Tony Cozier pays tribute to Jamaica's hot property on the day of his landmark Test
Barbados: The anxiety around Jamaica in palpable. It is not triggered so much by whether or not Chris Gayle will, in that unflustered manner of his, saunter onto Sabina Park in his native Kingston on Sunday for the first Test against New Zealand that marks the momentous occasion of his 100th .
Chris Gayle celebrates his 300 on Day Two of the first Test vs SL at Galle on November 16, 2010. Pic/AFP
He put the worriers' minds at rest on that score on Thursday by proclaiming, "I am fit, available and will be playing on Sunday, and I am looking forward to it".
He went further, dismissing talk that he was contemplating retirement from Test cricket after the series. It was a telling contradiction of his much quoted comment, prior to the 2009 tour of England, that he wouldn't care if Test cricket died; seduced by the appeal and his success in the Twenty20 game, it was no more than a throwaway line.
The present lingering concern surrounds, not his attitude to Tests, but a complex back injury that, as he describes it, painfully affects a nerve in his leg. It flared during what, for him, was a substandard Indian Premier League (IPL) season, keeping him off the field for the past month.
Could that prove a hindrance to the intimidating power of a 34-year-old, six feet-two man mountain who has pushed his body to the limit with non-stop cricket of every type in all the game's varied outposts? It would be just a week after the left-hander's return from Germany where he underwent specialist treatment for the complaint.
As it was, his renowned physician administered a few palliative injections and sent Gayle back to the West Indies' preparatory camp in Barbados in time to meet the board's cut-off date of June 1. He advised him to take a few days rest before returning to training and gave him the all-clear for the Test and beyond.
Now Jamaica, West Indies and world cricket awaits the outcome. His previous response to adversity, psychological if not physical, encourages optimism.
Triple ton against SL
The first time he batted after losing the captaincy to Darren Sammy in 2010, Gayle steeled himself for his 333 against Sri Lanka at Galle, his second triple-hundred placing him alongside Don Bradman, Brian Lara and Virender Sehwag, the only others to have scaled such heights.
For all the recent global recognition Jamaica has attracted through the brilliance of Usain Bolt and its remarkable host of track and field stars amidst the declining interest in cricket, Gayle remains an equally special favourite of his island home's three million people.
"He is a national icon, who has represented the country and the region well, and we want him and the world to know that we appreciate his efforts," Jamaica Cricket Association (JCA) president Billy Heaven said in announcing plans to mark the centenary.
"The aim is to have presentations and activities before, during and after the match that will signify to the world how proud we are to have a Chris Gayle," he said.
This pride is not confined to Gayle's cricket. His defiance of what he regards as unfair, autocratic authority has twice brought him into conflict with the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB); it is an established Jamaican characteristic.
No more than a few weeks into his captaincy on the 2007 tour of England, Gayle castigated the WICB for its failure to deliver the new selectees for warm-up matches prior to the three ODIs against England.
Ken Gordon, then president, had opposed Gayle's appointment, preferring Daren Ganga instead; now he demanded an apology which was resolutely refused. "Will I stand up to the board?" Gayle asked rhetorically "Yes, that's me. I always stand up for what I believe in and when I'm wrong, I'm wrong but when I'm right, I'm right."
Gayle's more recent contretemps followed his retort to coach Ottis Gibson's censure of "senior players… for lacking hunger and desire" after the quarter-final exit from the 2011 World Cup and chief executive Ernest Hilaire's scarcely veiled comment that "no one man is bigger than the team".
Gayle hit back, calling Gibson "a user" and charging him with undermining the players' comment by his methods Again, Gayle was told that, unless he withdrew his comments, he would not be selected; again he refused. It took political mediation to close the confrontation.
Cricket has brought him fame and not a little wealth (Forbes magazine recently placed his worth at US$35 million). He earned further respect from his countrymen for his Chris Gayle Academy that he himself launched in Kingston during the week, at Lucas, the club he shares with one of the greatest West Indies batsmen, George Headley.
His triple hundreds each took him more than ten and a half hours to accumulate. There go with five other Test scores of 150 or over; of West Indians, only Brian Lara and Garry Sobers have as many.
A captain's knock
Against Australia at Adelaide in 2009, when captain, he carried his bat through the second innings for 165 off 285 balls as West Indies pressed for victory they couldn't quite pull off; in the next Test, a few days later in Perth, he paraded his versatility with 102 off 72 balls, with six sixes.
My favourite remains his 197 when West Indies threatened to collapse against New Zealand at Napier in 2009. He spent 396 balls repairing the innings, adding 124 with the reliable Brendan Nash; yet it didn't prevent him hoisting seven huge sixes whenever the relevant ball came along.
Prior to the injuries that have plagued him over the past year or so, he had reasonable claim to being the most complete all-round batsman in the modern game that now encompasses three different formats. The coming six weeks are certain to answer the question as to how much longer can he continue.
As of now, 100 Tests is an outstanding milestone previously reached by only eight other West Indians.
Chris Gayle's average in 99 Tests. The hard-hitter has scored 6933 runs