Having seen the ‘Universe Boss’ boss their men around from Ahmedabad to Port-of-Spain, and from the Oval to St George’s, over nearly two decades, fans came in their thousands to Southampton amid some trepidation and much anticipation to watch Christopher Henry Gayle strut his unique stuff against England for perhaps the last time.
And though what he delivered this time may not have been at full breakneck Gayle force, his hour-long whirlwind cameo at the crease, featuring a quite splendid joust with England’s new pace bowler Jofra Archer, and a delightful pantomime routine in the field, proved perhaps the perfect reminder of why, approaching his 40th birthday, he remains the supreme cricketing entertainer of his generation.
It also seemed fitting, if this really was to be the last of his 69 matches against the side he has caned for eight hundreds and more than 3200 runs over the years, that he should end up setting a new landmark for the fixture, passing Sir Vivian Richards’ all-time record of 1,619 runs in Windies-England ODIs.
Gayle could, however, not hide his dismay after having negotiated with a little discomfort the opening barrage from Archer and having set his menacing platform on 36, when he despatched a mighty pull from Liam Plunkett straight into the safe hands of Jonny Bairstow on the square leg boundary.
On most other grounds in England it would have been another six for Gayle – adding to his unreal record of 521 maximums in all forms of international cricket – but the broad acres of the Hampshire Bowl punished his ambition.
‘Come in number 45, your time is up’ must be one of the most unwelcome cries in cricket, unless you’re bowling at him.
You could almost even sense a kind of deflation puncturing the home fans’ elation even as they recognised how that dismissal might well prove fatal to West Indies hopes – as indeed it ultimately proved with their comprehensive eight-wicket defeat.
For the Jamaican had earlier tantalised them with the prospect that he was just settling himself for the sort of epic he had delivered with his 162 at St George’s in February.
— Cricket World Cup (@cricketworldcup) June 14, 2019
Indeed, Gayle looked so energised for the big occasion that he was even prepared to take off on a ‘quick single’ after nine scoreless balls just to get off the mark.
Well, as quick a single as a 39-year-old juggernaut in need of oiling can manage.
The clash with Barbadian-born Archer was the sort of delicious script this ICC Men’s Cricket World Cup was made for. England’s young thruster, up against the team he had represented at Under-19 level six years ago and ready to give the hurry up to a West Indian legend in his fifth and final appearance at the tournament.
Archer played his part, second ball up snorting a short and hostile one at 90mph that made the master of relaxation visibly flinch. In his next over, he then almost made Gayle play on and had him hopping with another vicious bouncer.
Not that Gayle, who was also getting worked over by Chris Woakes at the other end, was ever going to take this lying down. He hit back by forcing Archer to take evasive action with one crashing driven four and then hoiked him through mid-wicket for another boundary.
There followed a thunderous four over long-on and a straight six off Woakes and a period of calm as he set himself for the storm which, alas, never materialised.
So when he was out, was this the end of the Gayle show? Not a cat in hell’s chance!
In the field, as England cantered towards the most facile victory, he made one diving stop – honestly, a dive! – to prevent a Joe Root boundary; cue the cheer of the day.
Then, in preposterous designer, reflective shades, he offered up five overs of his tidy off-breaks, appealing with comic aggression for no-hope lbw decisions and even persuading his captain Jason Holder to indulge his theatrical demands for a leg-before review against Woakes.
He gave a pretend growl when it all failed. Root’s only concern was presumably that he might get himself out sniggering before he even got to his hundred.
Yet wasn’t that always the Universe Boss’s way? He was last seen signing autographs and listening to a crowd of fans singing ‘We love you, Chris!’.
Come rain or shine in his particular galaxy, he still just keeps everyone smiling.