Back after a self-imposed 15-month exile, the West Indies opener has a lot to prove, but can he deliver in England?
On Saturday at Southampton, Chris Gayle will walk out to open for the West Indies in his first international appearance in 15 months. It is a return widely anticipated and carrying plenty of weight, considering the big left-hander's recent Twenty20 form and the fact that West Indies have lacked a match-winner for some time.
Gayle's first outing in West Indian colours since last March was a rather non-descript affair – he scored 34 off 30 balls against a depleted Middlesex in a 50-over warm-up – but there are many who believe that his return puts West Indies in a different league ahead of the three ODIs and a one-off Twenty20 against England. There is merit in such thinking, because Gayle is coming off an outstanding IPL season in which he hit a six every eight balls, and a boundary every four balls. But does Twenty20 form necessarily mean Gayle is going to walk back into the ODI team and set England on fire?
Match-fit he might have kept himself during his time away from the West Indies dressing room, but a cursory glance over Gayle's numbers in his recent ODI matches show that he hasn't been in great form. His last ODI century was in January 2009, which was 35 innings ago. Gayle has not played for West Indies since last March during the 2011 World Cup when the side lost to Pakistan in the quarter-finals. In five innings during that tournament, Gayle scored 170 runs at 42.50 with just one half-century. Not bad, but consider this: over the past three years, Gayle averages 26.92 as opposed to a career average of 39.06.
In this time, Gayle has emerged as an outstanding Twenty20 player – in fact, he is the biggest impact player in the format. In the 2011 IPL, he scored more IPL runs than any other batsman – 608 at an average of 67.55 and strike rate of 183.13 – and in 2012 did better with 733 runs at a strike-rate of 160.74, scoring eight 50-plus scores, the most in IPL 5. Tremendous figures indeed.
But in the three years that Gayle has become a Twenty20 superstar, West Indies have played 60 ODIs and won just 19. In Gayle's self-imposed absence, they have won nine of 23 matches. Crunch the numbers and you see that West Indies have won more without Gayle than with him – 39.13 per cent compared to 27.02 per cent.
That West Indies lack a strong presence at the top of the order is evident, as is the fact that they have chopped and changed several times. Since June 2009, West Indies have used 12 openers – excluding Gayle - with varying results – Devon Smith (11 innings, average 31.81), Adrian Barath (14 innings, average 30.30), Lendl Simmons (17 innings, average 49.50), Andre Fletcher (nine innings, average 21.33), Dale Richards (seven innings, average 25.57), Runako Morton (six innings, average 42), Shivnarine Chanderpaul (three innings, average 45.33), Johnson Charles (five innings, average 24.20), Kirk Edwards (six innings, average 20,40), Danza Hyatt (four innings, average 15.75), Travis Dowlin (three innings, average three) and Kieron Powell (eight innings, average nine).
The most consistent, Simmons, will partner Gayle in the upcoming ODIs. That is a position which Simmons has earned through weight of runs. Gayle will be ushered back in, and the pair does look like the most capable opening duo West Indies have had in some time. Whether Gayle channels his IPL form into runs in tougher conditions, against better bowlers and over a longer period of time remains to be seen.
After lighting up the past two IPL seasons with some tremendous hitting, and treating fans in Bangladesh, Australia and Zimbabwe to some audacious Twenty20 innings, Gayle must now prove to the West Indian fans that he can be as destructive in ODI cricket.