This unbeaten and match-winning century that snapped Sunrisers Hyderabad's winning streak in IPL 2018 was Gayle's 21st century in T20 cricket. © BCCI

This unbeaten and match-winning century that snapped Sunrisers Hyderabad’s winning streak in IPL 2018 was Gayle’s 21st century in T20 cricket. © BCCI

Earlier this week, appearing on Jimmy Kimmel Live, Zlatan Ibrahimovic said, matter of factly, “A World Cup without me would not be a World Cup.”

Sweden’s former Manchester United striker, now plying his wares for Los Angeles Galaxy in Major League Soccer, has imposed himself on the United States with his larger-than-life persona. With his still sharp goal-scoring skills. And with his quips that are rapidly becoming the rage. Such as, after his two-goal debut in the MLS, “I know there are some earthquakes in Los Angeles. This one was me stepping in Los Angeles.”

Hey Zlatan, who do you think you are? Huh?

Not many are going to ask that. From most other people, such one-liners would have appeared vain, condescending, driven by ego and narcissism even. But Zlatan Ibrahimovic is not most other people.

And nor is Chris Gayle – World Boss, Universe Boss, Big Boss, whatever. He is simply Chris Gayle. When he laughs and thunders, “Viru saved the IPL by picking me,” you know that he is jesting. A little bit. But only a little bit, because the competitor in him is still alive and kicking, the fire of the pride of performance still burning bright.

Gayle is 38, his international appearances sporadic, the finish line to an extraordinary career looming larger with each passing day. For all his incandescence on the cricket field, he doesn’t excite the decision-makers like he used to, in his pomp and beyond. The Caribbean selectors have been wary of picking him – though he did play in the World Cup qualifier in Zimbabwe last month. Worse, there was the real possibility that Gayle would have to sit out the Indian Premier League, as he found no takers till deep into the January auction.

Then, Kings XI Punjab stepped up. Snapped him up at his base price. And promptly benched him for the first two games. Including at the M Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bangalore, which he knows as well as he knows the back of his hand, and against the Royal Challengers, who let him go after 91 matches and upwards of 3420 runs.

Was he merely the ceremonial king? Picked solely for shock value and the potential for potential mayhem he brought with him? Would he be a prop, bringing in the fans but not showing off his wares because he wasn’t getting the platform? Was he more of a business rather than a cricketing investment? Was the Universe Boss lost to the cricketing universe, for ever?

When Punjab travelled to the Chinnaswamy, the question on everyone’s lips was, ‘Will Gayle play?’ The short answer was a disappointing ‘No’. At the conclusion of the match, Mithun Manhas, the Punjab batting coach, turned up for the press conference. The last, almost plaintive, question was, “When will Gayle get a chance?” Manhas paused, took his time and replied, “Probably pretty soon.”

As he stepped off the podium and made his way towards the exit, he stopped, turned towards the questioner and smiled, “I liked your question.” Perhaps Manhas wanted the answer, too. Perhaps, he wanted Gayle to play as badly as the Jamaican’s vast legion of admirers.

And, finally, R Ashwin obliged. He unleashed the Gayle force on Chennai Super Kings, the franchise which had made an unconvincing, token show of trying to buy back the offspinner’s services but quickly bowed out of the bidding fray. The only bowling captain of this year’s competition, with the well-founded reputation of being an excellent (over?) thinker of the game, must have been delighted that Gayle tore into his former team, lashing 63 off 33 in what turned out to the game-sealer.

Four sixes off Rashid Khan, the premier T20 bowler in cricket today - Chris Gayle showed glimpses of why he was still one of the best T20 players around today. © BCCI

Four sixes off Rashid Khan, the premier T20 bowler in cricket today – Chris Gayle showed glimpses of why he was still one of the best T20 players around today. © BCCI

Increasingly, Gayle has found it hard to back one knock up immediately with another. Maybe it is a slight dimming of passion, maybe it is to do with struggling to summon up the adrenaline back in a short turnover time. Maybe there is a sub-conscious slackening of ambition and hunger, or maybe it is none of the above.

NOTA seemed the popular option on Thursday (April 19) night as Gayle tore into arguably the best bowling attack of the competition. Hitherto, in three outings, no team had even threatened 160 against Sunrisers Hyderabad; Gayle made sure they got that many with four overs to spare as he targeted the Hyderabad resource most likely to inflict maximum damage. Rashid Khan, the teenaged Afghan legspinner, was at the receiving end of a ferocious onslaught. Gayle hammered him for four consecutive sixes in the 14th over, and smashed 42 of the 55 runs the leggie conceded in his four overs. In Rashid’s helplessness, subtly transferred to Kane Williamson, lay the tale of the tape. The biggest threat in the opposition ranks hadn’t just been neutralised but exploded beyond salvage. Gayle was the Lord, the Hyderabad bowling at his feet, at his command, at his beck and call.

And so, less than a year after telling Wisden India that even 12,000 T20 runs weren’t beyond him, Gayle was walking the talk. The last season of the IPL had been totally forgettable for the man the crowds love to love. For the six-hitter supreme. For the launcher of missiles that left spectators in the straight field scurrying for cover. For the peoples’ champion, the universal hero who wows and charms wherever he goes (except Australia, one suspects, but then again, who currently cares what the Aussies think, right?), the sole high point was being the first to 10,000 T20 runs. Nine underwhelming outings realised a feeble 200 runs, a highest of 77 (his only half-century), a strike-rate of 122.69, and only 1.56 sixes an innings on the average. These were not Chris Gayle numbers. Who was this impostor? Why does he only look and talk and walk and smile like Chris Gayle, but perform like a non-Gayle?

Between that IPL and now, Gayle has had but isolated success. A beefy century in the final of the Bangladesh Premier League, a hundred for Windies early in the World Cup qualifier. But little consistency, no stringing together of scores, nothing to suggest that the phenom is not a spent force.

And yet here we are, with successive IPL half-centuries from the big fella for the first time since 2012. Thursday’s was his sixth IPL hundred, and his 21st in all T20 cricket. Brendon McCullum, at No. 2 in the list of T20 centurions, has exactly a third the number of tons – seven – as Gayle. Did someone say ‘daylight’?

This edition is still in its infancy, with more than two-thirds of the matches still to be played. Gayle can play at least ten more games if Ashwin and Virender Sehwag so please, and a few more than that if Punjab make the playoffs. He is still striking them like Gayle, and he is running between the wickets like Gayle on Red Bull. He’s got the bit between his teeth alright. We could be in for one heck of a ride.