As far as the 2018 Indian Premier League (IPL) is concerned, Chris Gayle hasn’t just announced his presence. He’s screamed it from the rooftops, and made himself as visible as the neon signs on Times Square. His three outings for Kings XI Punjab have seen scores of 63, 104 not out and 62 not out. Those 229 runs have included an incredible 21 sixes, six of them off Rashid Khan, who has befuddled batsmen across leagues for more than a year now.
His fitness issues may mean that Gayle continues to be used as an impact player, but every run he makes will mean further scrutiny of Royal Challengers Bangalore’s decision not to retain him, or put in a bid for him at the auction. Such hindsight is hardly fair though. There had been nothing in the runes to suggest that such a turnaround was likely.
You have to go back to 2015 for Gayle’s last great IPL season. Then, in addition to scores of 96 (56 balls), 62 not out (40) and 117 (57), he also delivered a stunning 10-ball 35 as Bangalore eased past a tough Duckworth-Lewis target. The following year, he began the campaign with scores of 1, 0, 7, 5 and 6. Had it been any other player, that would have been that.
But such was the regard that Virat Kohli and the team management had for him that they gave him more chances. Scores of 49 (31) and 73 (32) were followed by a devastating 38-ball 76 in the final. It was his exit that tilted the scales in Hyderabad’s favour.
But for a 38-ball 77 in Rajkot, there was almost nothing to savour in 2017, when his 200 runs came at a pedestrian strike-rate of 122.69. And it wasn’t only in the IPL that he struggled. In 14 innings across the first two seasons of the Pakistan Super League (PSL), he made just 263 runs at a strike-rate of 127.05.
The Big Bash League had drawn a line under his participation after 2016, for non-cricketing reasons, and despite the runs he plundered in the Caribbean and in Bangladesh, his struggles in India and the Middle East – which hosted the PSL – suggested that his days as a big-tournament player were behind him.
That Gayle has now found a sixth or seven wind is testament to his ability to reinvent himself in a format that he has mastered like no one else. That shouldn’t, however, be used as a stick to beat his former team with, not when all the numbers were stacked against the idea of retaining him.
Where Bangalore really blundered was in not keeping faith in KL Rahul. He may have missed the 2017 season because of the shoulder injury he picked up in the Test series against Australia, but his displays in 2016 had been integral to RCB’s charge to the final. He didn’t just make 397 runs at an excellent strike-rate (146.49), he was remarkably consistent, making 38 or more in seven of his 12 innings.
Only the Bangalore team management could tell you in which parallel universe Sarfaraz Khan is a better batting option than Rahul. Sarfaraz has started the season with scores of 6, 0 and 5. Rahul’s lowest scores in six knocks for Punjab is 18.
The performances of Rahul and Karun Nair with Punjab and Krishnappa Gowtham and Shreyas Gopal with Rajasthan have caused considerable heartburn in Bangalore, where the squad has no local presence to speak of. Of course, for practical purposes, it could be argued that Kohli, in his 11th season with RCB, and AB de Villiers, into his eighth, are as local as the IPL gets, in the same way that Gautam Gambhir was once one of Kolkata’s favourite sons.
But when you see names like Sarfaraz, Pawan Negi and Murugan Ashwin in the squad, it does make you wonder why players with a far greater knowledge of the Bangalore conditions weren’t considered a priority at the auction. Bangalore continue to place a premium on overseas talent, while the teams that have won the competition invest far more wisely in the best Indian talent, both of the established and upcoming variety.
Gayle’s renaissance may cause a few rueful smiles in the Bangalore camp, but it’s the failure to retain Rahul that could have greater long-term ramifications. No matter where they end up this season, that recruitment strategy certainly needs a second look. And then some.