Chris Gayle: Da Boss of Jamaica
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Like everywhere else in Jamaica, the road leading up from New Kingston to Chancery Hall is ridden with potholes and not wide enough for two cars. But as you drive up Red Hills, the ride is less bumpy, the air cooler and there is lush greenery all around.
It's not just the landscape that changes dramatically. Thatched roofs and semi-decrepit dwellings give way to cul-de-sacs and mansions, each more colourful than the other, each with its cobbled stone driveways. Perched right on top of the hill is House No 8, Victory Avenue, a yellow, three-storied mansion, with a panoramic view of the country's capital below. It stands out as much for its grandeur as the identity of its owner. Known in these parts simply as Da Boss.
Local residents take great pride in showing it off. Jeffrey, the dreadlocked sweeper, hardly minds the pebbles digging into his bare feet as he races up the jagged street to double-check whether you are indeed at Chris Gayle's abode. "Dis da boss house. You can't miss it," he announces. Though the West Indian opener's professional commitments around the world hardly allow him to spend time here, Jeffrey insists that those in Chancery Hall know when Gayle is in the house.
"When he's here, you can see Chris come up to the big balcony on the first floor overlooking Kingston. And he'll stand there in nothing but a towel and look down like a king surveying his kingdom," says Jeffrey. Surveying, perhaps, the city whose perils he overcame as a young man growing up in the crime-infested ghettos of East Kingston, where it would take nothing for a young boy to be sucked into drugs and gang wars.
The lanky, quiet boy from Rollington Town they called Crampy (because he was so laid-back); the boy who grew up in a one-room shanty with six other siblings, is now Da Boss of Jamaica. And it's no secret that he leaves no quarter in his quest to live life king-size.
Chancery Hall is as upscale as it gets in Jamaica. A plot of land here doesn't come cheaper than $ 2 million. While Gayle pockets around $5,60,000 a year from his IPL contract with Royal Challengers Bangalore, he earns double that from his plethora of sponsors, not to forget his contracts with other T20 franchises around the world. What was originally a single-storey house has, over the years, turned into a massive castle, with nine bedrooms, four garages, a state-of-the-art theatre, a pool room, swimming pools and lots of other glitzy niceties.
It's not just that the 33-year-old cricketer has made a life that few in the ghettos of Rollington Town can dream of. Gayle has redefined the way young Jamaicans look at cricket, if not life in general.
In a land obsessed with sprint stars and their indulgent lives — from Asafa Powell to Usain Bolt and Yohan Blake — he's an oddity. A successful cricketer who is also an icon. A celebrity, but not one who likes to hide away in his cocoon of luxury. Gayle is not the first cricketing legend that Jamaica has produced. There have been others like George Headley, Michael Holding and Courtney Walsh, who if anything achieved greater highs on the cricket field. But none of them came close to the adulation and fanfare that Gayle attracts in every corner of the cricket world — as much for his cricket as for his persona, as much for his free-spirited batting as the Gangnam-style celebrations on the field.
In Kingston, especially in the poorer neighbourhoods, he is revered as a hero by almost anyone who picks up a cricket bat. He is looked upon as a larger-than-life figure, who lives life on his own terms, oblivious to tradition and external pressures.
St James Street in the centre of Rollington Town is a far cry from Chancery Hall. It's here in house No. 1C, a five-room shanty—what you might refer to as a chawl in Mumbai—each lodging a separate family, that Christopher Henry Gayle was born. "He was a quiet boy but one who would pull a prank on anyone anytime. He was obsessed with sports. And if not kicking a ball on the streets, Chris would be forcing me to bowl at him," says Mauleen, who grew up next door to the Gayle family and still resides here with her young son. "Chris was the fifth of six brothers and he had a sister too. His father was a policeman and his mother sold peanuts and other savouries. So they were never too poor. He was close to his mom," she says. As Mauleen was quite a few years older than Gayle, she would sometimes babysit him when his parents were away on work.
