Friday 18 May 2012

Chris Gayle: Grace, Bradman

A few days ago, two of the three top stories on cricinfo were about one man. The headline of the first was: 'West Indies want to mop up 'residual matters' with Gayle'. The second read simply, 'Gayle goes berserk in Pune'.

The two were connected, but laterally rather than literally. Gayle was not yet on the roof of a municipal building negotiating to release his hostages if only Ernest Hilaire would agree to stop Skyping him. His carnage was of the more usual kind - he'd just hit Bhuvneshwar Kumar for four sixes in five balls, in the process re-emphasising the hold he has on his board and on the game.

Next year, professional T20 cricket will be ten years old. It has distorted thinking more than Bodyline did, reshaped finances more than Packer could, demanded the most complete revolution in technique since Grace began hitting across the line, offered players a new career model beyond central contracts. Chris Gayle's employers have included the Barisal Burners, the Matabeleland Tuskers, Sydney Thunder, Royal Challengers Bangalore, West Australia, Kolkata Knight Riders, Jamaica and of course the immortal Stanford Superstars, and they have had value for their coin. If not T20's Bradman, then Gayle is its WG, its Ranji. In its infant years, he is a conceptual force, its vision of the future.

Even to those looking towards us from the not-so-distant 1990s, the limp times after the Windies and before Waugh introduced four an over to Test cricket, Gayle would seem like Kubrick's Obelisk, dressed in his space-garb, his gold pads and his gridiron helmet, his muscle shirt tight on his giant shoulders, beefed-up bat in his shimmering gloves, a quarter of a billion people watching on TV as his blade scythes through...

One in every nine deliveries that Gayle has faced in T20 cricket has been hit for six. One in nine. It feels like a key indicator of how he is shaping a format in which we are really not sure what the prime stats should be. Certainly the side that hits the most sixes usually wins. But even measured in the old-school way, Gayle is getting ahead of the rest by the sort of percentages that Bradman did. By the blunt tool of average, his mark of 43.81 is miles beyond those who can reproduce his strike rate (155.48), while those who can come within five of that average cannot approach his speed: Kieron Pollard strikes at 161.34, but averages 28; Sehwag 159.83 but averages 29; Kallis averages 39.64 but strikes at 113, Sachin 37.48 but at 123. Or consider this: Gayle has as many T20 centuries as Kallis, Pollard, Pietersen, Warner, Sehwag and De Villiers added together.

Lots of other batsman can do what Gayle does once or twice, it's just that Gayle does it so often. His last nine innings in the IPL have been 87, 4, 86, 71, 26, 82 not out, 57, 6 and 128 not out. He has the most runs at the highest average, as he did last year, and it is over that period that Gayle has really separated himself from the rest. Because the T20 game is shortened and heightened, his refinements are harder to spot, but they are there.

His 128 not out from 62 against Delhi illustrated perfectly his current thinking. He didn't score from his first eight deliveries, and by the end of the first powerplay had 10 from 17. In his 'berserk' 57 from 31 against Pune, he had four from his first eight deliveries and 17 from his first 16. In his 82 from 59 against Delhi in the match before that, he had two from his first ten and 22 from his first 19; in his 71 from 42 against Kings XI, it was 21 from his first 19; in his 86 from 58 against KKR he had 23 from his first 25.

The other half of the equation is that the acceleration, when it comes, is unprecedented. Gayle's strategy is not just to hit boundaries but to clear the ropes. He has hit more sixes than anyone in T20 cricket, his 279 put him 81 ahead of the next best, Kieron Pollard. And he is ratcheting it up; in this year's IPL, he has 57 in 14 games. A loose study of his boundary counts shows that he tends to hit fours in his first 20 or so deliveries and then moves on to sixes.

It would be fascinating to hear him talk about it, but he is deliberately enigmatic. His Twitter stream is a flow of emoticons. He rarely gives interviews and when he does, like his mate KP, they tend to yield the wrong kind of headlines. He sees no benefit in demystifying himself, and in truth it is adding to his legend.

