It must be exhausting being the Universe Boss. When we meet, Chris Gayle is lying down on a sofa in a lounge in a London hotel room; throughout our interview, his sunglasses remain squarely on.
Gayle long ago made the transition from mere sportsman to performative celebrity, a man who – for good or bad – often seems to act as he does because it is how he is expected to.
If you believe his Instagram feed, the main challenge in his life is telling where one party ends and the next begins. No one has been more associated with the life of the Twenty20 freelance cricketer; no one, certainly, has done more to glamorize it.
Yet, for all the bravado and third-person references to the Universe Boss, perception and reality are very different. The T20 circuit is a world in which even being a name as big as Gayle brings no guarantees – which explains why he is in London, promoting a new app called All Rounder, offering coaching tips to children, rather than playing in this year’s Indian Premier League.
“These days the game’s changed so much,” he says while remaining lying down. “It’s more of a business. Nobody’s loyal to you.
“You just have to know what you’re involved in so when that time comes you’re not necessarily going to get hit hard and say I had my trust in you, I was loyal to you. It’s just the way it is right now.”
Even before Covid-19 curtailed players’ freedoms, Gayle long ago grew tired of the drudgery of living in hotel rooms. “It can be a mini-prison. Even when you go back home you’re still living out of your suitcase because you’ve been doing that for 20-odd years. That’s the struggle.”
From Jimmy Anderson to Tom Brady, Cristiano Ronaldo to the Williams sisters, sport is in an age when the very best athletes are enjoying longer careers than the superstars of a generation ago. Gayle is not often put in this company, but really he should be: he made his international debut last century and turns 43 in September. Rather than a bespoke diet, Gayle credits his mental strength, and capacity to respond to failure, with his longevity.
‘If you’re not mentally strong you’ll walk away’
“If you watch my career it’s a lot of failures more than success over the 20 years. As a cricketer you have to understand you’ll fail more than you succeed.
“It’s tough man. That’s why I’m saying if you’re not mentally strong you’ll walk away from the game. Especially if you’re not performing well it’s even tougher. But you have to embrace it – accept it and tell yourself you will bounce back and come back stronger. You’ve got to know how to pull through these moments.”
The other reason why Gayle has been around so long, of course, is that he is so good. The best measure of his quality of him is a record that he uniquely owns-the 3-2-1: a Test match triple century (actually, two), a one-day international double century, and a T20 international century (two, again).
Asked which of these numbers he treasures most, he replies: “The triple century obviously – it’s hard work to bat for a day and a half. It’s not easy.”
In T20, Gayle has often worn the shirt number 333, his highest Test score. He recounts how that innings in Sri Lanka in 2010 was particularly satisfying because, on his previous tour there, he had been dismissed five times out of six by left-armer Chaminda Vaas: such powers of recall give a hint of Gayle’s deep fount of cricketing wisdom.
Gayle the Test cricketer is often overlooked. Yet he played 103 Tests, scoring 7,214 runs at an average of 42.18 – more runs, at a higher average, than his near-contemporary Andrew Strauss. “Most people know where I stand when it comes to all formats,” Gayle says. “They say I’m the king of Twenty20s so if you’re the king be the king of something.”