Gayle’s knock was spectacular. But was it exceptional?
The Indian Premier Leagues is an ecosystem that breeds or to be more accurate,only allows superlatives. So we may be well advised to take Aaron Finchs remark with a pinch of salt. Chris Gayles knock of 175 in the service of Royal Challengers Bangalore,said Finch,while summing it up as the losing captain of the Pune Warriors,was simply the best I have ever seen. Indeed,along the way to his 175,Gayle notched up the fastest century in any form of cricket,off just 30 deliveries,and the spectacle drew gasps of awe. But is awe-inspiring synonymous with the best? Doesnt context count for anything?
In the context of Twenty20 cricket,as it is currently,the answers are yes and no,respectively. The performance,clearly,is all. Tell me honestly,while watching the Chinnaswamy stadium encounter between Bangalore and Pune,how many of the previous matches and how many of the shots played earlier could you really recall? That Tuesday match was the 31st match in an IPL season of 76 scheduled matches. Do you see yourself looking back on that fixture and marvelling,wow,that Gayle innings certainly turned the tide for the Challengers,and how? Do you even see yourself instantly recalling,a couple of years later,which team Gayle helped along? Or to put it more kindly,even if you see Gayles 175 as a momentous milestone for cricket and it is a milestone where in the hierarchy of achievements would you place it?
Time and matches pass so swiftly in an IPL season that excess is requisite for a cricketer to stand out and call attention to himself. It is,you could even say,the nature of this abbreviated form of cricket. After all,looking back on that 2007 World Twenty20,when Indias surprise victory won the BCCI over to the marvels of a form of cricket it had so far scorned,what do you remember about Indias run? Barring Dhonis canny captaincy in giving a quaking Joginder Sharma key overs to bowl,that over of Stuart Broads which Yuvraj Singh dispatched for six sixes,right?
Spectacle is the essence of the best here,and as we frown at yet another season thats affirmed that this beast called the IPL is here to stay if not as-is,then certainly in an avatar far morphed from the Test form it is time we began to apply ourselves to finding a way of appraising its worthiest participants. Because,if you drop the judgemental attitude of placing T20 (and especially IPL) beyond the pale of what youd care to describe as real cricket,there are two attributes of this new form that alter traditional indices of determining whats exceptional and what is simply spectacle that is,good to watch but not really memorable.
Consider why we place,say,Rahul Dravids 180 against Australia at Kolkata (2001) above the string of double-centuries he hit subsequently. One,it altered the narrative of the match in question. India had been made to follow on,and looked on course to losing the second match of the three-Test series. Dravid did not just take charge of his innings,he also provided the perfect foil for V.V.S. Laxman to go on and score 281. In the narrative of the match,that innings mattered more spectacularly than many another spectacular innings. Moreover,India went on to win not just that match,but the next one too,and start up the slippery slope that ultimately,years later,got them the top Test ranking. If an innings could be said to mark an inflection point,it was that 180.
T20 does not have the space for the drift of play to determine the value of a batting or bowling effort within a longer narrative. Neither does T20,given the abundance of domestic leagues in comparison to international fixtures,draw a cricketer tightly to a team identity so as to place his contribution in the context of a squads trajectory. Put simply,Gayles magnificent 175 runs are really his and his alone,and their value will be set by the hyper bidding that may take place as IPL teams are recomposed. (However,were Jamaica by some improbable turn of events to invite the ire of local politics,as Sri Lanka and Pakistan have of late,this record will not matter.)
It is apt that Gayle got the record for the fastest and biggest hundred in T20 for he gave the IPL priority over all other team loyalties as no other cricketer has so far. It must have taken a certain insouciance and clarity of purpose,after all,to claim that the decline of Test cricket would not upset him. It is time the game forced itself to confront the juncture it is at in order to determine the comparative value not just of that 175 but also of cricketers like Gayle. For there will be many more freelancers like him. Be sure of that.
The writer is a contributing editor for The Indian Express