There was a feeling, and on Zimbabwe’s part it was more of a fear, that Gayle would not let that go without having a say of his own. But in the first over, there was the possibility he would have to wait. Two balls after Tinashe Panyangara stunned the sprinkling of spectators, more with hiscelebratory dance than his removal of Dwayne Smith, his not-out lbw appeal against Gayle was reviewed.
In the stands, it was first declared a desperate call and, given how anxious Zimbabwe were to get rid of Gayle, that seemed likely. But when the big screen showed the sound came from the pads, not bat on ball, and that the ball had pitched in line, “oohs” and “aahs” were everywhere. The eventual tracker, which showed the ball clipping the stumps and therefore umpire’s call, was met with disbelief, not just from the Zimbabwe fielders.
The message that Zimbabwe were not going to make things easy for their higher-profile opposition had been sent and it was reinforced by their early efforts in the field. Gayle flirted with them when he chipped Tendai Chatara over mid-on and took on Elton Chigumbura’s arm for a second run; Zimbabwe frustrated Samuels by denying him scoring opportunities with fuller lengths. They should have been rewarded but the chance Samuels offered was put down at backward point and that punctured Zimbabwe’s resolve.The air spewed out of them like a punctured tyre, Gayle got fifty by scrambling a single they might otherwise have been stopped and although Zimbabwe still squeezed in the middle-overs, West Indies squeezed harder.
Unlike in South Africa last month, Samuels was patient. He did not try to dominate spin with reckless gusto and was prepared to do some hard labour. Gayle was equally up for the graft, although he managed his at close to a run a ball for most of his innings thanks to the muscle that ensured when he cleared the boundary, he cleared it properly, and strategic milking of the bowlers the rest of the time.
So unremarkable were the first 35 overs that Zimbabwe’s supporters, of which there were plenty, sang optimistically. “One more, one more,” was their tune of choice, calling for another wicket. Of course, they needed many more but did not want to get too far ahead of themselves. Before they noticed it, Gayle had reached a century with a single as soft as the gentle drizzle which fell throughout the match.
There was no shouting, showmanship or significant smiling, no air-punching, no pulling of notes out of pockets. There was acknowledgement and, somewhere inside Gayle, the clutch engaged and the gear changed.Panyangara, a bowler known for his discipline in the absence of express pace, was punished. Gayle pressed Panyangara’s panic button in an over when he targeted both lengths he was presented with and then caused the Zimbabwean to unravel. His next over, the 40th, started with a wide, was followed by a no-ball, off which Gayle was caught, and a free hit, off which Gayle was caught again, before ending with a short ball dispatched to cow corner for six.
The next ten overs were a blur for Zimbabwe, even more of a blur than they had been against South Africa, when 146 runs were scored. Everything and everyone disappeared. Length, full, short, medium pace, spin, seam. Gayle had grown tired of the grind and was ready to go great guns. But he did not take shots in the dark. He aimed his firepower between the fielders, over them, and sometimes, it seemed, straight through them.His drive to bring up the double-century was an example of that. It pierced the gap perfectly and it was celebrated with enough emotion to match the occasion. Gayle was grateful and great.