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Allegiances don’t always lie with your team as the thrills of watching Chris Gayle show

(Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images)

By Alison Mitchell

When Joe Root sprinted back from extra cover to take a brilliant running catch over his right shoulder to dismiss

Chris Gayle during the first One-Day International at Old Trafford, the crowd roared with approval at the Englishman’s immaculately judged effort.

Earlier there had been a cry of anticipation followed by a mass groan of anguish as Root spilled an edge off Gayle’s bat at second slip from just the  third ball of the match. In the moments after, however, it was entirely likely that England fans in the ground turned to their nearest neighbour and quietly admitted that they were glad Gayle was still there.

The Jamaican was on nought when he was dropped. Chris Woakes had angled the ball across the imposing left-hander, Gayle customarily didn’t move his feet as he drove outside the off-stump, and when the ball flew through the air to the slips, Root made an utter meal of a catch that arrived at shoulder height. Gayle, box-office star that he is, had a lifeline.

Had Root taken the catch there would have been a huge cheer, yet there would also have been an enormous sense of anti-climax from a crowd, who, despite supporting England, were quietly hoping to see a few Gayle fireworks first.

Cricket is a game where, perhaps more than in most sports, supporters will actively come to watch a member of the opposition, and want that player to do well – at least for a short time in the contest, although perhaps not for long enough for that opposition player to win the game.

In other sports, the same could be said for a British Andy Murray supporter openly admiring the Federer backhand (who doesn’t?) and hoping to see some Fed-magic along the way; a British athletics supporter at the recent World Championships (this may or may not have been me) getting ready to cheer the British quartet in the relay, but training a camera lens firmly on Usain Bolt; in football, the most tribal of the team sports, it has been Pele, and in the present day, Messi, who have weaved magic to win support all over the globe.

Gayle’s appeal is not in any magical excellence of stoke play. He is not a ‘class’ batsman in the manner of a Root or a Virat Kohli. He has an X-factor born out of sheer power in the way he strikes the ball, and in an attitude that oozes belief that he is indeed the ‘Universe Boss’ as he describes himself on social media. Like the wonderfully unpredictable Shahid Afridi, he can be boom or bust, and it is intoxicating.

Boom or bust: Shahid Afridi can light up a game with bat or ball (photo: Getty Images)

By the time Gayle was dismissed at Old Trafford he had hit three sixes on the way to a 27-ball 37 and struck two fours for good measure. It was enough wow-factor to have the crowd purring in awe (they probably wouldn’t have minded seeing a little more) but not enough that he had inflicted irrecoverable damage to the England cause.

The fact that Root’s catch was an outstanding one, also helped to soften the blow of seeing the back of a batsman who is such an enigma in the game.

The fact that Gayle hadn’t played an ODI for the West Indies since 2015 and the West Indies had only ever played five ODIs on the ground (the last in 1999) only added to the sense of occasion for the Manchester crowd who were able to see Gayle bat in front of their own eyes.

Would the England-supporting crowd have felt a little deflated if they had travelled to Old Trafford and NOT seen Gayle wallop a few sixes into the stands off the England bowlers? Of course they would. Certain players demand a particular – and at times, peculiar – regard or fascination which transcends their nationality or team shirt. Gayle is one of them.

What of other opposition cricketers of whom England supporters have frequently said “I want to see so-and-so bat’? In the modern era, Brian Lara, Sachin Tendulkar and AB de Villiers have probably been the biggest draws. Going further back, many a fan will have a vivid memory of the time they watched Viv Richards bat live. Further back it would have been Gary Sobers, but it can be a very personal choice.

For me, my earliest memory of watching professional cricket was of seeing Ian Botham deposit 13 sixes out of Wellingborough School’s ground The Grove, and out onto London Road behind. I was a child and part of a Northamptonshire-supporting contingent. Beefy, of course, played for Somerset, but all I remember is being incredibly excited, and people around me clapping in admiration.

As I got older my favourite cricketer soon became Northants’ Antiguan fast bowler Curtly Ambrose, and I loved watching him race in for the West Indies against England, as much as I did for the County.

When it comes to having a favourite batter, there is something extremely satisfying about going to a ground and successfully seeing that player carve, drive or smash his or her way to a score in front of your eyes – in whatever manner they are accustomed to play.

With a batter, a cricket fan knows how perilously close he or she comes to not laying their eyes on said batter at all. What if they get out first ball, or out for nought as Gayle so nearly was on Tuesday? What if those players higher up the order perform so dominantly that your favourite is never required? There are no guarantees. It makes the experience so much sweeter when it happens.

Bowlers offer much more of a sure bet. Barring unforeseen injury, or a ridiculously low run chase in a limited-overs game, you can usually be guaranteed to see your favourite bowler in action. What’s more, you will likely see them again and again over the course of several overs. In the case of a Test match, several hours.

Shane Warne has to have been the biggest crowd-puller of his generation with the ball. He still has that allure today. Despite having watched him in his pomp when he was bamboozling batsmen for Australia, I found myself a few years ago having the opportunity to attend a Big Bash match at the MCG involving his team, Melbourne Stars. The chance to watch Warne bowl in a match again, in front of my eyes, was irresistible. It wasn’t high octane Test cricket, where Warne had always been at his patriotic, combative best, but it didn’t matter. It was Warne.

So I doubt I would be alone, with an England supporters hat on, hoping to see Chris Gayle stand in the crease, feet planted like lead weights, crashing the ball over the ropes a few more times in this one-day series. As long as England still win…

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