Fast forward 30 years and inflation has taken its toll. These days you’d be lucky to fill a cup of tea with 21 pence-worth of milk, while £12,000 will barely cover your deposit, let alone secure you a mortgage. Likewise, thanks to Chris Gayle’s hyper-inflationary batting style, scores of 175 not out in limited-overs cricket matches can now be done and dusted in the space of 66 deliveries.
Kapil Dev’s redemptive onslaught against Zimbabwe in the 1983 World Cup is the direct antecedent of Gayle’s extraordinary performance for Bangalore in this year’s IPL. But which of these two innings will history record as the more extraordinary display of batting talent? The statistics offer an instant opinion but the true answer depends on whether you put your faith in Aesop’s Fables or 24-hour news channels when it comes to legend-building.
When Kapil launched his counterattack at the Nevile Ground to rescue India from 17 for 5, the BBC’s cameramen were on strike and only a handful of reporters were on hand to trumpet his achievements to the wider world. Gayle, by contrast, had every camera in the Chinnaswamy Stadium trained on his antics, not to mention the second-screen tsunami that he created on social media.
Yet, while Kapil was directly responsible for keeping India on course for the World Cup victory that would change the history of the game (and ultimately spawn the IPL itself), Gayle could not even propel Bangalore Royal Challengers to a berth in this year’s play-offs. One was an innings for the ages; the other an innings for the instant. But what an instant!
Comparing between cricket’s eras is as futile as comparing between its myriad formats. How do we assess the relative merits of, say, Sanjay Bangar’s five-hour 68 in the Headingley Test of 2002 and Yusuf Pathan’s 37-ball hundred in IPL3, an innings that Shane Warne, in one of his customary bouts of hyperbole, described as the “best I’ve ever seen”. The former is a forgotten foundation of one of the great Test victories of modern times; the latter a memorable splurge in the record books, even if your average fan would struggle to remember when, where and against whom it was achieved.
Even when you limit your comparisons to a single format, there’s always an element of chalk and cheese at play. Take the grainy footage from any bygone era of Test cricket and the first thing you’ll notice is how exposed the batsmen seem. Their bats lack the imposing girth of today’s railway-sleeper equivalents; their padding is so rudimentary you can almost see the ribs that those fast bowlers are endlessly targetting; their helmetless heads capture every facet of their concentration.
And then there’s the sheer acreage of the field of play, with the boundaries running right up to the gutters by the advertising hoardings. Gayle can at times seem as tall as a floodlight gantry when scrutinised through a zoom lens while set at the centre of the IPL’s ever-shrinking fields of play. Men like Sunil Gavaskar, on the other hand, appeared as distant white dots during Test matches, never more so in Gavaskar’s case than at The Oval in 1979 when his brilliant double-century captured hearts across the country (and all but captured the game as well).
There are circumstantial differences to factor in as well. For England fans of a certain vintage, few performances are more revered that Mike Atherton’s 10-and-a-half hour rearguard at Johannesburg in 1995-96, in which he drew the sting of a South African attack featuring Allan Donald and Shaun Pollock to force a fifth-day stalemate. It was a performance of such defiance it somehow atoned for the wretchedness of so much that had gone before it; all the collapses and catastrophes that marred English cricket in the 1990s.
And yet, if an IPL aficionado were to look at that scorecard in the cold light of history, they might be tempted to take England to task for their apparent lack of adventure. By the time they closed that contest on 351 for 5, on a wicket that had breathed its last midway through the third day, England were just 128 runs adrift of what (tellingly) remains to this day a world-record target. Even so, at his average Twenty20 tempo of 1.5 runs per ball, Gayle could have gobbled up that deficit in 13 overs.
On the face of it, that sounds like a daft mangling of formats in order to prove a spurious point. And yet it’s worth considering the extent to which Twenty20 values are already impinging on Test match tempos. For instance, only four batsmen in history have made a Test triple-century on more than one occasion: two all-time greats in Don Bradman and Brian Lara, and two all-time aggressors in Virender Sehwag ... and Chris Gayle.
Likewise, nine of the 11 most expensive overs in Test history have been recorded since the turn of the 21st century, and just as significantly, 53 of the 202 instances of teams being dismissed for fewer than 100 runs, most recently New Zealand’s 68 all out in the second innings at Lord’s. Hit out or get out appears to be the message.
When men such as Gayle start burning through the sky it’s hard not to feel as though the parameters of the possible are fizzing along with them. And yet, patience is a virtue that is seeping steadily away from the game at all levels. This, more than anything, needs to be factored back into those glorious innings of yesteryear. After all inflation, as anyone who’s stopped at a petrol pump recently, does not always permit a true understanding of value.