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Chris Gayle: ‘No one will ever tell me how to live my life’

James Wallace by James Wallace
@Jimbo_Cricket 5 minute read

The T20 all-time great and former West Indies captain sits down with James Wallace for a surreal and wide-ranging conversation. First published in the June 2022 issue of Wisden Cricket Monthly.

You got any cash on you?”

This is Chris Gayle, the self-anointed Universe Boss with a reported net worth of $35m. The hitter of more sixes than any cricketer in history, double World Cup winner, veteran of 103 Test matches, one of only four men to notch two Test triple centuries, and he’s… trying to wheedle some readies out of me?

“Err… I’ve got a tenner,” I reply.
“Give me a tenner then, I’ll take it.”
“What do you want my money for?”
“To get a drink.”
“Nah, I don’t think so.”

Gayle gets up and leaves the room without another word. This is the last exchange of a surreal 45 minutes. I make my exit from the London hotel, unlock my bike and cycle home.

***

A week earlier I’d received an email from a PR company inviting me to speak to Chris Gayle about a new app, Cricket AllRounder. Its purpose is to “boost participation and accessibility” for young people who might otherwise be prohibited from taking up the sport, and Gayle has signed up to provide coaching tips and set challenges. It’s laudable stuff and a decent jumping-off point for a chat about his life and career.

Gayle has been a headline act both on and off the field for the past two decades but at the age of 42, and with his powers on the wane, his days of smashing sixes in front of huge crowds are dwindling. Nowadays, the ‘Bradman of T20’ comes off only sporadically with the bat and needs to be hidden in the field. That’s partly why he finds himself here in London, enjoying the nightlife and promoting an app rather than tearing it up at the IPL.

“We’ve had four days of it, we’ve not really slept,” says a giddy handler as he greets me in the lobby. “We’ve just done loads of radio and he’s a bit all over the show. Still, he’s the Universe Boss, isn’t he. He does what he wants.”

I’m shown into a dimly lit side-room which at first appears to be a holding pen but upon closer inspection I see a hooded figure stretched out on the leather banquette. Gayle is lying on his back, completely still. Inexplicably, Monty Panesar is perched over him, like a parent checking on their new-born. I’m shown to a seat opposite. Neither Gayle nor Monty looks up. I get out my pad and place a dictaphone on a small coffee table. Gayle senses that duty calls and creaks into a sitting position. It’s not clear if Monty is here for media work or moral support. Figuring the app is a gentle place to start, I ask Gayle how involved he has been in its creation. “Trust me, I’ve done some work,” he says softly. “We’re trying our best to get this into all parts of the world. To redevelop the game.”

I follow up with a question about how English cricket has a problem with accessibility… “Not everyone is rich like you,” Gayle interrupts. “We grew up poor.”

I’ve read Gayle’s 2016 book Six Machine and in it he talks evocatively about his childhood in Rollington Town, Jamaica. He begins to loosen up as he talks about his first steps in the game, fondly recalling doing the scorebook as a child at Lucas Cricket Club.

“That’s how I learnt the game. I grew up next to a cricket club, my home was one step away from the field. I grew up without light, without water, I used Lucas for pretty much everything. I used the shower before school, sometimes people would buy you a meal.”

Gayle has started a cricket academy in his hometown and is genuinely enthused by the app he’s promoting. Despite his party-boy image, it’s clear how much he cares about the game. Perhaps even more so now that he is reaching the twilight of his career. “You’ve got to give back. I’ll never walk away without giving back. Cricket has given me everything and I’m very grateful for that.”

It’s a soulful answer, and not the only one in the course of the interview. But conversation is hard work. On a couple of occasions he bursts enthusiastically into song. At other moments he is sullen and almost inaudible. He’s also full of contradictions. At one point he says: “I just talk a lot of crap and everybody starts to laugh. I talk, talk, talk.”

I mention that in his book he says he likes to be reserved and quiet. “I’m very quiet, very quiet,” he replies. “I’m not a talkative person. I can be very moody, I love to sleep. I’m pretty chill.”

A question about whether he watched any of the recent Test series in the Caribbean, where West Indies defeated England, is met with incredulity. “I don’t watch Test cricket, who told you that!? I went to the first day of the Barbados Test, I stayed a couple of hours, and after that – BEACH!”

