West Indies vs South Africa, Super Eights, Grenada April 9, 2007

Hosts face fight to stay at their party



Loots Bosman could open the batting, with AB de Villiers batting in the middle order © Getty Images

Three days ago, South Africa were ranked No.1 in the world, the Guyanese sky was largely cloudless, and two points were expected to be there for the taking against Bangladesh. Fast forward to Grenada though, and the picture couldn't be more different. The dismal 67-run defeat to Bangladesh has not only cost them the top ranking - some would argue that they were never as good as Australia anyway - but also made far more difficult their task of qualifying for the semi-finals.

On paper, they can lose to West Indies and win against New Zealand and England to progress, but few South Africans will want to leave it to the last, especially with New Zealand in such good form and Kevin Pietersen certain to up his game against former bru.

There's also the small matter of South Africa's record in the big events and in pressure situations. The head-to-head statistics are strongly in favour of a South African win - 26 wins against 12 losses in 39 games - but it's a different story in the matches that matter. West Indies have won both their last two World Cup games, the 1996 quarter-final and the opening encounter of the 2003 competition, and also meted out punishments in recent Champions Trophy games [2004 and '06].

The last meeting was a drubbing in the Jaipur semi-final, with Chris Gayle's magnificent strokeplay at the top of the order reducing a challenging pursuit to walk-in-the-park proportions. Shaun Pollock and Makhaya Ntini got a pasting that day, and will be wary, even though Gayle has yet to find his bat's sweet spot in this tournament.

After strolling through their group games, West Indies have fallen away dramatically, with the batsmen inconsistent and the support bowlers unable to replicate the sterling efforts of Daren Powell with the new ball. Even more damaging has been the failure of Gayle and Marlon Samuels to provide the offspin tourniquet that was such a part of their recent one-day success.

Some of the players went home after Sri Lanka handed down a third-successive Super Eights defeat more than a week ago, and the attitude of the team has come in for scathing criticism from some of the legends of the Caribbean game. "Even before that fatal game against Sri Lanka, the West Indies' practice session was something to behold, or perhaps not to," said Colin Croft in a newspaper column. "It was lacklustre as ever, with players even complaining that the sun was hot. Are these people for real?"

Criticism is something that South Africa took with them to Grenada after a frankly abysmal showing against Bangladesh. One minute, Andrew Hall being stood down from the XI was a "tactical decision", the next minute he was suffering from a quadriceps problem - more spin than a White House media release. With Herschelle Gibbs almost certain to miss out with a calf strain, there are selection issues to ponder as well.

The most likely scenario should see Loots Bosman opening with Graeme Smith, and AB de Villiers dropping into the middle order. Hall must be a shoo-in as well, with the run-less and wicket-less Justin Kemp making way so that Andrè Nel's pace and aggression can be unleashed for a second match in succession.

Mickey Arthur, the South African coach, spoke candidly about the loss to Bangladesh, but insisted that the pressure was on West Indies to deliver. "After the game the boys hurt a lot, which is a good thing," he said, echoing what Smith had said about "taking our pain". "We had a good chat about it and we've closed the door on Bangladesh. We realise that we still hold the key to our destiny in this competition. The pressure is going to be more on the West Indies than us."

No matches have been played at the National Cricket stadium in Grenada, and both camps expect a fair bit of assistance from a damp pitch in the morning. Winning the toss and bowling will again be the mantra, and West Indies could look to a three-pronged seam attack of Powell, Jerome Taylor and Ian Bradshaw.

What is certain is that it's last orders time at Last Chance Saloon. The situation isn't quite as desperate yet for South Africa, though there will be few tears shed in these parts if the hosts take a big step towards knocking out one of the favourites. "South Africa can lose all their remaining games and go home, complaining as they always do when they lose," wrote Croft, perhaps irked by frankly ridiculous suggestions that 'cabin fever' had contributed to the Bangladesh loss.

Ecclesiastes talks of "a time to heal" and "a time to build up". Two teams for whom this appears to be a time to whinge would do well to consider the resonance of those words.

Dileep Premachandran is associate editor of Cricinfo