George Dobell at Kensington Oval
A few years ago, after another stunning performance in club cricket, Collis King – by then well into his 60s and hobbling around on knees held together by Blu Tack and prayer – remarked “I always said I’d retire when my eye had gone. My knees have gone, my ankles have gone but my eye… it’s never gone.”
Maybe it is the same for Chris Gayle.
There were periods of this innings when he looked like an old man who had played for a year or five too many. He can hardly run (there were only two twos in his entire innings), he looked exhausted long before the end and, for the first 15 or so overs, when other openers might be taking advantage of the field, he could barely lay bat on ball. Had he been caught by Jason Roy – as he surely should have been – when he had just 9, there may well have been questions asked about his future: that drop came off his 33rd ball. Until then, he really had looked awful. One wag in the press box even labelled him “Universe Dross”.
At that stage, there were whispers about Gayle’s suitability for the World Cup campaign. Indeed, his pre-series press conference – the one in which he declared himself “the greatest player in the world” and “the Universe Boss” – is understood to have irritated some in the higher echelons of CWI. The board felt his comments about retiring after the World Cup showed some presumption about his place in that squad. He is 39, after all, and hadn’t played an ODI since July. He hadn’t scored an ODI century against a team other than UAE or Zimbabwe since 2013; he hadn’t scored one against England since 2006. Time catches up with everyone.
But he does have nearly 10,000 ODI runs. And he does have 24 ODI centuries. Which is as many as Ben Stokes, Jos Buttler, Moeen Ali, Jonny Bairstow and Jason Roy combined. And he does, on the surface at least, appear to have remarkable quantities of self-belief.
And such is that self-confidence, he trusted himself to make up for lost time. He continued to believe, despite mounting evidence to the contrary, that if batted for long enough, the fluency would return and his acceleration would provide the innings his side required.
He was almost vindicated, too. Almost. He hit his first six of his 37th ball and, by the time he had faced 122, he had added 11 more. That’s 12 in 86 deliveries. At one stage he hit four in six balls (excluding wides) and seven in 21, with his second 50 taking just 24 balls. With his team-mates adding another 11 sixes between them, West Indies set a new record for an ODI innings. Fifteen came off the spin duo of Moeen Ali (nine, including four in his final over) and Adil Rashid (six). It was, eventually, wonderfully destructive.
“The package Gayle brings with him is not entirely positive, though. His lack of mobility in the field is a throwback to Victorian days”
“It’s one of the best innings,” he told Sky afterwards, “because if you look at my international career, in one-day cricket, I haven’t started like that.
“I used a bit of experience. It took me a while to get my first boundary. But I stuck at it and eventually like in life, it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.”
There is nothing especially clever or pretty in the way Gayle attacks these days. He basically clears his front leg, makes no attempt to keep the ball on the ground – there were only three fours in his innings – and hits mightily, brutally, fantastically hard. He is a large man with long reach, so the same stroke – which might owe something to baseball – seems to work for the full ball, short ball, back-of-a-length ball and bouncer be they on off stump or leg.
Nine of his sixes were in the arc between long-on and square leg; two were over long-off; one, ridiculously, flew off the edge and over third man; it had been aimed in the direction of midwicket. They weren’t small sixes, either. Five times, he hit the ball so far out of the ground in the direction of the harbour that a new one was required.
Perhaps England’s bowlers could have mixed it up more or cramped him for room. Perhaps they became rattled by the ferocity of the assault; they conceded 15 wides as they tried to stretch him outside his favoured hitting zone. But they are not the first to lose their way in the teeth of the Gayle and, with his World Cup place now assured, they may not be the last.
The package Gayle brings with him is not entirely positive, though. His lack of mobility in the field – really, it’s a throwback to Victorian days – is a major problem, while his inability to run does not just reduce his own scoring opportunities. He is unable to take the second or third runs his partners may be capable of making and thus increases the pressure upon them. While he might argue he can compensate for that weakness, he will know the very best ODI players – and you have only to think of the speed of MS Dhoni between the wickets – can both hit sixes and scamper quick ones and twos.
The fact that Gayle played out 55 dot balls before reaching his century will, more often than not, cost his team. Jason Roy, by comparison, faced 18 dot balls in making his century.
There are huge issues inherent in Gayle’s approach. If he fails having eaten up a dozen or so overs at the start of the innings, he puts his side at a significant disadvantage in having wasted Powerplay opportunities. Here he didn’t hit a boundary until the 15th over of the innings. By the time he was out, he had faced 65 dot balls; the same number of deliveries Roy needed for his hundred. And even if he does come through that tough start, can anyone’s acceleration justify the risk of failure or the difficulty in running between the wickets?
It was noticeable, too, that while Liam Plunkett conceded four sixes in 14 balls against Gayle and Moeen five from 34 balls, Chris Woakes didn’t concede more than a single from any of the 15 balls he bowled at him. “I knew which bowlers to target,” he said afterwards. “I thought the guys utilised the new ball very well.”
The lesson? The best bowlers – and Woakes is clearly England’s best ODI bowler – might be able to keep him subdued at this stage of his career. He can pulverise anything less than that. This was an innings that exposed weaknesses within the England attack. But it was, remember, his first ODI century against a team who will be at the 2019 World Cup since 2013.
It would be simplistic to blame Gayle for this result. For one thing England’s batsmen deserve credit for their highest successful ODI chase and for another his colleagues dropped at least six chances. On another day, he could have won the Man of the Match award. He played, for sure, an outrageous, incredible and entertaining innings. But it wasn’t a match-winning innings and, in a team sport, that’s what it’s all about.