Gayle has reversed his retirement from international cricket a few times in recent years, and I wonder if this is because so much of his identity is wrapped up in the game. “Who is the real Chris Gayle?” I ask. “Do we ever get a glimpse of the man rather than the moniker?”

“The real Chris Gayle is what you see, man. I don’t know what will happen [when he retires], we’ll have to wait and see. Give me two more years…” He then covers his mouth, as if he’s given me the scoop to end all scoops.

Gayle has the number 333 emblazoned on everything from his social media handles to his clothes. His bar in Kingston is called Triple Century Sports Bar and his music label is Triple Century Records. For a player now so synonymous with the T20 game, it’s interesting that his Test exploits remain such a key part of his brand. “It’s because it is the white clothing and the red ball,” he says. “That’s hard work. That number will always stand out for me.”

In 2005 Gayle had a heart operation to correct an irregular heartbeat and he describes it as a defining moment in his life. “The surgery was a life-changing thing. I’d never been under the knife before. In my mind I cheated death. I didn’t even tell my parents I was having the surgery. I didn’t want them to worry. I made a vow to myself: no one will ever tell me how to live my life. From that day on I said I’m going to live my life how I want, when I want. That’s why I still play and still live my life.”

We get on to talking about race and the scandals that have rocked English cricket over the last year. Again, Gayle is thoughtful and articulate. “It’s a big talking point, it’s not something that anyone wants to condone. It’s something we want to keep out of the game but also in life overall. Everybody should be able to live their life the way they want to. We should accept people for how they are, because we don’t know what someone is facing.”

***

On January 4, 2016, during a Big Bash game between Melbourne Renegades and Hobart Hurricanes, Gayle made inappropriate comments in an infamous pitch-side interview with Channel Ten’s Mel McLaughlin, in which he asked the visibly uncomfortable reporter out for a drink before delivering the toe-curling line: “Don’t blush baby.”

Gayle was fined ten thousand dollars by the Renegades and issued a statement of apology. A few months later, Gayle gave a controversial interview to Charlotte Edwardes in The Times Magazine in which – alongside making lewd comments to Edwardes – he claimed that the incident with McLaughlin was seized upon because of an undercurrent of racism. “They want to sink you,” he said. “You have to deal with that as a successful black man.”

I want to know if Gayle stands by what he said six years ago or if, with the #MeToo movement having happened in the intervening years, he has reflected on his behaviour and come to a different conclusion.

WCM: After your comments to Mel McLaughlin you said that it all blew up because of the colour of your skin – that if you were a white sportsman then it wouldn’t have become the thing that it did. Do you stand by those comments? [Gayle’s handler intervenes: “You don’t have to go into detail with that Chris, if you don’t want to.”]
CG: I wasn’t going to get into any detail, I don’t even know the lady he is talking about. Who is she?
WCM: She’s the woman you made the inappropriate comments to, during the Big Bash game in 2016.
CG: I was born in 2017 so it wasn’t me.
WCM: OK, I just wondered if you had reflected in the years that have passed.
CG: Nah, you don’t want negative energy around you. Life is about positivity, you don’t want to go back to negative things to stir it all back round again.
WCM: I’m not trying to do that, but on the topic of cricket becoming more inclusive and open to everyone – obviously, women play cricket, women follow cricket and women enjoy watching you play cricket, so I just wondered if you had reflected on that…
CG: I love all the women. I love every woman. [To his handlers and Monty] I don’t know what he’s talking about.
WCM: OK, so you haven’t reflected on the matter with the whole #MeToo thing that’s happened in the time since?
CG: Nah, there’s nothing to reflect on.

Gayle is clearly done with the interview. It’s around now that he asks if I have any cash. I’m not sure if he’s intimating that I’ve had my pound of flesh and now I owe him, or whether he’s just trying to mess with my head. Like much of our conversation, it’s hard to make sense of.

Despite what he might say, Gayle will know that his time as a cricketer is almost up, and that must be a scary prospect for any sportsperson, especially one whose identity revolves around being a globe-trotting cricketing colossus. His record across all formats, and particularly T20, is astonishing. He’s been a trailblazer on the field and seems to want to have a positive impact off it too. And yet he appears be in danger of letting the caricature swallow up the man.

‘He’s the Universe Boss. He does (and says) what he likes.’ Even when it doesn’t do him any favours.

First published in issue 56 of Wisden Cricket Monthly

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