Viv Richards, Chris Gayle and daylight

Both men have been markedly above the norm, though perhaps counter-intuitively, Gayle's performance in terms of average outshines that of Richards while the reverse is true for the strike-rate.

Updated: May 02, 2013 13:47 IST
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A Test batting average of 50.24. It's a good one to have, but it doesn't really cause awe. Among players with at least 1000 Test runs, Younis Khan and Vinod Kambli have higher averages. Each is a fine player in his own right. None has ever been spoken of in the same breath as the man with the 50.24 average - Sir Isaac Vivian Alexander Richards.

As someone who began watching the game actively just after Richards retired, I missed watching his best stuff live. Thankfully, reruns on television and the great boon that is YouTube ensured that the greatest swagger the game has seen came alive for me too.

He landed in India before Delhi Daredevils' match against Mumbai Indians on April 21, walked into the Feroz Shah Kotla, and radiated aura on a cricket field that had - among batsmen - the quality and calibre of Sachin Tendulkar, Ricky Ponting, Virender Sehwag and Mahela Jayawardene. This, more than two decades after he had already retired. It's not for nothing that Richards is called 'The King'.

If you're the kind of cricket nut bent on drawing random associations when it comes to players you admire - well, first welcome to the club. And second, you can't help but notice that ever since Sir Viv has arrived, the fortunes of several West Indian cricketers in the IPL, already pretty good to start with, have experienced even more of an upswing.

Dwayne Smith wasn't a regular in the Mumbai Indians XI, but has since won match awards in two wins and played a good role in a third. Ravi Rampaul has established himself in a Royal Challengers Bangalore side packed with seam-bowling options. Darren Sammy made a belated entry and an immediate impact. Sunil Narine and Dwayne Bravo continue to be among the more valuable players in franchises with differing fortunes.

Kieron Pollard has defied gravity, whether sending the ball into orbit or plucking catches that Michael Jordan would have found difficult.

The crowning glory, however, came from the only man who could provide it. Chris Gayle smashed records and hit sixes with all the nonchalance that The King used to display while chewing gum, striding to the crease and then letting bowlers contemplate alternative career options.

It's not because they're both West Indian and destroyers of bowling attacks, but Gayle is, in some ways, Richards's successor in limited-overs cricket. Nobody had quite mastered the One-Day International format the way Richards did during his playing career. And today, with Twenty20 the newest limited-overs kid on the block, there's no one who can come within touching distance of Gayle.

Richards played in an era when anything above four runs an over was considered rapid, and in those times, he ended up with a strike-rate of 90.20 or a run-rate of 5.4, several-fold quicker than anyone else around him.

He averaged 47 - which is still among the top ten in ODI history - and his ODI career spanned 16 years. To be able to score big and rapidly is no mean feat. To do it for a whole career is given to a special few.

In Richards's playing span, Dean Jones, the former Australian batsman, was the only one to average higher given a minimum of 80 innings. But while Jones scored his runs at 49.74, his strike-rate was 76.25 - exceptional according to standards then, snail's pace in comparison to Richards.

Amongst others who came within ten percent of Richards's average, no one had a strike-rate greater than 65.00. Conversely, those who scored at Richards's pace could never match his consistency. Kapil Dev scored at a run-a-ball, but his average of 26.32 was nearly half that of Richards. Salim Malik, third on the strike-rate list, scored slower than Richards (strike-rate: 85.69) and failed far more often (average: 33.39).

Quite simply, Richards was peerless when he batted in ODIs. Gayle has reached similar heights in Twenty20 cricket. With the overs reduced so drastically, the cost of a wicket has fallen in proportion. Every reasonable estimate of a batsman's Twenty20 stats would point to a lowering average and a rising strike-rate. But reasonable estimates cover the bounds of reason, and Gayle is most definitely an outlier.

His ability to accelerate so dramatically at will means he can take his time and get his eye in during a Twenty20 match - a luxury no other batsman has. No other batsman can go from 37 off 35 balls to 81 off 48 - which is exactly what Gayle did to Pune Warriors India in 2012 in a match that must seem like soothing balm after this year's 175-run onslaught.

Gayle's mastery over the shortest format is best seen during the IPL. Twenty20 Internationals are few and far in between, and without those, the biggest concentration of T20 talent is the IPL. It also has the advantage - from a numbers point of view - of being a long tournament so that momentary spikes in performance don't gain undue weightage. Comparing how far ahead of the curve Gayle has been in IPL matches with how much Richards outperformed everyone else in ODIs is an illuminating exercise. Here's a snapshot:

Both men have been markedly above the norm, though perhaps counter-intuitively, Gayle's performance in terms of average outshines that of Richards while the reverse is true for the strike-rate.

Gayle didn't play in the inaugural IPL, and had middling years in 2009 and 2010, but the scale and volume of his dominance since 2011 is such that he comes out comfortably on top against contemporaries. But even accounting for his lean and prolific years, the six-year period of the IPL is still a long way off from Richards's 16-year career with runs in a variety of conditions, with the inevitably extended troughs that happen to the best.

It's difficult to imagine that Gayle's dominance will stay at the level it is now for a decade more. But in this age of shortening everything, it's unfair to expect a peak as long and fitting that some heights remain exclusive. Gayle may be the emperor of cool, but there will always be only one King.

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