Anybody who saw the recent 47-ball century by Chris Gayle for the West Indies against England in the T20 World Cup would not have raised even an eyebrow at the excitable headlines the next day, most of them employing the obvious metaphor Gayle Force. For once, they appeared neither hysterical nor misplaced. Whatever you might think of the England bowling (is it that difficult to bowl straight yorkers?), you cannot but admire the keen eye, the clean hitting, the long lazy swing of the bat and the vast distances the white ball travelled in the dark, night air. With his helmet in one hand and his bat in the other, he raised both arms aloft, a wide grin splitting his face as he soaked up the adulation of the moment. What true cricket lover could have begrudged him his triumph?
Well, I could. A bit. Probably more than a bit, actually. Not because he had just demolished England almost single-handedly. Sometimes when a heavier battleship trains its guns on you, there is nothing that can be done other than accept that you have been dismasted by a bigger ship. No, my equivocation has nothing to do with his ability or achievement. It was that he was wearing the maroon uniform of the West Indies. I am not sure how many different coloured kits he has in his wardrobe but it must run to dozens. If ever there was a cricket mercenary, selling his talents to the highest bidders, then it is Chris Gayle. Nothing inherently wrong in that but I get the impression that he has turned his back on the very team that put him on the world stage in the first place, namely, the West Indies. And by the West Indies, I mean its Test team. For my goodness, they have need of him. West Indies cricket is right now in a pitiable state. So precipitous has been the fall from its pre-eminent position in the cricket firmament in the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s that seasoned observers fear that it could be terminal. Currently, they lie in eighth position in the world rankings, propped up by only Zimbabwe and Bangladesh. Gayle is only 36, fit, able, up for the fight and still clobbering bowlers all round the park. Yet he hasn’t played a Test since 2014. One might quote the lyrics of Pink Floyd’s Coming Back To Life: “Where were you when I was burned and broken?”
Where indeed? I shall never forget his scandalously supine and uninvolved demeanour during the Test series in England in 2009 – and he was the captain! He made it abundantly clear that there were numerous other places on the planet where he would rather be than in England in a Test series, competing for the Wisden Trophy. He even admitted as much in that notorious interview when he said that he “wouldn’t be so sad” if Test cricket were eventually superseded by T20 in the future. I can only imagine what his predecessors in that coveted and privileged role as captain of a proud team, men such as Frank Worrell, Garry Sobers, Clive Lloyd, Viv Richards, would have thought about that.
However, the ills of West Indian cricket cannot be laid at the door of one man. Of course they can’t. There is a deep malaise in the game in the Caribbean and when things start to go spectacularly wrong, accusing eyes are immediately turned on those in charge. If a government, a business, a corporation, a public company, a school, a football club, any organization is in deep trouble, the buck always stops with the head honcho. It so happens that West Indies cricket is poorly served by its governing body. Don’t listen to me; hearken to these former greats who sported the famous maroon cap. Garry Sobers has lamented the decline of Caribbean cricket, questioning the loyalty of the modern players to the West Indian team in favour of chasing the mighty dollar in the Indian Premier League. Viv Richards has referred to the West Indies Cricket Board as “iffy”, blaming issues off the field on “rotten administration.” And Michael Holding recently commented thus about the board, “You cannot have a healthy, productive employee workforce while the employer is dysfunctional, untrustworthy and not liked by the employees.”
Damning words. During times of crisis, you look to your leaders for inspiration, reassurance and strength of purpose. And if those charged to lead you out of the darkness have lost your trust, to whom do you turn? Given his standing in the game, his experience, his charisma, his glamour, his fame, his popular appeal, would not Chris Gayle have made the perfect flag bearer for the rejuvenation of cricket back in the Caribbean? It’s a shame he has spurned the opportunity. It seems he’s too busy making his millions and feathering his nest, that opulent mansion in Jamaica. West Indies will have to look elsewhere for their figurehead. For make no mistake, they need one. The world is poorer without the Calypso beat of its cricket.