All of this makes that lateral connection between those cricinfo stories. Players have always been exiled by boards, but Gayle's illuminating brilliance in T20 cricket, on a global platform, is a mirror that reflects the WICB's own stupidity back at them.

Cricket will reach its agreements with T20, and years from now people will recall its first quaint decade and smile at how old and proper it all looks. A few sages, cryogenically preserved, will be able to say they saw Chris Gayle bat, this format's Grace, this format's Bradman. WG would certainly approve of how little he says, and of how little he runs.

Friday 4 May 2012

Shane Watson: Against Nature

Few batsmen fail as rarely as Shane Watson. Unfortunately for him, few batsmen succeed as rarely as Shane Watson, either. Here are his consecutive Test innings from July to December 2009: 62, 53, 51, 34, 40, 0, 96, 48, 89, 30, 93; and from October 2010 to September 2011: 56, 57, 32, 36, 41, 51, 57, 13, 95, 5, 54, 45, 38, 22, 0, 36. They are arbitrarily selected, but they represent nearly half of his career, and reflect his almost morbid consistency.

If you were to imagine average as a horizontal line on a graph with each innings marked as a dot either above or below that line, great players would produce something like the cardiograph you get in soap operas as a lead character lies liminally between life and death, with its peaks and with its valleys. Shane's would look more like the moment that the patient flat-lines and the doctors rush in to close the curtains, usher out the mistress and fire up the defibrillator.

Watson is an Australian straight off the drawing board. He presents such a convincing physical embodiment of their sunny idyll that the selectors seem to be investing in the inevitability of his success. You don't need Moneyball or the Availability Heuristic to think that if Shane Watson looked like Simon Katich, he might not have had the same opportunities. In the great certainty that his batting produces lies the uncertainty over him and his team.

He opened the batting in all of the innings listed above, something he has done 45 times out of the 64 occasions he has gone to the crease for Australia. A further six have come at his new position at number three, where, along with David Warner and Ed Cowan, he completes a trio of batsmen far less convincing than the three that follow.

It might not be fair to compare him to Ponting, who he periodically enjoys running out, or Dravid or Lara or Sanga, but it's worth looking at players of the same generation as him who fill that spot. Jonathan Trott has batted 48 times for England, making seven hundreds and nine fifties. Hashim Amla has gone in 103 times for South Africa, and made 14 hundreds and 23 fifties. Multiplied out, Trott is making scores at roughly the same rate and weight as Amla. Watson, who falls between the two in terms of experience, has batted 64 times, making two hundreds and 18 fifties. Trott's centuries include two doubles, a 184 and a 168. Amla has a highest score of 253, and four others above 140. Watto's best is 126. He has one less Test ton than Ravi Bopara.

It's against the nature and the history of batsmanship to be out for a median score as often as Shane is. Ultimately the greatest quality in batting is to be able to stay in, because everything else springs from that. Why can't he do it? Well, that might be asking to know something of his psyche or his soul. From the outside, he seems to be a momentum player, internal rhythms attuned to constant motion, disrupted when the flow is dried by the inevitable raising of defences by the bowling side as the game moves on.

Hashim Amla has made 52 per cent of his Test runs in boundaries and sixes. Jonathan Trott has made 44 per cent of his that way, Alastair Cook 46 per cent, Ricky Ponting 48 per cent, Kevin Pietersen 54 per cent. Watson has a percentage above all of them at 57. Only freaks like Sehwag with 67 per cent and Chris Gayle with 75 per cent go beyond him, and they each have two triple centuries in Test cricket. The stats suggest two things about the way Watson plays: that he needs boundaries to build his score, and that he gets out trying to hit them once the field goes back. Both are symptomatic of a player who either doesn't look at where the field is, or who can't keep hitting the gaps. That's guesswork, though. Perhaps Shane is just a rebours.

NB: Australia's best batting order, as selected by an entirely unqualified Englishman: Warner, Cowan, Hussey, Clarke, Ponting, Watson.