Chris Gayle: West Indies' charismatic, controversial, 'Universe Boss'

By Tom FordyceChief sports writer
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You expect certain things when you meet Chris Gayle for the first time. Flamboyance. A certain cartoon arrogance. Late nights, tall tales, a disregard for the usual rules.

You spend serious time with him and instead it's the contradictions that are inescapable: a man who calls himself Universe Boss but is often shy and reserved; a cricketer who has broken records for extravagant muscular hitting yet who grew up a skinny purist; an unrepentant misogynist whose first coach was an inspirational school teacher he still addresses as Miss Hamilton.

Gayle's controversial international career recently appeared to be drawing to a close. He turns 40 in September and the West Indies team he has played for on and off across almost two decades needs a miracle to stay in this World Cup. Thursday's game against India looked like being the last time he would take guard with the cricketing world's attention on him. Instead, on Wednesday, he said he will play on. He may even return to the Test game.

When he does decide to retire, he will leave behind him broken records, smashed pavilion windows and a lot of strong feelings. Very few people have no opinion on Gayle, which makes sense when he has both built a strip bar in the basement of his own house and started a foundation for poverty-stricken kids on his home island of Jamaica.

Gayle has done things on a cricket pitch that most could not imagine, and only a select few can match. The first man to hit the opening ball of a Test match for six. The first to hit 200 in a World Cup game. The only one to hit a Test triple-century, one-day double-century and Twenty20 ton. He has hit a third as many T20 sixes again as anyone else - and blasted 37 off a single over in the Indian Premier League.

All this you know before you meet him. The man behind the statistics takes much longer to emerge. Each can make their own judgments about his behaviour and lifestyle, but to understand him you have to see him as he was, because that explains who he is today.

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Chris Gayle's former home in Kingston, Jamaica
Chris Gayle's childhood home in Kingston, Jamaica

Rollington Town is on the east side of Kingston, half a mile or so from the coast, the Sabina Park cricket ground a mile to the west. It is a long way from Lord's and a long way from comfortable.

The house where Gayle was raised is still there and still looks the same. A single-storey property made of breeze blocks, with wooden boards or flapping cloths over the windows, corrugated zinc for a roof, held in place with lumps of concrete. Split into three sections, one family in each.

There were two bedrooms in the Gayle family's part. One for his parents, the other with two single beds to be shared between the five kids. His sister Michelle would always get one, which left the four brothers fighting for the other.

The day began with the sound of cockerels and the rumble of the chalk factory next door. The next noise was ball hitting zinc fence. Every kid in Rollington Town played cricket, with home-made bamboo bats and stumps painted on walls, at every opportunity. Before school, after school, instead of school.

Gayle still goes back and he still considers himself lucky, because directly opposite his house, five steps across the bumpy concrete street, was a hole in a fence to another world: Lucas cricket club, the first place in Jamaica, a century ago, where poor black men could play the ruling whites.

Lucas cricket club in Kingston, Jamaica
The pitch at Lucas cricket club

Lucas does not immediately look special when you walk through its gates. The scoreboard needs paint, the pavilion has metal security bars all around it. The outfield is more dust than grass, the pitch itself rolled brown mud. The nets have only recently had actual netting added.

It is special to West Indian cricket - where the great George Headley burnished his game between the wars, where Frank Worrell, the first black man to captain the islands' Test team, brought his own career to a close - and it is special to Gayle because it became both his sanctuary and his escape.

Pick-up games on the outfield; facing down bouncers bowled with a hockey ball on the concrete terrace of the pavilion. Shoving a ball into the toe of an old sock and tying the other end to the branch of a tree to practise when no-one else was around.

When you help write someone's autobiography for them, it's unusual to finish the project liking them less than when you began. Try to see the world through someone else's eyes and you will gain sympathy for their actions even if you cannot condone them all. It's a benign version of Stockholm Syndrome.

