By Karthik Parimal
Love him or hate him, but one cannot deny the fact that Chris Gayle is the real deal. He copped a lot of criticism from many in the cricketing fraternity during his standoff with the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB). But, as has been evident since the last few games, none can replace a player of Gayle’s stature. The difference in the approach of the West Indies on the field has been there for all to see. Not once have the hosts looked on the defensive throughout this tour, despite being pitted against an opponent with equal strength. Such is the aura created by Gayle in every format of the game.
Gayle has returned to the West Indian squad after 18 months and has straightaway made his presence felt with a resounding century. During Gayle’s absence, West Indies used five different opening combinations, and yet, none of them could provide the stability or strike fear in the hearts of the opposition like he did. Moreover, despite the eighteen-month break, Gayle is still the second leading run-scorer for the West Indies in the Test format since the last five years, next only to Shivnarine Chanderpaul. Since July 2007, Chanderpaul has amassed 3108 runs in 39 Tests at an average of 60.94, whereas Gayle has scored 2044 runs in 24 Tests at an average of 55.24.
Even without Gayle, the West Indians managed to put up decent performances against formidable sides like England and India, thanks to their solid middle-order featuring players like Chanderpaul, Darren Bravo and Marlon Samuels. These three were willing to grind it out in the middle and weather the storm, and it has to be said that whatever respect West Indies gained since the last few months in the Test arena is largely due to the trio of Chanderpaul, Bravo and Samuels. However, their top-order was feeble, and it cost them quite a few matches. They came close to beating India and surviving the English threat on a few occasions, but always fumbled because their foundation wasn’t strong enough. That is where Gayle can make a difference.
A couple of years ago, the West Indians were still evolving as a team. The situation hasn’t changed much today, but one cannot deny the fact that they now have a sound middle-order. The inclusion of Gayle, and also Sunil Narine in the bowling department will only bolster the side. Adrian Barath, Kraigg Brathwaite and Kieran Powell were all tried at the top of the order but none of them could lay the required foundation on a consistent basis; in fact, they couldn’t complement each other well.
However, the scenario was completely different when Gayle and Powell opened in the ongoing first Test against New Zealand. The two batsmen seemed to know exactly what they were trying to do. Powell was right when he stated that he’d like to open the innings alongside someone like Gayle, because it's a big relief when someone takes all the pressure off from the other end. Can anyone dispute that?
But credit must be given to Gayle for the way he has adapted. Agreed, one innings doesn’t prove that he isn’t just a Twenty20 (T20) specialist and can play Test cricket with the same ease, but his technique and approach show that he can be equally efficient in every format. I mentioned above that Gayle was the second-highest scorer in Tests since the last five years; the same modus operandi has helped him become the highest run-getter in the One-Day International (ODI) format during the same span. These days, he gets a measure of the conditions, sharpens his sword, and then slays the bowling apart. It’d be a huge judgement of error on the part of the bowler to think that he has got the upper hand over Gayle when the latter quietens down for a bit; it should only be considered calm before the storm. The New Zealand bowlers will testify to that.
Gayle has continued to be on a rampage since donning the national colours again. Never has it appeared that he’s become a little rusty due to lack of international exposure during recent times. He was the leading run-getter in the recently-concluded ODI series against New Zealand, having scored 220 runs in five innings at an average of 55. He didn’t score much during the last three ODIs of that series, and that resulted in New Zealand winning the third game comprehensively. It was Narine’s brilliant bowling performances that helped West Indies defend above-average totals in the fourth and fifth ODIs. Such is the value Gayle adds to this West Indian unit. In his absence, the first two ODIs too could have probably been closely contested.
When Gayle was welcomed back into the side a few months earlier, captain Darren Sammy had stated that when the former joins the set-up, he would be coming into a very hardworking environment in which he’d have to fit in. There is no doubt now that Gayle has relished the second opportunity presented to him and has fitted in with ease. Let’s hope that he helps West Indies reach dizzying heights in the near future.
(If cricket is a religion and has many devotees, Karthik Parimal would be a primary worshipper. His zeal for writing and love for the sport of cricket is what has brought him here. Karthik can also be followed on Twitter)