According to the official statistics Chris Gayle is 188cm tall. These days, when he bends down to touch his toes he seems to feel every last one of them. Gayle made a dip in their direction right before he stepped over the boundary rope at the Hampshire Bowl on Friday, the idle stretch of a man only lately out of bed and getting ready for the day ahead.
It was his last half-hearted gesture towards a warm-up before beginning his 521st international innings for West Indies and his last against England unless the two teams play again in the knockout rounds of this World Cup. The way this one worked out, he will hope he gets that one last chance to set about them.
Gayle has always said everything changed for him when he had emergency heart surgery in 2005, after he had to retire from a Test against Australia because he was suffering from cardiac arrhythmia. “Looking down at the wire, the patches, my heart no longer jumping under my skin, I make the vow” was how he put it in his book Six Machine (it was ghostwritten, the man has got better things to do than sit in front of a computer).
“From this day on, I’m going to enjoy life endlessly. Whenever – God’s will – I get better, I’m going to do everything to the fullest. No waiting, no hedging, no compromises, no apologies. Night won’t stop me, dawn won’t stop me. Wherever I go I’m going to have fun.” He has been as good as his word.
Every day seems to be alive with possibility for Gayle, rich with the promise of more fours and sixes. Once he finally gets into it, that is. It seems to take him longer and longer. He sometimes starts them so slowly it is as if he is still getting ready for play when it is already under way. Here, he played Chris Woakes’s first over like he had sleep in his eyes. It was wet, windy and grey, and Woakes wobbled the ball both ways. His second delivery nipped in and hit Gayle’s pads with a thwack, his third nipped out and whizzed past the edge of his bat. It was a maiden. Of course, Gayle was not worried any. He made his debut in England in 2000, so he has been doing this for nearly 20 years and has seen it all before.
At the other end, though, came something unlike anything else England have had in all the years Gayle has been playing against them. Jofra Archer, lethally fast, 24 years old, and with a point to prove to a West Indies team who dropped him from their U19 squad in 2013, when he was living in Barbados. Archer grew up watching Gayle and now here he was, bowling to him. You could see he was enjoying it. Gayle hauled his bat out of the way of the first delivery, a flat-footed heave of a leave. Then Archer slipped him a short one. Gayle reeled away backwards as if he had just spotted a mouse running around his ankles.
That delivery woke Gayle up like a shot of hot coffee and in the next over he did something truly extraordinary. Almost unprecedented. He took a quick single to mid-off. England had set the field back just a little deeper, baiting him to take it on. He did and he made it. Archer had done the impossible, he had Gayle playing in a hurry. He served him a series of sharpeners, 91mph, 89mph, 90mph, 91mph, whizzing this way and that. Gayle flapped at the sixth ball of the over and edged it past his stumps, he snapped his head back around just in time to see it fly away to fine leg for four. Archer ran his hands through his hair.
After five overs, Gayle had five runs, the West Indies eight. Now Gayle counterattacked back. He hit a drive towards Archer so hard he had to leap out of its path, then pulled his next delivery away through midwicket, dismissively, a reminder that quick as Archer is, Gayle has faced faster and harder before. Archer countered with another short ball, aimed up into Gayle’s ribs. This time, Gayle got behind it and rode it down to the leg-side. In the next over he took on Woakes, but the ball skewed loose off the bat and flew high towards third man. Mark Wood came sprinting in to take the catch, made it, but the ball broke free when he fell down to the ground. Woakes, so polite, so unflappable, swore at him for it. Next over, Gayle thrashed him for four through midwicket, then smashed him for six over long-off.
It was Liam Plunkett who got Gayle in the end, caught on the boundary at deep backward square for 36. In among it, he broke another record. He became the leading scorer in one-day matches between England and West Indies, overtaking Viv Richards. He has made 1,632 at an average of 51. They will not miss him. Everyone else will.