end and that too briefly.
"He big," he says.
"He tall," he says.
"He come here," he says, gesturing in the general area of his feet - anything full and in his wheelhouse - "he gone."
Irfan was a fiend that day, almost winning a game in which Pakistan were defending 170. Gayle had faced just three balls from Irfan when the innings' seventh over began. Irfan was 2 for 7 at the time. He beat Gayle two balls in a row, on a length or thereabouts, bouncing and seaming away - the second at 145kph. All kinds of difficult. Gayle defended the fourth ball, rising from just short of a length, right in front of his face, dropping it at his feet.
He big. He tall.
Then Irfan went fuller.
He come here.
He gone.
Back over Irfan's head. Not the biggest six Gayle has hit, but a six that was very Gayle. Survive. Defend. Attack. The memory is a lie, not least because sometimes in it Gayle had only two shots: a straight-bat defensive push, and a straight-bat launch in the arc between long-off and long-on. He hit two more fours in Irfan's next over - including the swivel-pull, which, with the front leg raised, was a little Lara - and Irfan was gone. A brief assault, but with it, the game.
Once upon a time Gayle operated on a broader canvas. He can't not have evolved - or narrowed as it were in his instance - over as long a career after all. Because until Universe Boss took over, there was Chris Gayle who was another player, but also a seriously good one. This was a Chris Gayle who didn't hit his first ODI six until his ninth game; then didn't hit another till his 24th. Nearly half of his ODI sixes (162 of 331) have come in the last quarter of his career.
The two Test triples are filed away, possibly under Curious Things That Have Also Happened in Test Cricket. Bonus points for remembering detail without checking here and here. But a Test average of 42 over a hundred-plus Tests needs more than two triples. It needs the texture of a disastrous 2001 tour in Sri Lanka (54 runs in six innings, of which 44 came in one) giving way to that triple nine years later in the same country; or a three-and-a-half-year period without a Test hundred after his first triple. It needs the heft of Test hundreds in Australia, England, New Zealand and South Africa, or a higher Test average away than at home, or a Test average five runs better when captain than when not.
So omnipresent has the Universe Boss become that an entire body of Gayle's work, his proficiency in Tests, could pass by unremarked. Nearly 18 years ago there was that 79-ball hundred in Cape Town, when he batted essentially on one leg; the two hundreds in Australia a decade ago, as Test captain - one which came off 70 balls in a near win, and the other when he carried his bat in an honourable draw. Chris Gayle, it does need reminding, batting out Test-match draws.
You probably remember the other thing Gayle did in 2009, which was to say he wouldn't be so sad if Test cricket died. You've probably forgotten that the remark was a snipe back at Andrew Strauss, who had ventured, in the appropriately patronising and myopic tone of a man whose country invented the game and ruled the world, that turning up two days before a Test (as Gayle had done) is not how we do it. No, that isn't how Gayle did it, and frankly, thank God for it.
There were, it must be said, plenty of foretellings in that first decade of what the second would be like. He took apart Matthew Hoggard once, six fours in a Test match over, that left Andrew Flintoff asking him: "You enjoyed that, didn't you?" Who didn't? And though it came in defeat, Gayle's opening-day hundred at the 2007 World T20, the first international hundred in the format, was a paradigm shift. Few sixes he hit were better than one off Brett Lee at The Oval at the 2009 World T20; rumours persist that ball is still in orbit. That wasn't a foretelling actually; for bowlers, it was foreboding.
But the Gayle experience properly becomes a thing from 2011. Before that season, he was - as he writes in Six Machine - growing into the format, "like an emperor exploring his latest conquests". Specifically 2011, 2012 and 2013, were the peak years, a time in which Gayle was rewiring batting, and as a result, rewiring our brains; scrambling it, shaking it, and finally, crucially, releasing it: this is what was possible with intent, real intent, not that word that gets thrown about so casually.
How else to describe his T20 record in that period?
Games: 104.
Average: 51.44 (wow).
SR: 158.15 (Insane).
Hundreds: 10 (Stop, my brain hurts).
He hit more sixes (337) than he did fours (310). At the very heart of it was the IPL, the real coliseum, and there his numbers were even better - 165-plus strike rate, 62-plus average, four hundreds. The prism didn't exist then through which any of this made sense. There were good T20 batters, there were great T20 batters and there was Gayle. Before the 2011 IPL, he had a strike rate of 140 and averaged 31, which, only because of what came after, looks a little meh. What gave?
On-field clarity, yes, in that he was gradually whittling down his game to how we now know it. Off-field clarity too; not a coincidence that he went into that IPL off the back of a definitive and clean break with the West Indian board. The years of dividing his commitment, of trying to be everything for everyone, were over. A new world awaited conquering and so he did. In his first game that season, against his old side, Kolkata Knight Riders, he hit a 55-ball hundred. Clarity has rarely come this clear.
Sadly, also part of the post-2011 experience is coming to terms with the kind of man Gayle has come to portray himself as. Social media, a natural home to so many of his greatest on-field hits, has been a more unforgiving lens for his off-field antics. A preening narcissism underpinned the timelines - biceps being flexed, six-pack flaunted, party in Jamaica, Hennessy in India, a celebrity shout out; the picture one of general, uncompromising studliness. He's not unique among modern athletes in that sense but the mistake was to think that Gayle, by being #UniverseBoss, was making cricket and cricketers cool. And that this was some benign coolness, without cost.
We enjoyed, even celebrated, tales such as that of the duel with Irfan, particularly the implied machismo at the heart of it. We loved that a cricketer could be like an NBA star or an EPL footballer. But we forgot that with all of this comes the ugly flip side, and that was the driving force behind that BBL moment. The kind of man Gayle was became evident, in unsparing light, in his on-screen behaviour with Mel McLaughlin, a Channel Ten reporter. Which is to say, you can take your pick from creep, misogynist, sexist, chauvinist. He prefers complicated. True, we all are, but when you've said this, built a strip club in your basement, and done another offensive interview as a response to the McLaughlin interview, sometimes it's not so complicated.
Gayle certainly wasn't the first chauvinist cricketer but he was the first to flaunt his chauvinism so publicly on social media. Even if we accept, as he pointed out, that some of the flak came from him being black, successful and proud - racism isn't exactly a wilting force at the moment - it doesn't deflect from his appalling behaviour and general attitude towards women; he's fortunate, in fact, that the McLaughlin interview pre-dated #MeToo.
Perhaps cricket got fortunate too, as an industry that got away with fining him a measly sum and leaving him to carry on, essentially, as he always was; in the process leaving each one of us to our own judgements of whether it was what Gayle the cricketer did that was more important than what Gayle the alpha male stood for.

Osman Samiuddin is a senior editor at ESPNcricinfo