West Indies v SA, Champions Trophy, 2nd semi-final November 2, 2006

Heavyweight Beast

Chris Gayle's devastating hitting ensured that the script was almost finished by the time South Africa had bowled 11 overs © AFP

Having used the short ball to such lethal effect while annihilating Sri Lanka and Pakistan for a combined total of 230 runs, South Africa must have walked out for the evening session quietly confident of defending 258. But instead of a seaming pitch and timid batsmen intimidated by the short stuff, they found themselves up against a man who brooks no answers when in the mood. Chris Gayle's early mauling was decisive, and after that, the game petered out into an ending as predictable as the average Hollywood love story.

In another sport, Gayle's nickname would have been The Beast. Back in the 1980s, John Mugabe, a fearsome middleweight who extended Marvellous Marvin Hagler in one of boxing's all-time great bouts, had that moniker. Gayle is a cooler heavyweight version who uses a cricket bat instead of fists, though you sense he'd be handy with those as well. His devastating hitting, in combination with some delightful strokeplay from Shivnarine Chanderpaul, ensured that the script was almost finished by the time South Africa had bowled 11 overs.

In that time, Shaun Pollock, Makhaya Ntini and Andre Nel, so immense in the surge to the semi-final, were given a proper working over, with Gayle's glorious off-driven six off Pollock emphasising the batsman's dominance. Jacques Kallis, who went into the game with 35 wickets at 20.74 against West Indies, stemmed the tide initially, conceding just two from his first couple of overs, but the next three went for a whopping 31. By the time Graeme Smith decided to risk a second Powerplay and bring back the likes of Nel and Ntini, West Indies were 141 for 0 from 24 overs. Game over, and goodnight.

Though the pitch did ease out, South Africa didn't help their cause by bowling far too short. Against someone as tall as Gayle, and on a surface that was nothing like that at Mohali, the short-pitched tactics failed miserably. Gayle may have worn a couple on the body, but several withering pulls for four and one for six off Kallis suggested that the bowlers would have been better served pitching it up.

Later, Mickey Arthur, South Africa's coach, defended his bowlers, saying that West Indies had come out with a plan that took the game away. "They attacked us upfront," he said. "They never let us settle. You're only as good as the opposition lets you be, and they were full value for the win today."

West Indies had done the hard yards earlier in the day, never allowing South Africa's big-hitting batsmen to get away. Smith, Kallis, Justin Kemp and Mark Boucher managed just 54 between them. Kallis, who averages over 50 against West Indies, pottered around for 16, and the run-out that ended a 92-run association between Herschelle Gibbs and AB de Villiers proved absolutely crucial. "The run-out cost us 25 runs," said Arthur. "Anything around 280 would certainly have been a winning total."

Even after they beat both India and Australia at the DLF Cup in Malaysia recently, some were still reluctant to consider West Indies genuine contenders in the big tournaments. But whatever the rankings might say, they have enough talent to upset anyone, as they proved by turning over Australia at the Brabourne Stadium in what will now be seem as hors de oeuvres for the final. Brian Lara's 71 was instrumental in that triumph, and subsequent failures will matter little. When it comes to the big stage, few can match the man.

South Africa were at the receiving end during the World Cup in 2003, and though they still hold a 26-12 lead in the head-to-head stakes, West Indies also knocked them out of the last Champions Trophy. To be fair to them, they were blown away by some exceptional batting. "When Chris Gayle plays well, West Indies will win," said Arthur with a rueful smile. "He scores his runs at such a rate." Australia will have their plans for him, but the man who describes himself as "flamboyant" and "pretty to watch" will certainly take some stopping if he crosses the boundary line in Beast guise.

Dileep Premachandran is features editor of Cricinfo