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By Suresh Menon
The classic question - Who is the best batsman in the world? - comes these days with an asterisk which asks, basically, “Do you mean in Tests, one-dayers or T20?” In Tests, the choice is complicated since the standards differ. Average, aggregate, ability to play pace or spin, impact on team results – you might get a different batsman at the top in each of these categories (and there are many more). The question is most easily answered in T20, where all subtleties disappear under the one thing that matters: most runs in fewest deliveries. You could, of course bring in a non-cricketing element: the amount of money a team is willing to pay for your services.
On both counts, there is only one batsman who qualifies as the best in the world in T20. If any further endorsement were needed, the batsman, Chris Gayle, himself provided it with an amazing 175 off 66 balls for RCB in the IPL (part of the joy of writing on T20 cricket is that you don't need to expand these initials). The happy warrior simply enjoyed himself, batting, bowling the last over of the match to take two wickets and demonstrating his version of the Gangnam.
For years, Gayle has been seen as so laid-back as to be virtually comatose. Nothing hurried, no desperate lunges, everything done with time to spare. When he became the first batsman to score a T20 international century, he got to 117 in 57 balls. That was six years ago at the World T20 which India won and changed the face of cricket. But it is at the IPL that Gayle has extended the possibilities of batsmanship in the short format. Watching him lean into a bowler languidly and deposit him into the crowd behind extra cover or long on as the mood strikes him, you wonder why bowlers insist on bowling to his strengths. The ball always seems to allow him the time and space to free his arms and take a swing.
Then you realise that this is not because the bowlers are doing badly but because the batsman has that greatest of gifts – a good eye – and converts good deliveries into run-scoring opportunities. Like Virender Sehwag, Gayle has little classical footwork, but he gets under the ball and lets his forearms do the rest. Even mishits sometimes carry on over the boundary. The secret, again, is balance. Forget the feet, see where the ball lands. To hit 17 sixes in an innings, whatever the state of the bowling or the quality of the opposition, is an amazing feat.
Thrilling though it is for the spectators, we cannot ignore the obvious question: is the balance between bat and ball even more skewed in favour of the former in the shortest format? Wickets and length of boundaries are already adjusted in favour of batsmen. True, crowds come in to watch sixes being hit (at least the IPL crowd does) rather than in appreciating intelligent bowling, but is it time for a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty of Bowlers? As CSK skipper Mahendra Dhoni tweeted, watching Gayle in action he was glad he had chosen to be a wicketkeeper. A few more Gayles, and the suplly of bowlers will be reduced still!
Yet, what is amazing is that Gayle is not just a T20 specialist – there are a few of them about – but an all round batsman with two triple centuries in Tests to his name. That puts him in an exclusive club with Don Bradman, Brian Lara and Sehwag, which is not a bad club to be in. Four years ago, he batted eight hours to save a Test in Adelaide, finishing with an unbeaten 165. He made another century in the next Test, this time in 70 deliveries. His 333 against Sri Lanka took ten hours, and in a low period for West Indian cricket, he has been the one bright spark. He has played 97 Tests, only his dispute with his cricket board preventing another century.
Yet despite that record, the 33-year-old is increasingly been seen as the Bradman of T20 cricket, the batsman most likely to feature regularly in the nightmares of opposing bowlers. He has taken his T20 skills around the world, to Australia, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe where he is the star attraction.
The IPL is Gayle's oyster – while it has shown up established Test stars towards the end of their careers, he is one Test star who has taken to the format like he was made for it. Perhaps he was.