Jul 18, 2017

'There is still a lot of life in Chris Gayle'

He saunters into the room - personality first, person later. Chris Gayle is dressed in an all-white ensemble. White shirt. White pants. White blazer. White shoes. He's been filming an advertisement as brand ambassador for a gaming company in Bengaluru. It involves shaking a leg. To indulge him, some rushes have been sent to his phone. Gayle likes to watch himself dance and laughs heartily as the clip plays. We are in a small room, bursting with people - tailors, designers, lightmen, camera operators, managers, bouncers and just general hangers-on. Gayle knows all this fuss is for him and about him. He likes it.

"Universe Boss?" I ask him as we begin our interview,  "That's what you like to be called?"

"That's who I am," he chuckles. "I am very good at dancing. Very good at entertaining. I give the people what they want, put it that way. There's no better person to do such things than Chris Gayle."

There's little doubt Gayle can dance, or that it is entertaining to watch him do it. However, it is with a bat in hand that he has patented the formula for entertaining fans worldwide. Last Sunday, in front of his home crowd in Jamaica, Gayle was given the chance to do so for the first time since that insane day in Kolkata in April 2016, when he and a merry band of men in maroon captured a second World T20 title in a pulsating final against England.

Gayle himself failed to sparkle in his comeback game, making a laborious 18 in 20 balls, but an astonishing assault from Evin Lewis secured West Indies victory, embellishing their credentials as the world's foremost team in the format. And as the oldest player in the group, Gayle was thrilled to be back in the mix - just doing his thing, in front of people who adore him and have watched him turn into one of the game's modern-day superstars.

"I felt like a debutant, like walking out in my first game," he said. "It was very good playing back for the West Indies. A lot of people have been speculating, 'When are you going to play for West Indies again, are you finished with West Indies?' No, I am not finished with the West Indies, to be honest with you. They understand where I am coming from, what I am doing. I am 37 as well now, things actually change. To play in front of my home crowd as well, that was something brilliant. I could actually see the joy, people actually turn out to come and watch the game. There is still a lot of life in Chris Gayle."

It has been nearly three years since Gayle last played a Test for West Indies. He hasn't turned up in an ODI since the 2015 World Cup. His primary profession these days is donning team uniforms in various T20 leagues around the world as a gun for hire.

His (and other players') relationship with the cricket bosses back home has been ruptured for a while but suddenly there is a ray of hope. There is talk of a truce in the air, and the star players from the islands, so in demand by T20 franchises around the world, might return soon to national duty as well. Gayle admits "things are working out" but isn't sure if he will be back as soon as the one-day series in England in a few weeks.

"Nothing to my knowledge is yet concrete and put on paper that this is the procedure from here on, he says. "I am still waiting to hear from them on what the procedure will be. What will be next for players who don't actually play in the [local] first-class cricket if they can represent the West Indies? So we just have to wait and see if these things work out. There have been some mends made there, so we just wait and see.

"It has been a year since I played for West Indies, so I haven't been in the system too much, just looking from the outside, to be honest with you. I wasn't really following it because I was busy doing other things, trying to get my life together, being a family man as well now. It is a young team as well. They are definitely trying their best to get life back in West Indies cricket that it actually deserves. That's what the people want as well."

Even if a truce is achieved, Gayle will know he can't simply walk back into the set-up, despite his formidable reputation. His form this year has been wretched, with only 378 runs in 19 T20 innings in the PSL, IPL, and the one-off appearance for West Indies. This has, in fact, been his worst year of any in which he has played more than ten innings. Are his famed powers on the wane?

"You are the Universe Boss and they don't get old," I joke, "but you are 37 years old now."

"Thirty-seven years young now," he merrily interrupts.

Can he make the 2019 World Cup?

"Yes, it's possible. You can't say anything about injuries, those things do happen in sports. When you look at 2019, it is pretty much around the corner, because I will be busy playing cricket and you don't realise how time actually flies. That's my target - to play the 2019 World Cup and have some part to play."

"What do you attribute the lack of form this year to?"

"Definitely a dip in form. Playing with the niggles as well. I had a back problem - those things actually changed my game. Didn't get the right time to actually prepare properly after making the necessary adjustments to be much fitter. That's what I am working at now, to get to full fitness. Once I am fully fit, everything will come back into play as well. You are a cricketer, it isn't all the time you are going to score runs, you know."

Gayle is aware that even participating in the 2019 World Cup isn't in fact a done deal for West Indies. With the September 30 cut-off deadline approaching to be among the eight teams to make the grade directly for the tournament, the team needs a minor miracle. Gayle says he is fully committed to contribute "whatever steps" are needed to ensure West Indies get there, including making himself available to play the qualifying tournament next year alongside teams such as Zimbabwe, Afghanistan, Ireland and Scotland to be among the two teams to join the eight direct qualifiers.

"We don't want to miss out on a World Cup event," he says. "It was sad what happened in the Champions Trophy, with no West Indies team there for the first time. That is disappointing. We don't want to miss out on a World Cup, that will be more devastating for us."

"What about Test cricket?" I ask. "Are you done with that?"

"I am in my whites, so I am ready for a Test match," he laughs. "Even if it is going to be one Test match, a farewell Test match, I definitely want to play. But if it is not possible, if the body doesn't allow me to, then I will announce my retirement from Test cricket. But yes, it is still in the mindset."

And what about the IPL. Does he expect to be retained by RCB for the next IPL season?

"That will be up to them. Option is always open for any particular team, but they have been fantastic. To be associated with such a franchise has been brilliant. We don't know what the rules will be, but hopefully, fingers crossed, you will see the Gayle storm in IPL again."

Pleased to have put out another punchline, it's time to get back to filming. After the whistle-stop weekend in Bengaluru, Gayle has a brief stopover in Dubai before heading back home to Jamaica, where his one-year-old daughter will be waiting. For a man accustomed to being on the road, her arrival has been life-changing. When the Universe Boss gets home, daddy duties await, and he doesn't mind those at all.

"I can't complain one bit, it keeps me busier," he guffaws. "Running around the house, shaking bottles, changing the Pampers... I am not good at changing the Pampers, I let the mom do most of that part. Just more joy and happiness within your life. When a child smiles at you, it is such a relief. You have a hard day and come home, she runs to you, you lift her up, it's a great, great feeling."

"Maybe she can be a future opener for the West Indies women's team?" I ask.

"Future prime minister, president, something," he responds, smiling ear to ear. "Whatever she desires when she grows up."

- Gaurav Kalra

Chris Gayle was in Bengaluru as brand ambassador for IONA Entertainment, a virtual-reality gaming arcade

Gaurav Kalra is a senior editor at ESPNcricinfo. @gauravkalra75