The proximity to the historic Lucas Cricket Club played a role in the future West Indies captain opting for cricket. "He would jump over the wall and get into Lucas, where he would spend hours batting and bowling. Chris was always conscious from a young age of the company he kept. He never wanted to be seen with the boys who were up to no good. Chris always had girlfriends though," says Mauleen, who hardly gets to see her childhood friend these days.
A noticeboard at Lucas is filled with paper-cuttings and pictures of its most eminent modern-day product. The left-hander has never let go of an opportunity to attribute his success to the early influence of Lucas CC. He once insisted that if it weren't for Lucas, he would have been on the street. It was on this impressive ground that Crampy began his cricketing journey.
"He wasn't as aggressive or explosive as he is now. But there were days when he would go berserk, and the nearby households had to face the brunt," recalls Henry, the chief curator at Lucas CC, who has been with the club for close to two decades.
It was while representing Lucas that young Gayle first made an impact on Jamaica's cricketing circles. And before long, he was being billed as a potential star. But that he would go on to electrify cricket as he does wasn't obvious from the start, feels Henry. "He always took his cricket very seriously even if at times it looked that nothing in life would make him frown," he says.
While he grew as a cricketer at Lucas, Gayle benefited immensely from attending Excelsior High School, where he met Radcliffe Haynes, a first-form English teacher who would go on to become a mentor for life.
Located in the foothills in an area called Mountain View, Excelsior, which also counts Courtney Walsh as its alumni, was set up for children from the nearby localities, mainly made up of lower middle-class families. Gayle made the most of his experience here, especially under the tutelage of Haynes. A cricket fanatic himself, Haynes helped Gayle develop a grounded approach in life, one that he continues to swear by. "Mr Haynes was an integral figure in Chris's upbringing. They would spend hours together chatting about cricket and life," says principal Deanroy Bromfield.
Gayle's feats on the cricket field for Lucas made him a popular jock in school. "He
was a student here when he got picked for West Indies A against South Africa in 1998," says Bromfield.
Gayle runs a foundation managed by Haynes that aims to support cricket and other sports in underprivileged schools across the country. He also visits his alma mater regularly, his interactions always inspiring the students. "But Chris is not someone who gives you too much intellectual advice. It's always basic: 'Enjoy life, make the most of what comes your way and always give back to your community'," says headboy Marvin Jackson.
Despite his popularity, some have questioned Gayle's opulent lifestyle. The parties held at his Chancery Hall residence are renowned for including the who's who of Jamaica, and there are quite a few of those when Da Boss is in town. "The way he spends his money, there is a chance he might end up struggling with his reserves once he retires. It's a very unsafe way of living," says Peter Rikard, an old-school cricket fan and veteran member of the Kingston Cricket Club.
Others feel that his multiple associations with T20 leagues around the world could have a negative bearing on the island's young cricketers. They fear that the next generation might lose their drive to represent West Indies and be content with being T20 renegades, offering their services for cash-rich contracts. Some have even dared to call Gayle a mercenary.
But in the ghettoes around Kingston, the love for Gayle hasn't diminished. Akeem Dewar represented the West Indies in the 2010 U-19 World Cup and also lives in Rollington Town. The young leg-spinner, who idolises Gayle, insists that criticism of his idol is unwarranted. "He has shown that no matter how small your beginnings are, with hard work you can make it. What's wrong with him making money and living life the way he wants to? He is a professional sportsman after all," says Dewar.
"In the West Indies we don't have the financial backing of India, England or Australia. To make money you have to most likely play for West Indies first before attracting attention for the T20 leagues. Chris has shown us the way," he says.
It's not surprising that whatever Gayle does on or off the field, from his joyous shot-making, to flashy hairdos, music videos and, of course, the uninhibited dancing, Jamaicans embrace as their own. They relate to his tale. The boy from the ghettos who overwhelmed hazards and obstacles to live a dream. To raise himself from humble beginnings and become Da Boss.