A question of self-belief for West Indies
On Thursday the rains forced Dwayne Bravo and his men to train in the indoor nets at Sophia Gardens. Soul and reggae music piped out of a stereo from corner of the nets as players hummed and danced to the tunes while carrying on with their jobs. This chilled-out attitude is what separates West Indies from other teams. And on Friday, that attitude could provide West Indies the vital edge in a do-or-die encounter against South Africa, an intense opponent, who can be vulnerable if pushed into a tight corner.
However, the same laidback attitude has been West Indies' bugbear in the past. Today Bravo was not afraid to call South African "chokers" because of their history of failures in the most important matches of the biggest tournaments. But Bravo is no Steve Waugh who had an indomitable will, the leadership skill, a handful of match-winners, and the bloody-mindedness, to dominate the opposition.
South Africa were robbed of the services of Jacques Kallis and Graeme Smith before the tournament began and were then hit by the exit of Morne Morkel due to injury, and Dale Steyn has missed the first two matches. West Indies have had no such concerns. Yet, a desperate finish against Pakistan followed by a woeful performance against India shows that they remain unsettled.
West Indies cannot even complain about the conditions considering they played both their matches on dry days, on mostly flat pitches and in their most favourite ground outside the Caribbean - The Oval. West Indies have played out 359 dot balls so far in two matches, which is only seven less than Pakistan, who have played the most. The highest partnership is 78 with only two batsmen making half-centuries - Johnson Charles and Darren Sammy have one each.
The middle-order (4-7) which includes batsmen like Marlon Samuels, Kieron Pollard and Bravo, has lacked the vigour scoring at an average of 16.12 with a strike-rate of 53.97. The West bowlers have taken 10 wickets in the tournament at an average of 40.10 and a strike-rate of 52.3, both being the worst in the tournament. West Indies so far have been anxious and awful.
Gayle has got starts, but has failed to deliver on his promise to score big runs; Samuels' poor ODI form in England continues; Darren Bravo has failed to switch gears after playing the anchor role; captain Bravo, too, has shown more desperation than assurance with both bat and ball in hand. Pollard has been circumspect to begin with only to falter soon after; the inclusion of Ramnaresh Sarwan, who has scored just two runs in two matches, remains a curious decision; Kemar Roach, after an aggressive spell of fast bowling against Pakistan was completely disoriented against India, thereby releasing all the pressure Ravi Rampaul created.
Common sense, Bravo stressed, is what the West Indies players have been forgetting to utilise during crucial moments. "In a game there are times when you need to think on your feet - for example, when to go for the big shots. We need - all of us, myself included - to know when to take a risk or when to hold back like if you just lose a wicket," Bravo said. "I don't need to play this shot, I need to play this shot. So that's a bit of common sense: knowing when to gamble and when not to gamble."
The teams have met three times during the knockout stages in big tournaments with West Indies leading the count 2-1 so far. South Africa defeated them in the final of the 1999 Wills International Cup, but West Indies won in the 1996 World Cup quarter-finals and in the semi-finals of the 2006 Champions Trophy. Does that history make it easier for West Indies tomorrow?
"It doesn't make it easier; it makes it more exciting," Bravo said. The last time West Indies did play exciting cricket, turned up smarter on the field, were pro-active, though on their feet and won their gambles, was during the World Twenty20. They found themselves living on the edge on more than one occasion during that tournament, yet managed to finish with a big smile. They realised the importance of self-belief. The lack of that now is hurting them. "In this format, it is longer so it requires more skills and more thinking, and I think that's where we fall short most times in this format," Bravo said.
On Thursday afternoon, Cardiff was emptying fast. If you were arriving today to the Welsh capital, you would be greeted by the gentle wafting rain accompanied by the sight of people checking out of the hotels. Jon Bon Jovi played here last night. Rihanna rocked the city on Monday. But there could be more music in store for the fans - if West Indies regain their self-belief, their brand of cricket which can be as entertaining as that of Bon Jovi and Rihanna.
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo