Chris Gayle stood at the striker's end. Facing up to Lasith Malinga, everything initially looked as it should. His unruly hair and headwear was flowing from the back of his maroon helmet. His tree-like bat glistened in the lights. His enormous figure cast an imposing shadow. And the trademark nonchalance was in its typical abundance.
But somehow, this wasn't the usual Gayle. Something was amiss. The usual strut appeared subdued, the characteristic hubris seemed absent. On a stage ready-made for his colossal abilities, the thumping West Indian batsman that the world of Twenty20 cricket had grown to fear felt like a distant memory.
Watching savagely attacking cricketers being subdued carries an unusual discomfort. Regardless of our allegiances, there's a certain craving within us all to see the game's true entertainers triumph. While outcomes are often decided by those with an unwavering excellence, it's the renegades and showmen that captivate our minds.
Indeed, there was a sense of emasculation to Gayle's apparent submission to Malinga and his Sri Lankan teammates on Thursday. As he crawled his way to just three from 13 deliveries to stifle his team in the first World T20 semi-final, it was like watching a golfer develop the yips or seeing a prolific striker lose his nerve.
Perhaps more emblematic, this was cricket's version of witnessing Michael Jordan forget how to dunk.
Such reactions would be grossly unjustified had Gayle's performance against Sri Lanka been in contrast to other displays across the tournament. But it wasn't. From ball one against India almost two weeks ago, there's been a curious malaise to the left-hander's batting in Bangladesh.
Certainly, it must be acknowledged that the perception of Gayle's tournament has been exacerbated due to his latest anomalous innings embedding itself as our most recent memory. But it was nonetheless significant.
This was the semi-final of a global ICC tournament—the only tournament set-up for the exuberant Caribbean men. Gayle, with his extravagant dancing and frightening hitting, represents the essence of his side and their affinity with the brash T20 game. Darren Sammy and Dwayne Bravo had carried their side to this point, but the symbol of cricket's shortest format was needed here.
But with his feet seemingly affixed to the crease, Malinga and Sachithra Senanayake reduced Gayle to nothing more than pokes and prods. The West Indies never stood a chance.
But understanding Gayle's uncharacteristic tournament is troublesome.
There appears to have been a shift in how the 34-year-old perceives his role in the West Indian side. The blistering starts seem to have been shelved. Watchful stays at the crease instead taking their place.
It would be comforting to put it down to poor form, difficult pitches or superb opponents. Indeed, such factors have all exerted an influence to some extent. Yet, there feels more to it than that. The intent, the propensity to dominate, the habitual bludgeoning of opponents has been absent from Gayle's batting.
The left-hander's tournament strike rate of 107.51 sits 77 places from the best mark in the competition. Despite facing more deliveries in the tournament than any batsman from the eight major teams other than Virat Kohli, Gayle sits in a tie for 12th on the boundary-hitting charts.
Chris Gayle's Performances at ICC World Twenty20
Rather than his customary assaults, Gayle has seemed content to play an anchoring role at the top of his team's line-up.
Against India, the left-hander reined in his usual stroke-play to trundle along moderately against the spin of Ravichandran Ashwin, Amit Mishra and Suresh Raina. In the subsequent match against the host nation, Gayle batted his way into the 19th over for just 48.
Versus Pakistan, the West Indian confirmed his susceptibility to off-spin by falling to Mohammad Hafeez, while up against Sri Lanka, Gayle appeared almost reluctant to assert his characteristic aggression.
Only against Australia, when his team's chase contained zero margin for error, did we witness an archetypal Gayle innings.
It's perhaps superficial to view Gayle's post-match reaction on Twitter on Thursday as indicative of his mindset. Yet, his words seem to express a sense that the bruising West Indian felt he was playing to the plan, that only rain got in the way, that the team had plotted a similar heist to the one seen against Australia.
Yet, it's also possible that Gayle's transcending exploits in the Indian Premier League have muddied our perception of his T20 career on the international stage in recent years.
In fact, since Gayle's match-winning 75 in the semi-final of the 2012 World T20 against Australia, the imposing West Indian has averaged just 20.23 at a strike rate of only 102.73 across 13 matches. Not only are those numbers poor by Gayle's previous standards, they are also the lowest marks among his batting teammates across the 18-month stretch.
Is it possible that we're witnessing the slow decline of one of cricket's great entertainers? Is it possible that we're expecting past glories from a spent force? That like the voices of Whitney Houston and Axl Rose, Gayle's explosions with the bat now only exist in our minds?
Sure, those questions could be viewed as hyperbole, particularly after Gayle's emphatic 2013 IPL campaign. But major global tournaments often signal the decline of ageing stars—and given that he made his international debut in 1999 (five years before, say, Kevin Pietersen), Gayle is certainly one of those.
That dreaded sense of finality hasn't yet closed in on Gayle's career, but after the 2014 World T20, it doesn't feel all that distant, either.
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