Kingston, Jamaica, 3rd July 2016: Chris Gayle delivers his opening boast with an italicised patois flourish that leaps from the page like an open-shouldered smack over long-off. It is a challenge to his critics – and Lord knows, he’s picked up a few of them in recent times – and a statement of intent. These are his words, his story. He will tell it as he chooses.
“You can’t read me…” But you can, if you prefer, read his book, and thoroughly engaging it is too – a turbulent, breathless rampage at times, but at its heart a classic rags-to-riches tale of a character who will be recalled, when all else is forgiven and forgotten, as one of the founders of the modern game.
There’s no need simply to take my word for that, either. Gayle is at pains to spell out his exalted status through any manner of devices – repetition and exaggeration key among them. World Baaass, Universe Boss, lover of women and slayer of reputations. With his swagger and his strokeplay, it’s never been possible to ignore him on a cricket field, so there’s no way you’re going to get a moment’s peace from his ego while tucking into his words.
That’s not a bad thing, by the way. Far too many sportsmen assume the “auto” in autobiography stands for “autopilot”, and duly trot out a bland diet of clichés and scorecard rewrites to justify their advances. Gayle, if anything, is guilty of oversharing, but as the man himself might put it with a wink and a nod, there’s plenty of him to go around.
But it’s too easy, particularly in the wake of the controversy at the Big Bash involving Mel McLaughlin, and given the showmanship that is such a fundamental of his appeal, to ignore the subtleties – the sensitivities, even – that have made Gayle the man he is today, and have galvanised his belief that he should never compromise for a minute on who he is.
The prologue to his book sets a different tone – with Gayle waking up in a Melbourne hospital following heart surgery during West Indies’ tour of Australia in 2005-06, hearing the “beep beep” of the monitors and vowing, there and then, to “do everything to the fullest. No waiting, no hedging, no compromises, no apologies.”
You have to say, he’s been true to his word. And in fact, three years later, at the culmination of one of the most surreal fortnights of his career – the Stanford 20/20 for 20 against England, Gayle used a large chunk of his US$1 million winnings to fund a similar operation for his brother, Andrew.
His journey, in the most linear sense, has taken Gayle from a five-to-a-room shack in downtown Kingston to a nine-bedroom mansion with a strip joint in the basement. It has taken him, also, to every conceivable corner of cricket’s globe – “people call me a gun for hire. Sixteen franchises in nine different countries across five continents” – setting out the rules of freelance engagement for the generations of cricketers that will follow him. “I am not to blame for the way the world spins,” he says, with no little conviction.
The most evocative chapters of Gayle’s story are those that deal with the deprivations of his childhood in Rollington Town – a life in which birthdays were jus’ another day you hungry, and Saturdays might mean chicken-foot soup to replace the fried balls of flour and water that served as his daily meals.
Against this backdrop, Gayle – a scrawny kid for whom the muscle definition of adulthood would be a long time coming – was drawn into the embrace of his local club, Lucas CC, thanks in no small part to an improbable and, frankly, enlightening first role model: Miss Hamilton, his primary school cricket teacher. “She soon spots that I don’t like to run … I spot that she can bat and bowl as well as any man. When Miss Hamilton comes in with her full pace, you are ducking and swaying like those palms in a November hurricane.”
Twenty-five years later, Gayle still seeks out his first coach whenever he’s back in town, as if underscoring his oft-repeated mantra that he’s a Jamaican first and foremost – “I’ll always keep the flag flying. I travel the world but I always come home.”
His iconic status within the island rivals that of Usain Bolt, and Gayle draws a fair parallel between the impact of Bolt’s 9.58 in Berlin in 2009 and his own astonishing 175 not out for Bangalore in the IPL in 2013: the tales of an island grinding to a halt to watch agog as history whizzes by: “How much? I thought this was a T20. Oh f***, it is T20!”
The pair share a bond that reflects Gayle’s exalted status – Bolt once memorably bowled Gayle out in a charity match and celebrated with his traditional “to the sky” pose – but on the whole there’s a notable absence of camaraderie in his tale. Gayle talks, tellingly, of having to settle for calling all of his team-mates “bro” as he moves from franchise to franchise, often waiting for them to pull on their shirts before committing to a name.
And when it comes to West Indies – for all the justified euphoria of their World T20 win in 2012 (the 2016 version came too late to make the narrative) – there’s again an ambivalence about some of his relationships in an often-fractured squad. Brian Lara, not for the first time, comes across as moody and other-worldly – “He go left, you just go right. As simple as it is”.
His truest friendships, you sense, are the ones he has lost – two in particular: Garrick Grant, a Lucas kid crushed under the wheels of a bus as he bailed off at his stop, and Runako Morton, the talented, temperamental Nevisian batsman who died in a car crash in 2012 without ever quite fulfilling his potential. “Death stalk you. But don’t fear death.”
And yet, throughout his book, the pride that Gayle takes in his achievements as a West Indian cricketer, in spite of the spats with the board and the attractions of his mercenary lifestyle, pour off the pages – and you get the sense, for all the records he’s smashed in T20 cricket, some of which may never be challenged, pride of place in his mind goes to his twin triple-centuries in Tests.
In fact, his defence of Test cricket – “without Bob Marley there would be no Beenie Man … people still love reggae, but they are buying dancehall” – is far more eloquent than the usual platitudes that get trotted out when such awkward questions are posed to sportsmen.
“Only seven men have more West Indies caps than me. I was born into Test cricket and I have lived through Test cricket. I can bat like a true Test batsman.”
Tink yuh know me? Yuh don’t know me.
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