Samuels puts West Indies in charge
Two completely contrasting half-centuries from Chris Gayle and Marlon Samuels led a remarkable West Indies performance on the opening day in Port Elizabeth. Gayle blitzed 66 from 49 deliveries, while Samuels faced four times the number of balls to get to 94; together, they guided West Indies to an impressive 281 for 4.
Graeme Smith, leading South Africa for the 50th time in Tests, chose to field after winning the toss, and he could hardly be blamed for the decision - the West Indian batting had been in shambles on the tour thus far, and the wet weather leading to the game suggested the pitch would have plenty for the fast bowlers. In short, the conditions were ideal to unleash Dale Steyn and Co on the out-of-form West Indian top order.
The one factor in West Indies' favour was the return of Gayle, who, after much uncertainty, was declared fit after recovering from a hamstring injury. He made an immediate, and stunning, impact on the game.
Both Gayle and his opening partner Daren Ganga relied on slices of luck to get through the first five overs - there were inside edges which flew past the stumps, and other deliveries which beat the bat, but once the first 30 minutes had been negotiated, Gayle suddenly went into overdrive.
Makhaya Ntini, easily the most listless bowler on view, felt the heat the most, twice conceding three fours in an over as Gayle crashed drives through the covers and stood tall to bludgeon the ball down the ground. Ganga, who was batting with Gayle for the 50th time in Tests, played his role well too, batting within his limitations and rotating the strike. A South African attack which started off expecting quick wickets were suddenly thrown into disarray, and so completely pushed onto the back foot that Smith was forced to post a long-off within the first 90 minutes of the match.
The pace attack were also hampered by the pitch, which offered none of the assistance it was expected to. The swing was minimal, the bounce was generally around knee high, and there was little to bother the batsmen. Steyn, South Africa's main weapon this season, struggled with his radar and rhythm, regularly straying outside off and leg. None of that cost his team as much as his tendency to overstep, though: he had Samuels, then on 14, edge a drive to slip, only for umpire Aleem Dar to signal no-ball. Steyn finally nailed his man, but by then Samuels had done plenty of damage.
Coming to the crease after South Africa had removed both openers in the space of three balls - Ganga slashing to Mark Boucher off Nel and Gayle edging Paul Harris' second ball of the match - Samuels was patience personified. He has often been accused of throwing it away with poor shot selection, but here he batted with a determination and purpose that suggested he understood the value of the No. 4 position, a slot he got ahead of Shivnarine Chanderpaul.
Displaying sound technique, he defended delivery after delivery, as if answering Clive Lloyd's call for "stickability". With Runako Morton showing plenty of staying power as well, the rhythm of the game changed from a boundary an over to a plethora of dot balls and maiden overs. The second session produced only 60, but more importantly from West Indies' point of view, Morton was the only casualty. His replacement was the even more solid and limpet-like Chanderpaul.
The tea break - and a short rain delay immediately thereafter - did little to disturb the batsmen. Chanderpaul was content to leave everything that wasn't directed at the stumps - forcing the bowlers to bowl at him - while Samuels continued with his monk-like concentration. His 50 took all of 142 deliveries, before he finally opened up with a flurry of breathtaking strokes. Nel, trying all his usual histrionics to unsettle the batsman, was silenced with three splendid shots in one over: a drive that went rocketing past mid-off, a lofted shot in the same direction, and a pull to the midwicket fence. Next over, Harris, who bowled impressively on the first-day track, met with the same fate, as Samuels used his feet and broke the shackles that he had imposed on himself.
West Indies were on course to see off the day without further alarm, when Samuels threw away the chance to get his second Test century, slashing at a wide one to be brilliantly held by Jacques Kallis. The second new ball had done the trick for South Africa, but there was no doubt about which team took the first day honours.
S Rajesh is stats editor of Cricinfo