On India's tour of the West Indies in 2006, I once found myself sitting next to Chris Gayle on an early morning flight. Before take-off, we made small conversation. I then asked him what was his biggest high on a cricket field.
Gayle's reply took more than an hour in coming for he had fallen asleep even before my question had been completed. By the time we landed at the next venue and collected our bags, I had lost track of the conversation.
But not Gayle. He came up from behind me and tapped me on the shoulder. "Any player's biggest high is to win a match. As a batsman, I like to smash the ball around. Warn your bowlers," he said.
I couldn't fathom whether he was being brash or jocular, but those who had watched him -- and even more those who had played against him - knew that hitting the ball hard, high and long was serious stuff for Gayle.
In the period since, Gayle has acquired a mighty reputation as big-hitter. This has been more pronounced ever since T20 cricket came along. He was the first batsman to score a century in the shortest format -- against South Africa in the inaugural World Championships -- but it is his explosive batting in the cash-rich IPL which earned him greater renown.
"His massive success in limited overs cricket - built around power and belligerence -- has obscured the beauty in Gayle's batting. This beauty is not more granite than marble, but it is wonderful to see anyway"
Batting in ODIs thereafter has been an extension of his approach in T20s and it was only a matter of time that he would hit a double century in the 50-over format once the barrier had been breached by Sachin Tendulkar in 2009-10.
But his massive success in limited overs cricket - built around power and belligerence -- has obscured the beauty in Gayle's batting. This beauty is not more granite than marble, but it is wonderful to see anyway.
He is a big-made guy, and because he scores runs at such a ferocious pace, it is assumed he either has no need or doesn't possess any technical nuance. In my opinion, that is a flawed stereotype for he has often shown a high degree of finesse too.
When he plays an innings like he did on Tuesday against hapless Zimbabwe, all talk devolved around Gayle's awesome hitting. But even in the record 16 sixes he hit, vigilant viewers would have noticed that a few came through just a flick of the wrist, not brute strength from the strong forearms or shoulders.
Of course, the nuanced approach has had to take a back-seat to the destructive batsman everyone wants to see. Limited overs cricket, particularly T20 -- has given Gayle cult status and extraordinary riches. It has also undoubtedly also added to his desire for and repertoire of breathtaking lofted strokes which have become his calling card.
His fitness has often been suspect and the footwork has slowed down considerably in the past few years. He compensates for the stiffness of body and limited feet movement with strokes of power.
"For power alone, he would match Walcott, Lloyd, Richards and Greenidge - to name a few. "
But it is too easily forgotten that Gayle has also played 103 Tests and scored 15 centuries, two of them triples, which wouldn't come without a fair understanding of the craft of batsmanship. One of these triples was a dour effort, taking several hours which shows that he has concentration, patience and all the other attributes that make for a fantastic Test batsman too.
He is, of course, blithe of spirit and has the natural flair of players from the Caribbean. For power alone, he would match Walcott, Lloyd, Richards and Greenidge - to name a few. And he is easily the cleanest striker I have seen, barring perhaps the peerless Garfield Sobers.
For all that, Gayle remains an enigma in modern cricket. Despite abundant talent, he falls short of true all-round greatness as a batsman -- certainly in Test cricket, because of inconsistency.
Perhaps even less gratifying for his critics -- and there are several in the Caribbean, has been his apparent lack of commitment to the cause of West Indies cricket. He has had frequent run-ins with authority, and has skipped official engagements for for the more lucrative T20 leagues.
But that I presume is only one side of the story. The West Indies Cricket Board has not been a particularly enlightened body either with administration or player-management. Gayle, because of his personality and his stature as the leading player of his team, has often been at the centre of the storm.
A classic example of this was WICB president Dave Cameron retweeting a disgruntled fan's criticism of Gayle, saying -- to the effect -- that the opener should be given a retirement package and made to pack up. This came on the eve of the match against Zimbabwe; hardly the way to treat your best player in the biggest tournament.
As it happened, Gayle smashed a double hundred against Zimbabwe, admitting that a great deal of the anger in that innings was directed towards people who had been so negative about him.
That achieved, his fans, who are legion -- will be hoping that Gayle will be able to sustain his form towards the more important objective which is to help West Indies win the World Cup.
Based on the build up form of all teams, this seems difficult. But if perchance Gayle can inspire this, it will give cricket in the Caribbean the kiss of life and perhaps reshape the future destiny of the sport, much as India's win in 1983 did.Suggest a correction