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Old Guest Column

The Coolest One, and Johnny Come Lately

Chris Gayle and Paul Collingwood are a thousand miles apart as cricketers and characters

Peter Roebuck

Chris Gayle has realised that merely being cool isn't good enough © Getty Images
Chris Gayle and Paul Collingwood are a thousand miles apart as cricketers and characters. In his youth, Gayle must have been impressed by the cut of cool dudes who remain unruffled amidst the howls and rages of urban life. Certainly he seems to have spent his entire career under the influence of chloroform. Contrastingly, Collingwood has about as many pretensions as the common potato and leaves all the fancy stuff to the watercress and asparagus around him. Yet both of these diverse characters have in recent weeks been invited to lead their country's one-day outfit. Moreover, both appointments were inspired.
Gayle has for an interminable time represented both his team's problem and its possible salvation. From a distance he can seem to be an insufferable poseur more concerned about appearances than performances. He was the Beau Nash of the popping crease, the Paris Hilton of the greensward. Inevitably he flattered to deceive. Not that he lacked ability. Occasionally he wrought havoc at the crease, transforming himself from ice cube to whirlwind in a manner that might in another sport have led to a stewards' enquiry. And then he went back to his old self, hardly moving his feet, his shot selection as dubious as Dick Cheney's, standing idly at slip and sending down gentle off-breaks with all the menace of Donovan in his hippy phase. Beside him, Rip van Winkle was a flibbertigibbet. It was irritating.
Meanwhile, the West Indians went from bad to worse. Gayle seemed destined to spend his entire career playing for losing teams. Colleagues talked fondly of him as a prankster. It was the same with Curtly Ambrose, defensive, even resentful, in public, a livewire in private. But it was not good enough. West indies could not afford to let its senior opening batsman to drift off into his own dreamland. Leadership was needed, not another underperforming complainant. Gayle could not be allowed to cruise along. The time had come to force him to call him out.
And so in its darkest hour, and with marked reluctance at Board level, the West Indians asked Gayle to captain its limited over team in England. It was a risk worth taking. Now and then the languid opener had revealed an inner fury of the sort that can provoke change. During the Champion's Trophy played in India last year, he suddenly became involved in heated exchanges with Michael Clarke, an opponent generally regarded as inoffensive. Apparently the Australian had made an unguarded comment and Gayle had decided to take offence. Except that it revealed unexpected passion, the row did not amount to a hill of beans. But it was good to see that the Jamaican cared. It is so easy not to mind.
Gayle's response to his elevation was swift and significant. Far from mending fences, he promptly launched a withering attack on the officials responsible for his nomination!
Not that Gayle was immediately or happily promoted. West Indies had a few more matches to lose, a few more captains to try, a few more injuries to suffer. Finally he was asked to skipper the one-day side in England. Although he was just about the last man standing, the appointment was made through gritted teeth and with fingers crossed. The hesitation was understandable. Not long before, Gayle had spoken out against the curfew imposed on the tourists, and did not seem at all inclined to toe any line. Also, he had played badly at the World Cup and had endured an unproductive tour of the old country.
Gayle's response to his elevation was swift and significant. Far from displaying discretion and mending fences as anticipated, he attacked the very officials responsible for his nomination! Within a few hours of occupying one of the game's most prestigious positions he had risked it all on the roll of a dice. From the outset he made it clear that he was a players' man and did not intend to tolerate any nonsense from anyone. In a trice had voiced attitudes long restricted to the dressing-room. Moreover, he spoke not as a past player milking the game but as a man still wearing a maroon cap. If the players didn't respond to him, they were past saving.
Gayle has made a promising start, correcting mistakes quickly and stirring his players sufficiently to provoke argy-bargy on the field. Its going to be an interesting period. Sometimes putting the leading rebel in charge works, sometimes it does not. As far as West Indian cricket is concerned, the gamble had to be taken.

Having taken the tough road to the top, Collingwood is flourishing © Getty Images
Collingwood has not wasted an ounce of his talent. Like the Duke of Wellington and Allan Border, his strength lies not in the extent of his abilities but the use made of those in his possession. His batting has never caught the eye. He does not stand out in the nets, did not excel in junior cricket or command attention as he somehow rose through the ranks. And with every rise came a period of consolidation for he lacked the confidence needed to dominate from the outset. And with every rise came the prediction that it must be his last.
Nothing Collingwood does at the crease is beyond the accomplishment of the common man. Whereas the stylist drives and cut, he cracks and carves. He favours the leg-side and does not bother much with ruffles and furls. Accordingly it takes time to warm to him, to see how skilfully his game is put together, how little it depends on fortune. Apart from anything else, he plays with a wide part and moves his feet with firm purpose. And he does another thing that is not entirely irrevelvant. He scores runs consistently and against allcomers on all sorts of pitches.
Collingwood is also a strong enough character to stand his ground against Shane Warne, responding to the spinner's acerbic remark about his admittedly absurd post-2005 Ashes gong with a riposte about the tweaker's stomach, which thereabouts told more of cream buns than prunes. Concentration unwaivering, determination unshakeable, the middle-order man scored heavily in the opening matches of the doomed 2006-07 campaign down under and thereby confirmed that he has the combination of willpower and technique needed to succeed in the highest company. Since he is also a handy bowler and a brilliant fieldsman anywhere, he counts amongst the most serviceable of cricketers.
Accordingly, the Durhamite richly deserves his current recognition. Like several of the Australians, he had to wait a long time for his chance to come, and the waiting did not harm him. Far from allowing frustration to hurt his mind, he continued working on his game and by the time opportunity arrived he was both a mature man and a seasoned cricketer. The race is not always to the swift.
Although Gayle and Collingwood appear to be stopgap appointments, they may turn out to have been the right men in the right place at the right time. Its early days in both stints, but on the current evidence they seem to have been blessed with the particular qualities their teams need at this particular hour.

Peter Roebuck, a former captain of Somerset, is a cricket writer based in Australia.