Fazeer Mohammed (FP)
AS MUCH AS the big-hitting and the bling, the “Universe Boss” bravado and even the “Don’t Blush Baby” bacchanal give him celebrity and infamy beyond the boundaries of the game, it is easy to overlook the reality that there is considerable cricketing substance to all the glitz and glamour associated with self-proclaimed “Six Machine”, Chris Gayle.
Forget the hero-worshippers, for he can do nothing wrong in their eyes. Yet those who cringe at certain elements of his public (and private, given that he is among many who like to transmit these things to the world!) demeanour have to concede that for all of his leaden-footedness at the crease and patent unfamiliarity with the concept of the quick single, the Jamaican left-hander’s numbers – especially in Test cricket – are considerable.
Yes, all the attention at the moment is on the T20 stuff and his achievement last week at being the first to complete 10 000 runs in the format. But the critics will say this is the version he was made for with the increased emphasis on swift scoring and boundary-bashing. In contrast, it is doubtful whether his biggest supporters in those fledgling days on the international scene 17 years ago would have anticipated anything close to a final tally of 7 214 runs (average 42.18) from 103 Tests, including two triple-centuries among 15 three-figure scores.
Most accept that he pales by comparison to Gordon Greenidge and Desmond Haynes, and while there will be arguments about the value of runs accumulated measured against the quality of opponents and a few other factors, Greenidge averaged 44.72 over 108 Tests and Haynes 42.29 from 116. Somebody saying something about lies, damn lies and statistics?
Gayle’s average goes up more than five points to 47.75 during the two and a half years and 20 Tests in which he led the West Indies, a period when he scored five centuries – two versus England, two away to Australia and one in New Zealand.
Those hundreds against the English came at the start and end of the 1-0 series win at home in 2009 while the back-to-back efforts Down Under were in stark contrast – carrying his bat for 165 through seven and a half hours as the West Indies held the upper hand in a draw in Adelaide followed by a firecracker 102 off 72 balls on the opening morning in Perth, a match lost by just 35 runs.
Witnessing every moment of his match-saving 197 over 514 minutes in the second innings of the second Test against New Zealand in Napier at the end of 2008, Tony Cozier described it as one of the more disciplined and responsible efforts he had seen from a West Indies captain – great praise indeed from the man who was the eyes, ears and voice of Caribbean cricket worldwide for more than half a century.
It was Gayle’s first series as captain, in South Africa in 2007/08, that showed how much being in charge meant to him as he stepped up his game in a manner that made a significant difference to a West Indies side which had never before (or since) won a Test match in that country.
Put in to bat on the first morning of the three-match series on Boxing Day in Port Elizabeth, the powerful opener tore into a formidable pace attack of Dale Steyn, Makhaya Ntini and Andre Nel, targeting Steyn, then the most successful fast bowler in the world, for particularly severe punishment. He blazed 66 off 49 balls with 13 fours, setting the tone for the match and so jolting the Proteas that the Caribbean side never relinquished the ascendancy, completing a famous victory by 128 runs with a day to spare.
That was the stand-and-deliver bravado. Then came the courage under fire in Cape Town as he contributed 46 despite carrying a leg injury in the first innings and then somehow managed to smash four fours and three sixes in 38 batting at No. 6 with the same injury plus a fractured left thumb to leave many a South African journalist wondering if the inspiration provided by the visiting captain would have been enough to take his team to a series-clinching win.
It wasn’t, and South Africa went on to complete the revival with an innings triumph inside three days in Durban, with Dwayne Bravo at the helm and Gayle looking on helplessly from the sidelines. But that series, and most of the 17 other Tests for which he was at the helm, showed someone prepared to fight and tough it out for the sake of the team, qualities not often associated with Chris Gayle.
Admire him or despise him, the record is there in the format of the game still considered the ultimate standard. We shouldn’t shirk from acknowledging it.
Fazeer Mohammed is a regional cricket journalist and broadcaster who has been covering the game at all levels since 1987.