July 24, 2012
One day international cricket is generally evaluated from World Cup to World Cup. Each team management makes plans and sets goals which are supposed to end in a favorable manner at the event which occurs once every four years. 15 months have elapsed since the last one and one can say that West Indies cricket has come a full circle, albeit one with a small diameter. The focal point has remained the tumultuous relationship between Chris Gayle, undoubtedly their biggest star today, and the West Indies Cricket Board. A lot of words have been exchanged between each party, both have refused to budge and the drama has featured many peripheral yet important characters like Shivnarine Chanderpaul, coach Otis Gibson and the heads of Jamaica and CARICOM. Today however, the situation looks better as all issues seem to have been resolved and Gayle is part of the West Indies line-up.
Gayle’s popularity never dropped during the time he was away from West Indies cricket. On the cricket field, he continued to blaze away in T20 Leagues around the world and topped the run-charts in the 5th edition of the IPL. His presence amidst the crowd during one of the matches on Australia’s tour to Caribbean this summer was a big hit with the fans. While the cricketing world speculated whether he had become the first freelancer in the history of cricket, Gayle made it clear time and again that he wanted to play in West Indies colors. The board was displeased that a player had spoken against the management, but it was pretty evident that Gayle not playing was a loss to West Indies cricket than the other way round. At the fag end of the Test series against England, there were some talks about Gayle making a comeback for the ODIs and that translated into tremendous public interest. It reiterated the fact that the booming left hander’s startdom was not restricted to his own (group of) country and that was certified by the large crowds which came to see him play against England.
Gayle’s comeback to the side could have been a pressure cooker situation for everyone involved: West Indies were not exactly on a winning streak, but Darren Sammy and Gibson had instilled a hard-working culture into the team and it remained to be seen if Gayle could shed his ego and fit into the side. If Gayle had failed, he would have been dubbed a T20 specialist and tongues would have wagged about him being fast-tracked into the squad. That could have led to tension in the dressing room and a feeling of mistrust, which has been permanent in the West Indies camp, would have resurfaced. But to his credit, Gayle fitted into the side smoothly and gave a resounding reply to his critics. Since his comeback, he has already scored 4 fifties and a century in 6 ODIs and 3 T20s . The presence of an in-form, destructive batsman in the opening slot has given a lot of balance to the side which was reeling from the failures of a number of opening combinations. Despite not winning a single international game on the England tour, there was renewed optimism in the side and it’s not difficult to notice that Gayle’s half century in his comeback ODI was one of the reason. Next up came the T20s and ODIs against a weak and injury laden New Zealand side. By this time, Gayle was already in the zone and blasted the hapless Kiwis all round the park in the first few games. Buoyed by his performances, West Indies went on to win the 2 T20Is and the ODI series 4-1. Not only Gayle, but other stars like Sunil Narine (Man of the Series), Dwayne Bravo and Kieron Pollard struck form as well.
Looking ahead, it is of prime importance that Gayle replicates his IPL form for the West Indies in his latest comeback. Of late, he has moved from a dasher at the top to a batsman who looks to build the innings. He has expressed his desire to stay at the crease for a longer period of time and given his ability to shift gears effortlessly, he will be an even more dangerous prospect for the opponents. It will not be incorrect to say that West Indies’ fortunes will depend on Gayle’s performances. It is imperative that Gayle also helps West Indies through these troubled times and build a strong outfit, given the fact that he is their most experienced player. The first big assignment will be the T20 World Cup in September and with the variety of T20 specialists that West Indies have, they are expected to do well. But the real Test will lie in the longer format of the game. West Indies have struggled in the recent past against England, Australia and India and it is no coincidence that Gayle was absent from these series. The middle order is beginning to find its own feet with Marlon Samuels giving Chanderpaul good company but as mentioned before, it’s the top order which has been cause for concern. It will be a challenge for Gayle to replicate his ODI and T20 consistency in Tests and if he can do that, West Indies will become a competent side in all formats of the game. The selectors have shown the green light and he has been named in the 13 man squad for the 2 Tests against New Zealand. The Kiwis are a weaker side in Tests, but apart from convincing wins, West Indies will want to evaluate the effort and commitment of players like Gayle and Narine.
With the on-field issues sorted, the West Indies Cricket Board has to start looking at the administrative issues as well. They have to ensure that the players are well looked after, especially as far as the contracts are concerned. With the immense individual talent that West Indies keeps churning out, the Cricket Board should ensure that players like Narine, Gayle and Pollard aren’t lost to the T20 Leagues. A lot has been spoken of what could have happened if Narine had played against England in Tests which sadly did not happen as he busy winning the IPL for Kolkata Knight Riders. Once again, the issue was not with player intent: Narine was keen on playing, but he wasn’t centrally contracted to WICB and in the end the West Indies cricket lost out. Resolving the Gayle issue and getting him back to the West Indies side is a good start, but the ultimate aim for the management should be to build a team for the next World Cup in 2015.