Chris Gayle's stunning century - the highest score in the history of the Twenty20 game, surpassing Ricky Ponting's 98 - turned out to be a pyrrhic effort as a dazzling 90 from Herschelle Gibbs, helped by some wretched bowling and fielding, piloted South Africa home with 14 balls remaining, the highest score chased down in 20 internationals. West Indies dropped three catches and bowled a staggering 23 wides in a slipshod display epitomised by Dwayne Smith's two overs for 37 runs.
South Africa's refusal to succumb was best illustrated by the courage of their captain, Graeme Smith. After being struck a sickening blow on the right wrist off the first ball of a superb opening over from Daren Powell, Smith carried on with typical bullishness, muscling the ball over the leg side and through cover using his bottom hand. By the time he thumped one straight to cover and departed to the hospital for X-rays, he had 28 from 21, and South Africa the ideal platform on which to build.
Gibbs did that with some delightful heaves and drives, and even a clever dink down to fine leg off Dwayne Bravo. He also enjoyed two reprieves, with Bravo grassing one at deep cover when he had made 20 and Shivnarine Chanderpaul spilling one at deep square leg after he had reached 43. With West Indies showering wides around like confetti, the run-rate never spiralled out of control, and AB de Villiers did his part with a brisk 16 before a miscue off the impressive Fidel Edwards was pouched by Denesh Ramdin.
Justin Kemp was also dropped, at deep mid-on by Marlon Samuels when on 13, and he and Gibbs, batting with De Villiers as a runner, scattered the bowling to all corners of the Bullring as they clattered a century partnership from just 50 balls. The clincher was Ravi Rampaul's final over, the 15th of the innings, with Gibbs deftly picking up two fours and Kemp blasting two huge sixes.
West Indies were left to reflect on one that got away. Gayle's had been a magnificent effort, one that started with a square-drive so powerful that it burst through the hands of backward point on its way to the rope. Having had a few sighters, he then played an astonishing whip off his pads off Shaun Pollock that landed next to his team-mates in the dug-out square of the wicket.
With the tone set, it was Makhaya Ntini's turn to feel the power, and two stupendous straight sixes that cleared the rope by yards. With the situation already desperate, Smith turned to Johan van der Wath and Mornè Morkel to restore a semblance of sanity.
There was hardly any swing though, and little movement off the pitch, and Gayle took advantage with some monstrous hitting. His 50 came from just 26 balls, and when Vernon Philander came on, he said hello with a carve that went deep into the stands at midwicket. Albie Morkel got the same treatment, and by the halfway mark, West Indies had cruised to 109 for 0.
With his seam options having produced nothing, Smith brought himself on, only to concede 17 from the over as Gayle nonchalantly clouted one over long-on. The first-wicket partnership was worth 145 from just 13.3 overs when Philander finally broke through, but though Samuels fell cheaply, there was no let-up in momentum.
A straight-drive down the ground for two got Gayle to three figures from just 51 balls, and he celebrated with more devastating strokeplay down the ground as South Africa's bowling threatened to implode. Pollock went for 52 in his spell and it was left to the less celebrated trio of van der Wath, Mornè Morkel and Philander to rein in the rampant batsmen.
Having cruised to 117 from 56 balls, Gayle's attempt to slug van der Wath over the leg side flew off the top edge and down into the hands of Mark Boucher. His exit produced a lull in proceedings, and van der Wath was the pick of the bowlers, also picking up Chanderpaul in the penultimate over. The significance of that late recovery was to become apparent only later.
"We didn't do ourselves any justice by dropping catches and bowling wides, which really cost us in this game," Sarwan said after the game while Pollock, deputising for Smith, was just relieved to avoid a repeat of the 2003 World Cup opener, where Brian Lara's brilliant century thwarted his side. Having acclaimed Gayle's "awesome" innings, he said: "To knock it off, and comfortably, gives us a lot of confidence going into the rest of the tournament."