Millions of cricket fans would this week have marvelled at the brutal, unrelenting force that is Chris Gayle in full flow. Batting for the Royal Challengers Bangalore in their Indian Premier League T20 clash versus Pune Warriors, Gayle treated the thousands of adulating fans in attendance at the Chinnaswamy Stadium and millions more watching on TV to 175 unbeaten runs from just 66 balls, bringing up his century off just 30 balls. Nearly 90% of Gayle’s runs came in boundary sized chunks of four or six but did, mercifully, contain 18 balls where no run was scored, showing even in T20 cricket the virtue of getting one’s eye in.
Among the more reserved connoisseurs of the game, however, acclaim for Gayle’s record smashing efforts may have been slightly less rapturous. T20 cricket, and especially the advertising laden product that is the IPL, is seen by some as Mickey Mouse cricket. As such, accomplishments in this format of the game and to an extent its 50 over cousin are all but forgotten by the time the teams cross the boundary rope to contest the next fixture. This is inevitable with the shorter forms of the game where there is scarcely enough time to cram in the obligatory advertising breaks and sponsor presentations let alone develop the ebb-and-flow narrative that contextualises the great individual and team performances of test cricket. The quality of the bowling attack treated so disdainfully by Gayle must rightly be questioned. Aside from the emerging talent of Bhuvneshwar Kumar who conceded a relatively paltry 23 runs from his four over allotment, the Pune Warriors attack contains little else in terms of international experience or class. Nevertheless, Gayle’s innings far surpasses anything that has gone before in the format and leads to the question of how this effort compares to the defining innings of the game of cricket as a whole.
Test cricket boasts many such defining performances with the bat, not least of which was Brian Lara’s 375 made against England in 1994. There are 25 other instances of triple centuries dotted throughout the history of test cricket including two from Gayle himself, but the hallmark of Lara’s effort at the Antigua Recreation ground was the level of batting mastery displayed whereby Lara’s dismissal never looked likely and his dominance of the English bowlers was such that breaking Sir Garfield Sobers’ record of 365 was inevitable once the milestone was in sight. By way of reinforcing the genius of Lara, this same inevitability was also apparent nearly 10 years later when he scored 400 against the same opposition at the same ground.
If Lara’s innings epitomised the combination of god given talent and hunger for runs, then Mike Atherton’s match saving innings of 185 not out in Johannesburg did the same for utter bloody mindedness and grim determination. Superficially, this was a far less entertaining innings, but not only defined Atherton’s career and tenure as England captain, but also defined an era of English cricket where victories were scarce and such performances were to be cherished, especially by habitually suffering English supporters.
Ian Botham’s antics in 1981 are well documented enough that you don’t have to be a fan of cricket to remember them. His performances that summer were remarkable enough taken in isolation, but given the context of all that had gone on before and with the Ashes at stake (context enough for any English or Australian fan), to almost single-handedly take on an opposition, perhaps most notably at the Headingley Test where Botham seemingly scored all of the runs and took all of the wickets (with not inconsiderable assistance from Bob Willis), has allowed “Botham’s Ashes” to go down as the stuff of legend. Likewise, VVS Laxman’s 281runs and match winning partnership with Rahul Dravid will be remembered for toppling the dominant force of Steve Waugh’s Australians from an almost unassailable position.
Each of these performances was played out against the back drop of test cricket’s rich history as well as the preceding events in each individual match. They were the defining contributions in each game and shaped their outcomes but equally these contributions were themselves defined and shaped by what went before. This is the beauty of test match cricket.
In T20 cricket there is no place for reminiscence and scant time for a thread of narrative to evolve; it’s all about the here and now. Its allure is not in its history but in its ability to deliver instant gratification. In the context of instant gratification Gayle’s innings is likely to remain as the defining innings of the format for some time and, for this reason, deserves to be alongside those of Lara, VVS, Botham and Atherton in terms of having a memorable impact, if not in terms of outright quality.