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By Suresh Menon
Chris Gayle wears the number 333 on his jersey for the Royal Challengers Bangalore. That is his highest Test score, made in Galle against Sri Lanka last year. How’s that for irony? Gayle has said often enough he wouldn’t miss Test cricket if it disappeared off the face of the earth. Yet if his confused national selectors pick him, it is difficult to see how he can turn them down. He has two triple centuries against his name like Don Bradman, Brian Lara and Virender Sehwag.
Yet he is happier playing Twenty20 and the IPL. There may be others like him, who prefer the shortest and most paying form of the game, but he alone has been honest enough to admit it. Others feel more secure mouthing the clichés about the ‘real’ test and the ‘real’ game, and pretending T20 is merely a guilty pleasure.
Gayle has been batting in the IPL matches like someone who has just had a great weight lifted off his shoulders. The West Indies are in a mess, the board even more than the team, and there has been talk in recent months of this artificial construct known as the ‘West Indies’ being broken up into its constituent nations – Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad and so on. It is not a happy thought, but anything is better than the internecine wars that have become a feature of West Indies cricket in recent years.
The supply lines are drying up, those with experience, including Gayle are being told by the Board they have no role to play, so it is not difficult to see why the laidback Jamaican is happy to exhibit his wares to an audience screaming for sixes in his adopted home town. Against the Kochi team on Sunday Gayle hit 36 runs in an over which yielded 37 in all thanks to a no-ball. After being ignored by his former team Kolkata, he entered the fray this season with a century against them. He already has two centuries in the IPL in just five matches, hitting with such power that his opening partner Tillakaratne Dilshan says that he will have to wear bullet-proof chest pads in case he is hit by one of “the rockets.”
For good or bad, Gayle is showing the way for players of the future. By declining an annual contract from the West Indies Cricket Board, he has kept himself free to play where and when he wants to. Every six, every century increases his market value in the T20 format which is pegged to the here and now. And if there is nothing else to occupy him, he could always announce his availability for Test cricket.
Initially cricket boards around the world will find it difficult to give their players permission to pick and choose. The West Indies Board, like all boards, has to give its players a ‘No Objection’ certificate before they can play in the IPL. The West Indies have no use for Gayle right now; but he is only 32, and the situation might change. Players choosing shorter, more lucrative tournaments over national duty is not beyond the bounds of imagination. Boards will be loth to let go of the ten percent of the players’ fees that they receive.
In the ideal world, Gayle would be in the West Indies now, preparing for the Test series against Pakistan commencing on Thursday. He was dropped for the one-day series ahead of the Tests along with Shivnaraine Chanderpaul and Ramnaresh Sarwan, ostensibly because the Board wanted to prepare for the future. Sarwan was recalled for the fourth one-dayer, and Chanderpaul is likely to play the first Test. Gayle, the odd man out, has been batting with a freedom that comes from not having to deal with cricket boards.