After my time in Kingston with Gayle I could appreciate much more. His absolute love of cricket, because that was how we first bonded - geeking out on favourite makes of cricket bat and the players who used particular models. Why he lives extravagantly now, when he was brought up with so little. Why there appear to be no compromises and no apologies, since the heart operation he had in his mid-twenties that made him realise how fragile and finite everything around him really felt.

Chris Gayle in 2000, the year of his Test debut
Chris Gayle in 2000, the year of his Test debut

Gayle is not even the most maverick talent in his own family. That honour goes to his brother Michael, who would leave his cricket kit at Lucas the evening before a match so he could go straight to the ground from his night out.

Michael had the Gayle coordination and a mouth to wind up opponents and infuriate officials. His flaws scuppered his chances of going further just as his younger brother's discipline kept him practising and fine-tuning.

Gayle now lives in a big house high in the hills above the city, up in the cool breezes, far from the dust and the violence down below. He has bought houses in the nicer parts of town for Michael, for his mum, for his sister. His father Dudley has the big room at the front of Gayle's own residence, a big flat-screen TV on the wall so he can keep up with all the news.

Dudley often walks back to the old neighbourhood to see how everyone is. Early risers at the house, as you tend to be if you're jet-lagged from the UK, can chew the fat with him while his most famous son sleeps it off. Michael still spends much of his time in the same rum shack round the corner. Gayle pays his bills and gives him the money he's asked for even as he knows where it is going.

Gayle has been the ultimate cricketing freelancer, the temporary king of so many disparate franchises. He is an ageing gun for hire, yet there is a deep loyalty to those who have been with him throughout.

Also staying in the house when I was there were childhood friends who had gone overseas for work like so many young Jamaicans, back to talk about the old times, the games for school and club they won and lost, to rib their mate for his comparative inability to hold his booze.

With them was Paul McCallum, the teacher at their secondary school who coached them at cricket when lessons were done and lent them money for bus fares and lunch so they could get to matches in the first place. Gayle does not trust many people, the frequent victim, like many West Indian cricketers, of chaotic governing bodies and rapacious agents. In his old network he is comfortable at last, the success story but never the superstar.

Chris Gayle
Gayle's West Indies side beat Pakistan in their World Cup opener but have not won since

It takes something to call yourself World Boss and more to upgrade that to Universe. Gayle does it partly because it tickles him and partly because the precedent was already around him.

The infamous Jamaican dancehall artist Vybz Kartel, brought up just outside Kingston in an area rough enough to get the nickname Gaza, styled himself as the World Boss of music. Sprint legend Usain Bolt followed suit and became World Boss of athletics. Gayle, brought up on the deeds of Viv 'Master Blaster' Richards, recognised a good piece of branding when he saw it.

It's characteristically Gayle, both boastful and tongue-in-cheek, provocative yet rooted in his own distinct culture. When you grew up nicking buckets of water from unguarded taps in the posher parts of town so the family could cook and wash, when rice and peas was a dream of a meal rather than a staple because the coconut cream and bacon cost too much, the idea of being a boss of anywhere is an absurd one.

This has been a World Cup that works as a farewell to it all for Gayle. Bowing out in England, against whom he has scored more one-day runs than any other West Indian in history, including Richards. Going down blazing against India, where he hit that extraordinary 175 not out for Royal Bangalore Challengers, the greatest T20 knock of all.

He doesn't move very well any more, not after multiple back operations. He still prefers batting second, when the early swing has gone for the bowlers. He still starts his innings with caution, but then he always did, another of those confusing paradoxes.

His decision to play on proves he remains as obsessed with the sport as he was as a kid in Rollington Town, as he was on his Test debut 19 years ago when he was run out for 33 and cried for hours afterwards. Always the upstart, even with more one-day international centuries than Brian Lara, more Test matches than Ian Botham, more Test catches than Clive Lloyd.

When he does go, you might be glad to see the back of him, you might mourn the end of the entertainment. But we're unlikely to see anything quite the same again. The world will move on, even for the boss of it all.

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