Chris Gayle: larger than life, the universe and everything
Chris Gayle: larger than life, the universe and everything
How to feel about a cricketer with 20 years of experience who has branded himself an arrogant stud?
He turned 20 the month he made his international debut in an ODI series against India and Pakistan in Toronto. It was an innocuous start. His Test debut six months later against Zimbabwe was not memorable either, but the following year, versus Zimbabwe again, he was named player of the match for his 175 off 255 balls, in which he hit 34 fours.
The sixes were yet to come.
That might have been when he first came to my attention, this tall, slim, muscular figure wielding a heavy bat. He didn't seem to like running between wickets; in fact, he didn't seem to like moving at all. It was like watching a windmill at the crease, only the arms capable of movement.
Then I heard somewhere that he had a heart condition. I never found out if it was true, or severe, but I retracted the unkind thoughts about him being a lazy cricketer. I was still not enamoured of his style.
He was becoming known for his powerful hitting - the six machine - but he was amid stylish batsmen like Brian Lara and Marlon Samuels, and there was still a bit of Carl Hooper floating about. Although I believe they share a self-interested outlook on life, his cricket did not exude the complexity of theirs. He was the stand-and-deliver man who relied on powerful arms. When he unleashed it, the adjectives of the scribes carried hints of savagery and force; images of grace and elegance were not invoked.
When he scored his triple-hundreds - the 317 against South Africa in 2005 and then the 333 against Sri Lanka in 2010 - and he was the toast of several towns on account of the rarity of the feat in Tests, I remember feeling that I had missed something, because somewhere along that 300 corridor, Lara said he was the batsman the world had to look out for.
It seemed odd, an aberration of sorts, that he was breaking all these world records for runs, and I still couldn't appreciate his batting. The more cricket commentators reverentially referred to him as Christopher Henry Gayle and raved over his prowess, the more I was flummoxed. Something had to be wrong with me.
By then the flamboyant braggart had begun to flower and I cringed at the narcissism that became his brand. It touched an extremely sensitive spot in my Caribbean psyche, because he was living up to the worst stereotype of the macho West Indian man. As a woman who had worked hard to enter the world of cricket writing in an environment drenched with sexism, I was conscious that Gayle was only one of many who embodied the attitude. Still, it was a barrier. I could not celebrate the flash, the brutal strength, the swagger, and the apparent disrespect for women.
Gayle himself seemed to revel in stirring things up. In January 2016 when he made his infamous pass at journalist Mel McLaughlin, he probably did not expect the backlash that followed. I wrote a lengthy essay on sexism triggered by that episode.
Gayle touched an extremely sensitive spot in my Caribbean psyche, because he was living up to the worst stereotype of the macho West Indian man
Here's a bit from that piece.
One of the more insidious statements came from Professor Hilary Beckles, who declared himself to be "first and foremost an educator". "I take his word for what [Gayle] said, that he meant no offence. I take his word for that," he said. He told the region that since he had accepted that Gayle meant no offence, we should all put it behind us and "big him up", as he had an important role to play in West Indies cricket. Ironically, the day after Beckles declared that Gayle had been "humbled", Gayle went on social media to say, "Y'all can kiss my 'Black Rass.'"
We were being told that this was the West Indian way and we should just accept that. I was incensed at the idea that men felt it was okay to ascribe boorish, chauvinistic and vulgar behaviour to our Caribbean culture. How dare they drag everyone into that bucket of manure?
So as he bludgeoned his way into the cricket annals, my acknowledgement was grudging. There were moments when there would be a flicker of something that gave me pause. His confrontations with the self-serving, chauvinistic West Indies Cricket Board that now calls itself Cricket West Indies provided some of those moments. Whether his motives were selfish or not, he was challenging them, and that suggested a strength I could relate to.
True, his stature had grown to the point where he didn't need the board to earn a lucrative income - he was already the self-proclaimed Universe Boss - and he was in demand at all the leading T20 tournaments globally. He held the major records for sixes and high scores. I still couldn't warm to him. My assessment of a cricketer is built upon the characteristics of the player. In my book, technical skills and style don't survive on the back of a flimsy foundation. He was not a drawing card for me.
But then, from January to March 2019, England came to the West Indies and amid massive hype for the five ODIs, the Chris Gayle caravan rolled up, complete with fireworks and bravado. "I'm the greatest player in the world," he said, and the media panted with anticipation.
Sixism, not sexism: fans take a dig a Gayle after his comments to journalist Mel McLaughlin
© Getty Images
Sixism, not sexism: fans take a dig a Gayle after his comments to journalist Mel McLaughlin © Getty Images
Christopher Henry Gayle. Christopher Henry Gayle.
He rolled out his own red carpet and delivered 135 runs in the first match, a slow accumulation in an innings that saw a total of 143 dot balls. I wrote a column observing that he had scored a Test hundred in a 50-over match and his enormous aura at the wicket seemed to be affecting the young batsmen at the crease. He was clearly not interested in running and you could see them curbing their instinct for quick singles. West Indies lost that match, but Gayle must have recognised that he had to adjust his approach for he sprinted off the blocks much earlier in the following games. His performances after were match-winning.
Watching those games taught me something about Gayle that I had not given him credit for in the past. As a modern cricketer, he has created a persona for the stage. He has branded himself as a carefree, arrogant stud who dwells in the house of hedonism. He has made it work for him, and maybe it is who he is. But he is also a cricketer with 20 years of experience. He knows his craft. He is motivated by competition - you could see that Eoin Morgan and Joe Root and the other high-scorers goaded him to the top of his game. It seemed clear that this was about establishing his supremacy and maybe a place in the World Cup squad. But I saw that he took his cricket seriously. It was there in the watchfulness in his eyes when he took his stance. In the deliberate way he waited for the balls. It was there in the reflexes that develop over decades, so that even if age has slowed them, the instincts are sharp.
Here was Christopher Henry Gayle, the cricketer.
Five years ago, I was invited to speak at a literature festival in the UK where there was a cricket component, and the question I was most asked was what I thought about the phenomenal Gayle. I remember standing at a podium and considering how to respond, knowing I was a West Indian voice.
"What can I say?" I said. "The world loves him."
Vaneisa Baksh is a writer and editor based in Trinidad. She is working on a biography of Sir Frank Worrell
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