It's one of the great beauties of cricket that a team game can sustain mad, glorious and destructive personal ambition. This thought came back to me when Chris Gayle hit the first ball of a Test match for six, because I once played with a man whose desire was to hit the first ball of a match for six, too. That simple dream had gripped his soul and would not let go.
This was back in the days when bats were slim and sixes were rare currency. I was 13 or 14, just starting to play senior cricket along with age-group games. We'll call him Pete, because that was his name, a lovely man in love with the game. After thirty-odd years at the crease, he was still to make a fifty, in part due to the relentless pursuit of his goal.
He opened the batting because he'd been at the club for as long as anyone, and because there was no man there who wanted to deny him his chance. It was made tougher because it was dependent on us batting first, so sometimes he would go weeks without getting the opportunity. But when it came, well... Pete died often, but he never died wondering. He heaved at every first ball he ever received, short or full, wide or straight, good or bad. I would imagine he got more first-ball ducks than any other opener in the country, but he never adjusted his game, never thought, 'I'll just bat and try and get that fifty,' never allowed reason to crush that pure and perfect vision of a bowler running in as the clock hit one, all heads turned upwards as a new red ball sailed up and out into the endless sky.
He never did it, or at least not to my knowledge. But he did get his fifty. It came in an in-house game, when our U17 side played the first XI one hazy sunday afternoon. We had some good players in that U17 team, including a couple of very decent opening bowlers. They batted. Pete carved at the first ball, which missed everything. Then he carved at all the others, and miraculously it came off. Balls fell wide of fielders, edges went for four. He even middled a few, and he was a big, strong guy. Finally he swung, connected once again and the applause came up from the pavilion.
"Twenty-five years I've waited for that," he yelled, his bat held high above his head, his face split by a grin that said every moment of the wait had been worthwhile. He was out next ball.