Windies need a real Gayle force

2007-12-15 00:00

CHRIS Gayle has arrived in South Africa at the head of a flawed outfit belatedly seeking an opportunity to redeem a tattered reputation. It is not a position he sought. Rather it fell into his lap because he had been around longer than anyone else. Even now it is only a temporary appointment. As it has turned out, the injury to Ramnaresh Sarwan has been a blessing in disguise. Sarwan has been a disappointment as a batsman and as a leader. He has not managed to change impoverished mindsets, crassly arriving 30 minutes late to his first team meeting as captain. School coaches are well advised to leave behind all latecomers early in proceedings, the better to instil discipline and thence spirit.

Gayle is a riskier but better choice. In any case what is there to lose? At least he commands respect in the game. Now his task is to command the same respect among his own players, who see him and listen to him day after day, ready to follow in his wake, untarnished players of lesser ability but with the sincerity and sense of service urgently needed in Caribbean cricket. There has been enough talking.

No-one lightly puts a man like Gayle in charge of anything. His ability is beyond question. As a batsman he has obvious weak points. He does not move his feet, concentrate or always set the right example. Periodically, he has played a stunning innings only to go back to his old way in the manner of a man reluctant to take the great leap towards excellence with all its glories and dangers.

With sportsmen like Gayle, though, it is always the faults that first catch the eye. He also has many fine qualities. No ball driven by him has enjoyed the experience. Whereas others might stroke between fieldsmen with an imperial gesture or place into a gap after due deliberation, Gayle gives the ball a leather-damaging and turf-burning crack. But he can be frustrating. Somehow he manages to hit the ball hard, though never violently, without giving anything away. Over the years he has played with the air of the unconcerned man. Neither success nor failure has much effect on him. He seems to be too cool to care.

Much the same outlook can be detected in his bowling. He does not bother to mark out a run. A man does not need to chart his course to the next suburb. Often he does not bother to remove his sunglasses, an ornament behind which both darkness and emptiness may take refuge. He rolls his off-breaks down with an amused, distracted air. Spectators sense he was more interested in listening to 50 Cent than Test Match Special.

And yet there is cleverness in his work, an ability to vary his pace and to disguise his intentions that saves him from collarings. Moreover, he seems able to anticipate the batsman’s intentions. Evidently the game has a stronger hold on him than he cares to admit, even to himself. He seemed to distance himself from the game as a calling and to embrace it only as a profession.

No wonder the West Indies Board was reluctant to put him in charge. Who were they appointing? An image or a man? Moreover, the Jamaicans have hardly been the most helpful amongst the players. Part of the reason for the collapse of the team has been the declining importance of Barbados with its humanity and humour, and Guyana with its broadness of experience, and the rise of the more agitated Antiguans and Jamaicans.

Accordingly, Gayle was promoted after every other possibility had been explored. As it turned out, the authorities’ wariness was justified. No sooner had the outwardly languid Jamaican taken over than he was attacking his bosses for incompetence. Pointing towards various errors that cropped up in their recent English campaign, the previously remote opener demanded better service. But then, it has always been his way to attack the new ball. And his case has merit. The administration of West Indian cricket remains alarmingly inept. Patronage has been replaced by penny pinching.

At least Gayle brought these dressing-room complaints into the open. It is the only way to prevent minor cuts becoming festering sores. On the field, sporting teams can be undone only by superior forces. Off it they can be distracted by trifles. Gayle emerged not as another sycophant or barrack room lawyer but as a leader prepared to fight for his men regardless of consequences. Unsurprisingly the players responded to his challenge.

For a variety of reasons, Gayle did not retain his position. Officials seeking respectability tend to lean towards the respectable. It takes confidence to appoint Merv Hughes as a selector. Also the occupant had not been removed. It was a pity because Gayle deserves a chance to prove his worth as an incumbent and not as a replacement. Previously as passive as a government backbencher, he had burst into life as a leader, and had played his part in most of his team’s better moments. In part, West Indies failed in the World Cup because he lost form with the bat.

Now Gayle gets his chance to captain the team on a Test tour. If the West Indies play slack cricket, then he must be sacked and never seen again. If he coaxes sharper performances from his players, then he can hold his position for years and be given the task of developing the youngsters. West Indies cannot afford to fiddle at the fringes. Bad leadership can destroy the morale of a side and dash that most precious of commodities, the hope of youth.

All cynicism and self-indulgence must be eliminated from West Indian cricket. And who better to carry out that job than the most influential player on the team, the man who for so many years has represented the best and worst of Caribbean cricket?

•Peter Roebuck is an international cricket correspondent based in the KwaZulu-Natal midlands.

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