Centuries were once rare currency. In WG Grace‘s first transcendent season, the summer of 1871, when he turned 23 years old, 17 first-class hundreds were scored. The champion accounted for ten of them. By the time Grace made 104 for Gloucester against Sussex at Hove in 1876, to become the first man to compile 50 first-class hundreds, he had more centuries than the next 13 men on the list combined. He got to 100 hundreds in 1895 and the game waited another 18 years for someone else, Surrey’s Tom Hayward, to reach the same mark.
In 2003, albeit accidentally, cricket reset itself. Batting changed because T20 cricket and the money it generated made it change – and in turn, symbiotically, the shock and awe generated by the new batting generated more money.
In T20 cricket, like cricket in the Victorian age, centuries are rare currency, and like Grace, one man stands apart. Chris Gayle has scored 18 T20 hundreds. The next best is seven, by Brendon McCullum. Only two men, Luke Wright and Michael Klinger, have six, David Warner is next with five. Virat Kohli and AB de Villiers have four and three respectively. It’s perfectly possible, perhaps even likely, that Kohli will never get to 18, despite his mastery and his comparative youth.
It’s not just the centuries. Soon, perhaps during his PSL matches, Gayle will score the 223 runs he needs to become the first man to 10,000 runs in T20 cricket. The next closest, Brad Hodge and McCullum, are almost 2500 runs – or 25% – behind him. He has the format’s highest individual score, 175 not out, and the joint fastest fifty, in 12 deliveries. He has hit the most sixes, 717, and most fours, 749, of any player (Kieron Pollard and Hodge are next with 437 and 707 respectively). His innings of 175 contained 154 runs in boundaries, which is more than any other ever played. His 78 half-centuries are also a record (Warner is next, with 59).
The only major batting mark he does not hold is of career average, where his 41.60 is fifth on the list. However, none of the four men above him – New Zealand’s Chris Harris (70.66), South African Pieter Malan (44.08), Pakistan’s Babar Azam (43.68) and the late Phil Hughes (42.69) – have played more than 34 innings for their figures. Gayle has batted 272 times for his.
Perhaps most telling of all, Gayle, statistically, has hit every ninth delivery he has faced in T20 cricket for six (actually just under – his ratio is one per every 8.68 deliveries), a number that has remained broadly steady across his career. Just as Grace made the hundred a new currency of batsmanship, so Gayle has employed the six in the same way. It’s the emblematic moment of T20 cricket, the maximum outcome from any single delivery, and Gayle has employed it the most, and the most frequently. He has reframed it, and he has constructed his image around it, the gym-honed torso rippling under the multi-coloured muscle shirt, the giant bat, sometimes gold, in his paw, legs splayed to anchor this superstructure like with a golfer, providing the resistance against which he swings.
There’s no stat that measures how far each Gayle six goes, but he has seized on the demoralising effect of being able to clear not just boundaries but fences and stadiums. It’s easy to see this as a bullying demonstration of force, yet for all his failings off the field, Gayle has a sharp cricketing intelligence. He has Test match triple-centuries and an ODI double, and you don’t get those by muscling sixes when the fields are restricted. It was Gayle who conceptualised this new way of batting, and worked out a way to execute it. To do so, you first have to imagine what’s possible.
Gayle’s flashy Instagram life has militated against him being taken seriously as any kind of thinker. And for all that he guarantees bums on seats and increased viewing figures, along with the pyrotechnic hitting, the Big Bash knew that its image was more important that any one player, however great, however wanted. It did not miss him this year; respect is worth more.
It took time for Grace’s numbers to be superseded, yet batting moved on, as it must. Fry, Ranji, Trumper, Hobbs and then Bradman and others were playing a noticeably different game, in new styles and with new techniques. They stood on Grace’s shoulders, though, and his philosophy that batting was about attacking the bowler remained his lasting legacy.
Batting will move on from Gayle too. Kohli, who may soon be the pre-eminent batsman of the age, and who has wiped one of Gayle’s significant records from the books with his 973 runs in the last IPL, has a deeper dimension to his batting, and a style that feels more universal and repeatable.
Just as Grace was more physically imposing than most of his opponents, so has Gayle been. Not all of his legacy will be savoury, but in an alt-fact, fake-news world, there is a truth in the idea that he has, like the good doctor, shown us what was possible.