When Fuller Pilch was deep into his dotage, he was taken to watch WG Grace, his successor as the greatest batsman in the game. He sat for a while and then exclaimed, “Why this man scores continuously from balls old Fuller would have been glad to keep out…”
Maybe we should wonder if a young Chris Gayle, gangly and loose-limbed, would have said something similar had he been transported, Back to the Future-style, to watch his older self batting in the first age of T20 cricket, when he was hitting one in every nine deliveries he faced for six.
Arguably batting has, in the last decade, undergone its greatest change since Grace became its conceptual force, shaping the game for modernity. And arguably Gayle has been T20’s conceptual force, muscle-bound and ferocious, implacably pushing at the received wisdom of what is possible.
Only now, in this most recent edition of the IPL, did the batting of Virat Kohli and AB de Villiers appear to have edged past his in terms of how things may move forwards from here.
For the preceding years, Gayle reigned, not the best player of the age but the most extraordinary, the only holder of a 3-2-1 that demonstrates mastery of all forms: Test match triple hundred (two in fact), ODI double, T20I century. Of all of cricket’s players, it was he who seized the moment at hand.
There’s a feeling – certainly Gayle has it – that his contribution has not been appreciated properly. Last week, he told Donald McRae of the Guardian: “I’m disappointed people don’t recognise what I did in Test cricket. For an opening batsman to get two triple-centuries?
A lot of greats haven’t got one. So to have those achievements dismissed and just be the king of T20 cricket?
It’s good to be called the king of something, but to have the most hundreds in ODI cricket for the West Indies? People don’t acknowledge Chris Gayle is the highest run scorer when it comes to centuries.
Most people sweep it under the carpet but I’ve proved myself. I’ve played 100 Test matches. I should get credit for that.”
And it’s true that when the great batsmen of the age are discussed, his name is not always in the first rank.
When the great West Indian players are ranked and rated and remembered, he is not mentioned as customarily as Richards and Lara.
Perhaps that’s where some of his own proclamations have come from: if no one else is talking about you, why not call yourself the “World Boss”? And if they ignore that one, take it up a peg to “Universe Boss”?
For a long while Chris Gayle was almost silent. His public image came through social media, his Twitter feed a stream of emoticons, his Instagram a window into a world of hotel bars and his sports bar in Jamaica.
He offered the odd hint at his off-field appeal: a shot by a pool smoking a cigar and surrounded by bikini-clad girls; the dancer’s pole at his home in Jamaica – a soap opera life he christened Everybody Rates Chris. There was the famous anecdote about the lunch at Arundel, when he sat next to Old Etonian and former Sussex captain Johnny Barclay, who waxed lyrical about touring the Caribbean for a while before Gayle asked him, “Get much p***y?” There was the risque hashtag that led to the breathless headline in an Australian newspaper, “Chris Gayle tells Twitter followers he’s about to have sex.”
As the new Gayle emerged on the field, so this image crystallised off it. During the endless, internecine splits between West Indies board and players he forged the idea of the freelance cricketer, leading to a comment he made to journalist Anna Kessel that he “wouldn’t be so sad” if Test cricket faded away.
Gayle has somehow embodied the drift towards a future we can’t yet know. His has been a remarkable career in a time of remarkable change. Only time will show what a significant figure he has been.
I have loved watching him bat, loved that tremor of the new that he brought with him, with his gold bat and space-cop shades, his determination to do it his way, his implacability in doing so.
He was one of the reasons I loved T20 cricket too. Some people seemed to think that Gayle’s batting was divorcing cricket from its longer forms. I thought (and think) the opposite. Here was a man who has succeeded across all forms, and who was evolving the game, giving it a future.
And then came the pitch-side interview with Mel McLaughlin and the chain of events that it brought in its wake: an interview with the Times to promote his book in which he was said to have asked the journalist Charlotte Edwardes how many black men she’d “had”; the further interview with the Guardian in which he disputed Edwardes’ version of their encounter, an argument that was in turn repudiated by her.
It doesn’t need rehashing again here. Gayle, as he is at pains to point out, is a big boy now. He has a daughter of his own.
If he can’t see why his treatment of McLughlin and some of his subsequent remarks are demeaning and sexist, then no amount of comment will change his mind.
He probably does feel besieged and misunderstood. He had created an image that teetered on the edge of something else, and he was the one that tipped it over. It has begun to overshadow his life on the field.
This isn’t meant to be another column about the rights and wrongs of what has happened.
Rather it’s about what happens when your view of someone in a purely sporting context is altered by external events.
It’s about whether it’s possible to still have unbridled admiration for their on-field deeds when stuff they do off it doesn’t chime with your own view of the world.
I don’t know the answer. People fall from grace. Heroes are flawed. They aren’t always what we want them to be. They make mistakes, and they sometimes compound them, just like the rest of us.
The problem for Chris Gayle is that the acknowledgement he craves as a cricketer has become more distant for him. Self-inflicted wounds can hurt just as badly as the other kind.
Jon Hotten is a British journalistand author.