Much more than a short-format batsman
Kingston, Jamaica - If all goes well over the next couple of days in the world of Chris Gayle, on Sunday he will become the ninth West Indian player to reach the 100-Test milestone, when they begin their three-Test series against New Zealand in Jamaica.
Gayle hasn't always been around to play Test cricket for West Indies, especially over the last few years, when friction with the home board has coincided with greater T20 opportunities elsewhere and resulted in changed priorities.
A batting style based around big hitting suits the shortest format too, but as a Test average of 42 testifies he is hardly a one-dimensional player.
In fact, in Tests Gayle has a penchant for batting long periods and scoring big hundreds: he has seven scores of 150 or more, including two triple-hundreds; among West Indians, only Brian Lara and Garry Sobers have more 150-plus scores.
Despite all those stats and numbers, though, Test cricket isn't the first thing that comes to mind when talking about Gayle. His exploits in 20-over cricket is obviously a reason for that, but the other important reason for this is the number of Tests he has missed, especially over the last seven years.
Since the beginning of 2008, Gayle has missed 24 out of the 54 Tests West Indies have played; over his entire career, he hasn't played 42 Tests since making his debut (though ten of those were immediately after he made his debut in 2000, when he didn't make the tour to Australia, and played only one out of five Tests in England).
That's also the reason why it's taken him more than 14 years to play 100 Tests. Meanwhile, he has already played 173 T20 matches, for 12 different teams; since the beginning of 2008, he has played 163 T20 matches, but only 30 Tests.
What's also been unfortunate from West Indies' point of view is that Gayle's absence from a high percentage of Tests has coincided with what's otherwise also been his most prolific period in the format.
In the 30 Tests he has played since the beginning of 2008, Gayle has averaged 51.28, converting eight of his 14 fifty-plus scores into hundreds. However, he has also missed a huge number of Tests during this period, thus limiting what might have been an even more successful period for him.
In the early days of his Test career, though, Gayle's numbers were pretty ordinary: through the first 35 Tests of his career, he averaged only 32.75, and his strike rate was less than 50.
His two centuries were against Zimbabwe in Bulawayo and New Zealand at home, but both were big ones - 175 versus Zimbabwe and 204 against New Zealand - suggesting even then that he was a batsman who could play long innings.
Over the next four years his stats improved significantly: he scored five centuries in 34 Tests, including a couple in South Africa and one in England.
That was also the period when he was a regular in the West Indies Test team, missing only four games in four years. Since 2008, he became even more successful as a Test player but a far more scarce resource.
During this period since 2008, Gayle's average of 51.28 puts him among the top ten best batsmen during this period, in terms of averages (with a minimum qualification of 2000 runs).
Shivnarine Chanderpaul, his fellow West Indian, is at the top of that list with an incredible average of 65.41, while AB de Villiers and Kumar Sangakkara have also averaged more than 60 during this period.
What also stands out is the number of matches some of these batsmen have played: Michael Clarke has played 75 Tests since 2008, two and a half times the number Gayle has. Sangakkara, de Villiers, Hashim Amla and Sachin Tendulkar have all played more than 50, which is again an indication of how little Test cricket Gayle has played during this period. (Some of this also reflects on the Test schedules for different teams, but that's a topic for another day.)
From the time of Gayle's Test debut, 15 players have played more than 99 Tests, with the highest being Ricky Ponting's 134. Alastair Cook made his Test debut six years after Gayle but still made the 100-mark a few months before Gayle, during the Ashes tour to Australia last season.
Gayle's batting technique relies much more on hand-eye coordination than on footwork but it's a style that has worked well for him, and one he has been able to adapt to different playing conditions.
He averages more than 40 at home, in Sri Lanka, Australia, Zimbabwe, South Africa and New Zealand - in the last three countries mentioned, his average is more than 50. The only country where he average drops below 35 is India, where he has averaged 28.55 in five Tests.
What stands out about those numbers is his stats in Australia, South Africa and New Zealand, countries where seam and swing bowlers get a fair amount of assistance. He averages 49.88 from five Tests in Australia, 54.50 from five in South Africa, and 67.50 in five games in New Zealand.
In 11 Tests in England he has averaged only 36.05, but his overall numbers in these four countries are still very impressive: 2255 runs in 26 Tests at nearly 48. Among West Indians who have scored at least 1000 runs in these four countries, only three have better averages: Larry Gomes, Seymour Nurse and Viv Richards. That means Gayle has outperformed a lot of illustrious names in this aspect, including Lara, Chanderpaul, Sobers and Gordon Greenidge. (Click here for the full list.)
While Gayle's stats in these countries are impressive, he hasn't been quite as prolific as the other West Indian greats in home conditions.
Gayle averages 40.46 from 49 home Tests, which is pretty respectable, but nowhere near Sobers' 66.80, Lara's 58.65, or Chanderpaul's 58.64.
In fact, among West Indian batsmen who have scored at least 3000 Test runs at home, Gayle's average is easily the poorest - the next-lowest is Ramnaresh Sarwan's 45.37.
Since Gayle's Test debut in March 2000, West Indies have tried 22 other openers in Tests, and none of them have scored even a quarter of the runs that Gayle has at the top of the order: the second-highest is Daren Ganga with 1578 at an average of 25.45, while Gayle scored 6747 at 42.97.
Wavell Hinds (1482 runs at 32.21) and Devon Smith (1174 at 23.95) are the only other openers with 1000-plus runs, but clearly neither has been world-class.
Gayle's stats as an opener are, in fact, comparable with some of the top West Indian openers of all time. In terms of runs scored he is third in the list, next only to Greenidge and Desmond Haynes. (Among all West Indian batsmen he is eighth, and 67 runs from 7000.)
His average of almost 43 is up there too, marginally below those of Greenidge and Conrad Hunte, who are the only openers from West Indies to score 2000-plus runs at an average of more than 45.
If Gayle keeps up his fitness levels and his hunger for five-day cricket, his name just might be in that list too by the time he is done with Tests.