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India's World Cup Hopes Contingent On How They Weather The Gayle Storm

05/03/2015 11:18 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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West Indies batsman Chris Gayle hits the ball to the boundary during their Cricket World Cup Pool B match against Zimbabwe in Canberra, Australia, Tuesday, Feb. 24, 2015. (AP Photo/Rob Griffith)

When Mahendra Singh Dhoni said in a press conference a couple of days back that "no plan can be set for Chris Gayle", it took me back in time to the first-ever Test series I covered - in Pakistan, 1982-83.

India were a strong team and had hoped that Pakistan might in fact be beaten at home. But Imran Khan was bowling at his best in this period. He was to take 40 wickets in the six-Test series with some great swing bowling, ably supported by the likes of Sarfraz Nawaz. By the fourth match, the result was clear: Pakistan had won three Tests already.

After losing the fourth Test at Hyderabad (Sindh), I remember a scribe asking India captain Sunil Gavaskar what he thought was the way to play Imran Khan. "The best way would be to put a sight screen between him and the batsman," retorted Gavaskar in a flash.

West Indies batsman Chris Gayle hits the ball to the boundary during their Cricket World Cup Pool B match against Zimbabwe in Canberra, Australia, Feb. 24, 2015.

The scribe was taken aback at Gavaskar's nonchalance. But I don't think the Indian captain was being facetious. He had laced his own helplessness (and other batsmen) with a dash of humour to explain the grip Imran had had on his side.

There are some players for whom the best-laid plans become meaningless, either because of their supreme class or current form.

Dhoni was not being facetious either when discussing Gayle in his pre-match prognostications. There are some players for whom the best-laid plans become meaningless, either because of their supreme class or current form.

For instance, what plans would be worthwhile against Viv Richards, Brian Lara, Ricky Ponting, Sachin Tendulkar in their prime; or say AB de Villiers from those playing currently? These are supreme batsmen with the ability and audacity to wreck the best teams.

Chris Gayle, considered the main threat to India in Friday's match, belongs to this category. Such batsmen become the nemesis of opposing teams and bowlers for their understanding of the game, power, range of strokes, improvisation skills -- or all of these.

When confronted with such batsmen, the best plan is sometimes to hope for the best. This does not mean the match has to be approached with a sense of hopelessness. To the contrary, it demands greater awareness from the rival teams to try and keep them in check, hope that they might make some mistake in trying to dominate, and to ensure that even a half chance is not squandered.

Getting AB de Villiers run out earlier in this tournament was the turning point of the match between India and South Africa. The Proteas captain increased the risk percentage in his running between wickets just a whit, and India seized it magnificently to get him out.

Of course cricket is a team game but Gayle, clearly is the biggest threat to India maintaining their position at the top of Pool B.

Gayle's prowess in limited overs cricket has given him cult status. Though not as strong on orthodox technique as some of those mentioned above, his power and timing have made him the cleanest and most dangerous striker of the ball in the game.

Of course cricket is a team game but Gayle, clearly is the biggest threat to India maintaining their position at the top of Pool B. This is important because India would not like to face either New Zealand or Australia in the quarter finals. A win against the West Indies would certainly almost ensure against this.

From a cricketing perspective, it would be interesting to see whether the danger from Gayle is vested in past performances and reputation or is still real. He is 36 and has not had been in the best form leading into the tournament.

Gayle has been guilty of soft dismissals playing shots of poor percentage and very poor running between the wickets, all of which make for a vulnerability that India will seek to exploit. What India will also fancy is that he now takes longer to settle down, and as the IPL experience suggests, he is somewhat indecisive against slow bowlers when starting out.

But considering that he hit the first double century in World Cup history, it would be silly in the extreme to discount the `Gayle Factor'.

Whether this means Dhoni will open the bowling with off-spinner Ashwin is of tantalizing suspense.

What is crucial is how much time India allow Gayle time in the middle: the longer it gets, the worse for India.

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