Chris Gayle’s value lay in his ability to combine a phenomenal scoring rate with exceptional consistency. At the heart of batting exists a trade-off between attack and defence, between intent to score and intent to survive.
After walking out to bat with his opening partner, rather than assuming his position at the batting crease, Chris Gayle sauntered towards the middle of the 22-yard pitch and stood there for a few moments, visualising what was to come and practising his trademark pull shot. He was shadow batting in the cricket ground that had become his playground.
The M. Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bangalore is small and claustrophobic. The tiny boundaries, coupled with a flat pitch and the high altitude, made it a ground of extraordinary feats of batsmanship. Gayle is an enormous man—6 feet 3 inches tall and 98kg, so broad and muscular that his upper back is hulked under the weight of his strength. As he stood in the middle of the pitch, adorned in the red of the Royal Challengers Bangalore and with the end of his black bandana trailing out of his gold helmet, his presence filled the stadium. The 40,000 people in the stands had already been whipped up into a fervent expectation of what they were about to witness: one of the most powerful batting orders ever assembled plundering runs.
Eden Gardens in Kolkata, steeped in history and with a capacity of 90,000, is Indian cricket’s coliseum. The Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai, home to India’s great batsmen and demigods Sunil Gavaskar and Sachin Tendulkar, is Indian cricket’s cathedral. Bangalore’s M. Chinnaswamy Stadium, scene of Brendon McCullum’s seminal 158 not out in the inaugural IPL match and home to the batting galacticos of RCB, is Indian cricket’s basement nightclub. Eden Gardens and the Wankhede Stadium have more history but if you wanted a good time you’d come to the Chinnaswamy. A good time is what Gayle was about to give the capacity crowd on a sweltering Tuesday afternoon in April 2013.
After one more practice shot in the middle of the pitch Gayle turned around and slowly walked towards the batting crease. Like the tennis legend Rafael Nadal, who would arrange his drink bottles meticulously before taking his position at the back of the court, the game was made to wait for Gayle. He even turned slowing down, the antithesis of all that T20 represented, into a dramatic act.
It took just 8.5 overs for Gayle to reach his hundred. Any delivery from Pune Warriors India’s bowlers with a hint of width was flayed through the off side and any ball even fractionally too straight was picked up and whipped through the leg side. Too full and he clobbered it down the ground; too short and he pulled it into the stands. The shot which took him to his century—a straight drive for six off another erroneous full toss—took chunks out of the stadium roof. Shrapnel rained down on to the outfield below as Gayle removed his helmet and sank to his knees in celebration, arms outstretched, as if to say: are you not entertained? It had taken him 30 balls to score 102 runs, the fastest T20 hundred of all time.
Naturally, bedlam engulfed the stands. A few fans took to showing their appreciation in a different way. ‘When Gayle bats, fielders become spectators, and spectators become fielders,’ proclaimed the home-made sign that one fan had produced during this remarkable innings. Gayle would go on to score 175 not out off 66 balls, breaking McCullum’s record set in 2008 for the highest T20 score. At the end of the 2019 IPL, the record still stood. It was the definitive performance by T20’s greatest batsman.
But perhaps more than that innings—an exhibition of brutal power hitting unparalleled in the format’s short history—Gayle’s true impact was best encapsulated by something else, something which involved him doing nothing at all: the ball bowled so far out of his reach that it caused the umpire to spread his arms out on either side, to signal a wide ball.
One of the hallmarks of sporting giants is making their opponents perform worse. Through the lustre of their greatness, and the awareness that they ruthlessly punish any errors, however infinitesimal, the best athletes enfeeble their opponents.
During Tiger Woods’s elite years, his aura was so great that, even though he directly had no effect whatsoever on what his opponents did on the golf course, he made them play worse. The academic Jennifer Brown analysed round-by-round scores from all PGA tournaments between 2002 and 2006, and uncovered a remarkable finding: competitors performed about a stroke per tournament worse when Tiger Woods was also playing. The simple presence of Woods on the same course led his opponents to underperform.
In T20, the ultimate unforced error for a bowler is to bowl a wide or no-ball. This is effectively a donation of runs to the batting side, who also have an extra ball to size up the bowler and exploit weakness. Wides or no-balls are like charity runs given to the batting side, adding to their score without taking anything from their two resources—wickets and balls remaining.
A totem of Gayle’s overweening influence upon T20 is that, when he was batting, he received almost twice as many wides as the average batsman: one every 19 balls, rather than one every 35 balls. Bowlers were intimidated by the specimen that awaited them. They knew that any slight erring in line or length was likely to meet the ultimate punishment: a Gayle six. And this knowledge induced them to bowl worse. By the end of 2018 Gayle had garnered 430 runs from opposing bowlers in wides and no-balls, the equivalent of 1.20 runs per match gifted by the opposition bowlers without Gayle having to do anything.
When it came to T20 batting records, Gayle wasn’t so much on top of everyone else as hang-gliding way above the clouds. At the end of 2018 Gayle had scored 12,095 runs in T20—2,467 more than the next most. He had hit 892 sixes—340 more than the next most. Despite Gayle’s tendency to look to clear the ropes rather than hit the ball along the ground he also held the record for the most fours, 925. A total of 9,052 of his runs had come from fours and sixes. Only McCullum had more runs overall than Gayle had in boundaries alone.
These records were partly a consequence of the sheer volume of T20 that he had played; with 357 matches, only three players had appeared more often. Yet by relative measures Gayle was also absurdly dominant.
Gayle’s value lay in his ability to combine a phenomenal scoring rate with exceptional consistency. At the heart of batting exists a trade-off between attack and defence, between intent to score and intent to survive. For most players focusing on one would compromise the other, but Gayle was different.
Among players to have batted at least 50 times in T20 by the end of 2018 only 19 players averaged more balls faced per innings than Gayle’s 23.40 and not one of them was even close to matching his strike rate of 148.07 runs per 100 balls. Just 24 players had a higher strike rate than Gayle; most were lower order hitters, and only two,the remarkable A.B. de Villiers and the young Indian tyro Rishabh Pant, were even within 20% of Gayle’s average innings length. Gayle spent longer at the crease than almost every other player and while he was there he scored faster than almost every other player.
In Test and ODI cricket the length of the contest afforded batsmen greater scope for large individual scores and the hundred—big enough to be an alluring three figures but not so big that it was unattainable—was a totemic landmark. From 2003 to 2019 in Test cricket the milestone was reached every 19 individual innings and in ODIs it was reached every 34 individual innings. But in T20, the length and nature of the contest made hundreds rare. Attacking at the rate which enabled a batsman to score a hundred involved too much risk for it to be a realistic or regular achievement. On average a T20 hundred was scored every 290 individual innings. Yet by the end of 2018 Gayle had scored 21 T20 hundreds—14 more than the next most and the same as the next three best players combined. He reached three figures every 17 innings that he played, meaning that a Chris Gayle T20 century was more regular than a Test match century. Nothing better embodied how he mastered the demands of T20 batsmanship.
Excerpts from ‘Cricket 2.0: Inside the T20 Revolution’ by Freddie Wilde and Tim Wigmore. The book was named the Wisden Book of the Year in the 2020 edition of the Wisden Almanack