Chris Gayle not ready to go gently into that good night
Plenty of excellent batsmen are playing their last Cricket World Cup.
Hashim Amla. Shikhar Dhawan. MS Dhoni. JP Duminy. Mohammad Hafeez. Shoaib Malik. Shaun Marsh. Shakib Al Hasan. Ross Taylor.
None, however, will be as missed as Chris Gayle.
Some of those others have more trophies, some more runs, even more wickets, and some have more match-winning knocks, but none make a stadium shake like Gayle.
When Gayle appears in his 35th and last World Cup match on Thursday in Leeds, for West Indies against Afghanistan, cricket followers won't be watching to see him nudge the ball around to keep the fielders busy. They want to see the self-proclaimed great live up to his self-styled hype and hit sixes. Smear the bowlers to every boundary, and soaring over those, too. They want to see balls rainbowing into stands of dancing and singing fans.
Nobody hits sixes like Gayle. He can make it look he's chipping from just off the green. He doesn't even have to middle the ball with his planks of willow stamped with "The Boss" on them. They still fly far.
In one of his great one-day international innings, a 42-ball 80 in 2009 at Kensington Oval, one of his sixes went up the pavilion stairs and into the England changing room. Fetch that.
Back in Bridgetown again, against England again, in February, he launched the white ball out of the stadium five times, all of them last seen heading toward the docks. In the second match, also at Kensington Oval, another six cleared the roof from a mere paddle sweep of Moeen Ali. At Gros Islet, he sent a Chris Woakes delivery on to the pavilion roof. He splattered a record 39 sixes in that series, averaged 106, and ensured he was coming to England for a fifth World Cup.
To hit 39 at age 39 made him happy, and not surprised. Hitting sixes, he said at the time, "just comes naturally."
"If it's one thing about me, my mindset is that even when I'm 60 I still think I can do it. I feel that when I reach age 60, I can still go up against the best bowlers in the world and still score runs. That's how I feel. That mindset will never change; it's just the body that is the worrying part for me."
In the history of ODIs, only the retired Shahid Afridi has more sixes, 351 to Gayle's 326. Then again, Afridi played 101 more matches, and he didn't face the new ball and fresh bowlers like Gayle has. Nobody else active is even close to them. Rohit Sharma has 230 sixes, Eoin Morgan 211, Jos Buttler 125.
Gayle has a dozen sixes at this World Cup, his second best tally. He hit 16 alone in one match at the 2015 World Cup, in a then-record 215 score against Zimbabwe in Canberra.
He started here in style with consecutive sixes back over pacer Hasan Ali's head in a 34-ball 50 against Pakistan.
Gayle was unlucky against Australia, being limited to 21 runs. He creamed Pat Cummins for three consecutive boundaries, then was lbw to Mitchell Starc. But it should have been a free hit. Starc no-balled the delivery beforehand but it was missed.
Gayle sent a six back over Woakes and made Jofra Archer get out of the way in 36 against England.
Bangladesh gave him the second duck of his World Cup career, 16 years after it gave him the first.
Then there was the New Zealand game at Old Trafford. He flicked consecutive sixes off Matt Henry, was dropped three times, then lashed consecutive sixes off Mitchell Santner 20 rows up into the stands. The party ended, until Carlos Brathwaite came alive, when Gayle was out trying to hit another six but top-edged a slower ball.
He added a couple more sixes in 35 against Sri Lanka, but this World Cup hasn't been vintage for him. Gayle has looked all of his 39 1/2 years on the slow, sticky pitches of England. The grey flecks in his dreadlocks and beard have looked greyer while he has dealt with back and groin issues. His showmanship while fielding has appeared to try and hide his inability to expertly cover his patch of grass.
West Indies accepted his cautious starts long ago, rightly believing he can quickly make up for the string of dot balls with power shots. He often appears rooted to the crease, hardly moving his feet, and yet the ball still finds itself buried in excited crowds. Two half-centuries in seven innings show he hasn't quite clicked like the rest of the batting lineup.
To hear his coaches and teammates, it doesn't affect him. He accepts his time is nearly up but lives in the present, sure he can smother any bowler. He's proud of his achievements — this year passing 10,000 ODI runs, and 1,000 in World Cups — and wants to make the crowd happy. The likes of captain Jason Holder, Evin Lewis, and Nicholas Pooran have praised his willingness to pass on advice, and the depth of it. They say his relaxed demeanor calms nerves in the changing room.
Venus Williams, who also happens to be 39, once said the joy of winning is fleeting, but addictive. She added she wouldn't forgive herself if she quit playing tennis while she had more left in her.
Back in February, Gayle said the ODI series against England was his last at home, and this World Cup would be his ODI swansong. But last week he changed his mind. He wants to play the three ODIs when India tour in August, and maybe a test match for the first time in five years. The second and last test just happens to be in his Kingston hometown.
Gayle can barely walk. But he can definitely still hit.