Odds stacked against West Indies
A pessimistic mass of statistical evidence is balanced only by a few flimsy straws floating in the wind, the kind that keep even the most disheartened fans in every sport hopeful. One is that there are no grandiose expectations from the public, as there certainly were prior to the first, historic trip to the previously debarred country eight years ago that ended in a 5-0 whitewash in the Tests and 6-1 in the ODIs and, if realistically less so, before the second four years ago that ended 3-0 in the Tests, with one drawn, and 3-1 in the ODIs.
Another is the age-old adage, "cricket is a funny game". It may not be that funny that the West Indies will suddenly overturn a decade of defeat, especially in foreign lands.
But with several slices of luck, if not a miracle or two, strong and bold leadership from Chris Gayle, the fourth captain in eight months, Australian John Dyson, the new coach, and Clive Lloyd, a manager with a formidable reputation to upkeep, Gayle's promise that they will make South Africa fight might not be as far-fetched as it now seems.
His assertion on arrival on Monday that his team has come not only to compete but to win the series was overplaying the optimism but it was a welcome statement of intent all the same. The most vital job for him, Dyson and Lloyd is to encourage the self-belief that has been drained from West Indies players with every demeaning setback.
There was a clear hint during his brief tenure at the helm in the limited-overs matches in England last summer that he has the personality to at least start the process. If unwittingly, Gayle's comment that, while his team respected the South Africans, they did not fear them was a throwback to the gist of Curtly Ambrose's rebuke of his colleagues on the 1998-99 tour. Fear, he told them, was their biggest problem.
It was the same phobia that transfixed those who confronted Lloyd's mighty teams of the 1980s and Australia's now. It is not easily erased, especially given the present circumstances.
The overwhelming feeling here, as no doubt among the cricket fraternity everywhere, is that the series will be another of the one-sided disasters that have driven the West Indies to one from the bottom of the pile on the latest ICC rankings. It is a perfectly reasonable assumption. It is not simply that South Africa are equal third (with India) of nine in the Test rankings to West Indies' eighth. It is virtually every other consideration besides.
South Africa have recently come off two successful Test and ODI series, prevailing in the always tough environment of Pakistan before overwhelming New Zealand at home in four days in the first Test and three days in the second. Their premier batsman, Jacques Kallis, plundered five hundreds in seven innings and Dale Steyn established himself as a serious fast bowler with 20 wickets in the two Tests against New Zealand. They believe they should be ranked only below Australia - and not that far either - and are ready to prove that point with the same ruthless efficiency that stunned New Zealand.
In utter contrast, the West Indies will not have played a Test for more than a year when they take to the field in Port Elizabeth on Boxing Day and have not won one since their record run-chase to topple Australia in Antigua in May, 2005. Their last overseas win was in 2002 over Bangladesh, the only team placed below them by the ICC.
Already without the mastery of the retired Brian Lara for the first time in South Africa, they also have to manage without their originally appointed captain and crucial No. 3 batsman Ramnaresh Sarwan through a knee injury.
To add to their woes, Gayle snapped a hamstring in the first of the five preceding ODIs in Zimbabwe and, even if ready for Boxing Day, will be short of match practice. And so will all the others, who last played a first-class match either in the Carib Beer Series last April, on the tour of England in June or, for Shivnarine Chanderpaul and Daren Powell, for English counties in September. One four-day encounter against even a strong South Africa A team in East London on December 16 to 19 is hardly proper preparation although that is the way of modern international cricket.
If, in spite of such inequality, the West Indies can, indeed, give South Africa a fight in the coming two months, their cricket will at last have started the long climb back to respectability.