The West Indies had to get to the 2019 ICC Cricket World Cup the hard way. They had to trek to Zimbabwe, of all places, to take part in and win the qualifying tournament after slipping further and further down the rankings.
Common sense would dictate then that they wouldn’t be among the favourites to win the tournament proper. But West Indies cricket has seldom gone by the playbook. They have followed their own path for generations, imprinting their unique culture on the game.
If, as is their wont, they rise to the occasion in the United Kingdom and find a way to the final four, it will not be a surprise to anyone who knows their history in the game. After all, they recently played a rampantly fun, high-scoring series with the hosts and tournament favourites, England.
That was a warning shot to the rest of the world. Regardless of their consistently complicated politics and island vagaries, the West Indian cricket team has always found a way to combine into a potent unit come tournament time.
In 2016, for example, Carlos Brathwaite launched his career with four towering sixes off England’s Ben Stokes to close out an ICC T20 World Cup tournament that looked to be out of their reach. Brathwaite looked like he was barely hitting the monstrous blows he flicked into the Kolkata night to take West Indies to the top of the 20-over format of the game. Fittingly, it was another West Indian giant, Ian Bishop, who was commentating in the final moments.
‘Remember the name’
“Carlos Brathwaite! Carlos Brathwaite!” Bishop roared triumphantly from the commentator’s seat.
“Remember the name,” Bishop told the world, as he watched his countrymen rip up the script and complete a T20 world title double with their women’s team.
There was dancing, of course, a bombastic fusion of flamboyance, fun and furious pride at raising the Caribbean flag once more. Daren Sammy was the captain then, but the man with the golden touch is no longer in the system. In his lieu, the soft-spoken Jason Holder has stepped up as a leader of men.
Holder leads demonstratively, his game shouting louder and louder for attention. Former Windies fast bowler Michael Holding has expressed a desire to see Holder bowl a good deal faster, but the current skipper has contented himself with line and length. He has bolters in his arsenal, should the need arise.
He has also added an increasingly long handle in the middle order, which he wielded wonderfully against England in an unforgettable Test knock in Jamaica. That innings, that match and, indeed, that series, saw the West Indian blood fire of old catch alight.
Fast bowling spells, aggressive batting and a heaving mass of energy and elation in the stands. It was a throwback to the glorious old days, when Holding and company gave batsmen across the world cold sweats and hot flushes.
Added to that, they had batsmen such as the incomparable Viv Richards, who had swag oozing from his maroon peak cap right down to his twinkle toes. Gum-chomping and stroking bouncers off his beard nonchalantly, Richards had it all. And then some.
From Brian Charles Lara to Christopher Henry Gale
Beyond the vivacious Richards, the undisputed prince of Caribbean cricket was Brian Charles Lara. The square drive ought to be trademarked in the Trinidadian’s honour, because never has a ball consistently scorched through point with such brutal beauty.
Like his backlift, Lara rose and rose – even as the Windies flag dwindled at the turn of the century. When he finally departed, there was a new gunslinger at the crease, a Jamaican by the name of Christopher Henry Gayle.
Cricket has divided itself neatly into generations, and those are readily divided by the money and attention that the game and its main characters have garnered. Richards didn’t get the riches his outrageous talents warranted, but he was born before the true boom. Lara was the first, modern superstar with world records that still stand to this day. He devoured time and toiling attacks at the crease, bullying his way into the record books and serious commercial clout.
But even he didn’t quite catch cricket’s golden ticket. Gayle most certainly did.
To see him at the crease, crowding the little wicket and carrying a Thor hammer for a bat, is to observe where the game has moved. Power, much like pace, simply has no substitute. Few can exert as much brute force as Gayle in full flow and T20 cricket – and more specifically, the Indian Premier League (IPL) – chanced upon him at just the right time.
It is unfair, though, to cast Gayle as a one-dimensional slugger. His game is far more nuanced than that. You don’t score a Test triple-hundred, a one-day international (ODI) double-hundred and piles of T20 centuries without a shred of class. He has moved with the times and, as his years have advanced, he has revelled in his natural inclination to clear the boundary and not bother running. It is a fantastic trick, and one that has made him a fabulously wealthy man.
A cricketing prize fighter
Gayle quickly realised that he was a prize fighter, a heavyweight who could be paid handsomely to knock the world’s best bowlers out. He has done that with frightening frequency, and in a manner in keeping with that most Jamaican self-assurance.
He is bosom buddies with another mighty Jamaican, Usain Bolt. Both have drawn on every ounce of natural talent bestowed upon them and entertained the world richly in the process.
They don’t shy away from the bright lights and the attention only serves to inspire them to deliver even more. Let the world watch, they beckon. It stems from a modest upbringing, where to stand out was to open a door to a life not previously imagined.
It is an attitude not dissimilar to actual prize fighters like Floyd Mayweather, who flaunted his wealth and boasts about his exceptional skills. The trick is to then back up the smack talk, and that is a trait these superstars seem to share. They always seem to rise to the occasion. Handling and exceeding expectations is a badge of honour and that only emboldens them to declare their greatness louder still.
Gayle refers to himself as the “Universe Boss”, which may be a touch too brash in some quarters. And yet, he has gone across the world gracing every T20 league that has sprouted up. As he joked of the upcoming “The 100” concept to be launched in England, they will need to get the Boss over to make sure it is a success.
“Well, if I don’t start it, it won’t be a tournament,” he quipped.
Why the Windies could hurt more fancied teams
Age has not dimmed Gayle’s skyscraping ability – or his wit. His final ODI series on home soil was a case in point. At 39, some thought he shouldn’t have been recalled to the side that faced England. Typically, Gayle roused himself to hammer a frankly ridiculous 424 runs in the five-match series, with 39 sixes and two centuries.
He cantered to a 19-ball half century in the process, putting to bed any doubts about his powers waning and confirming his participation in the World Cup. With Gayle in this mood and several powerful youngsters itching to take the baton from the mighty Jamaican, the West Indies may yet seriously hurt more fancied teams.
They have to make do without Sunil Narine, who has ruled himself out. The mystery twirler has never been to a 50-over World Cup and a sore finger means he cannot get through 10 overs in a match. As it is, he is receiving treatment after an IPL fixture for Kolkata.
His absence is a loss for the game at large, not just the Windies. The combative Marlon Samuels, who has crossed paths and swords with Shane Warne and Stokes in a colourful career, has also missed the bus. Dwayne Bravo has retired, even as he continues to star for the IPL’s Chennai Super Kings – and whoever else can afford him. There is no room for Kieron Pollard, clearer of ropes and plucker of missiles.
Crucially, the selection panel have been able to cajole an appearance out of the most complete all-rounder in the game today. Andre Russell continues to defy physical logic every week in the IPL, winning and defining matches with bat, ball, fielding feats and sheer personality.
He bowls fast, he hits the ball hard and he charges around the field like a man possessed. He is a modern Marvel man and a surefire match winner on his day. When you add up all the ingredients the Windies are gathering from their islands, the prospects become increasingly delicious.
There is a team there.
Maybe not conventional, with their contrasting styles and island cultures. But there is a team there, a team powerful enough and varied enough and motivated enough to go a long, long way. No target frightens them, because no boundary in the UK will be big enough to contain their man mountains. That cast list is headlined by Gayle.
The faster they come, the further they disappear
For just shy of two decades, he has stood toe-to-toe with the fastest men in the world and slugged them out. On longevity alone, he deserves a doff of the cap. He really shouldn’t be so brazen at 39 years of age but the faster they come, the further they disappear.
He has a cult following the universe over, and has already challenged the young pretenders in his shadow to send him off in style and win this one for him. The heavyweight prize fighter is after the ultimate prize in the game, one that would see the legends of 1975 reincarnated.
In 2013, Gayle opened the Triple Century Sports Bar in Kingston, Jamaica. It is a monument to his numerous cricketing feats, but also a place to congregate and celebrate Jamaican sporting prowess. Like the 2016 T20 success, which had the whole place bumping. And Bolt’s historic sign-off at the Rio Olympics later that year.
The Triple Century Sports Bar won’t be quiet during this year’s World Cup, of course. It will be a riot, especially if the Windies and the proprietor catch fire. And if the West Indies do the unthinkable and win this World Cup, the bar will be one of the first ports of call for Gayle and company. But there is much to be done before any thought of parties.
In the heyday of boxing, bouts used to go to 15 rounds. The great champions of the past had to suck in the big ones from round 13 through 15. Instinct took over where stamina could go no more.
Gayle force winds
Gayle is in those championship rounds now and his instincts remain frightfully sharp. Before this 2019 World Cup is over, he will surely land a flush blow against one of the big boys and leave them in awe. He will humble an attack, armed with plans and counterplans, and simply blow them away in a gale of sheer force and personality.
South Africa knows him well. He memorably mugged the opening game of the 2003 World Cup and the Proteas never quite recovered from that early setback. That, essentially, is the Gayle effect.
Even in the autumn of an outrageous career, he is not content to be just a bit-part player. He wants to win. The whole thing. His unflinching eye is fixed squarely on one last final, which would be the ultimate tribute to the class of 1975.
That first final was hosted at Lord’s, the cricket ground that will be home to this year’s showpiece on 14 July.
Logic dictates that the West Indians have no business even looking at that date, because the ninth-ranked team in the world ought to be out of the tournament by then. But try to convince Christopher Henry Gayle that his farewell party from ODI cricket is supposed to end anywhere but at the very home of cricket itself, in the biggest game on the calendar.
Go ahead and try. That suggestion would be all the motivation the Universe Boss needs.
West Indies World Cup squad: Jason Holder (captain), Andre Russell, Ashley Nurse, Carlos Brathwaite, Chris Gayle, Darren Bravo, Evin Lewis, Fabian Allen, Kemar Roach, Nicholas Pooran, Oshane Thomas, Shai Hope, Shannon Gabriel, Sheldon Cottrell and Shimron Hetmyer.