West Indies batsmen show character
Only the assumption that the captain winning the toss would choose to bowl followed the prescribed script and even that decision turned out to be flawed. At the end, West Indies, weak, woefully under prepared and seemingly with little hope against superior opponents, were standing tall at 281 for four. Everyone who went to the wicket made a contribution and even Clive Lloyd's plea for "stickability" was heeded by two unlikely candidates during a period of attribution between intervals and into the final session.
The pitch, under cover for much of the previous four days as rain lashed Port Elizabeth, was widely expected to encourage the fast bowlers. It didn't. It turned out to be slow and provided little movement. A little uneven bounce was its only snag and it contributed to the dismissal of Runako Morton, who jabbed one that lifted from a length to point.
Dale Steyn, South Africa's wrecker of New Zealand with 20 wickets in the two Tests last month, was primed to do the same to West Indies, who had folded for 193 and 218 against lesser bowlers in their preceding match against the A team. He didn't. Unable to ignite the fire out of the surface as he did on the fliers in Johannesburg and Centurion, he had to wait for the second new ball and his 19th over before he claimed his solitary wicket.
It was significant since it ended Marlon Samuels' quality innings, an extravagant drive flying to slip when he was six short of a long overdue second Test hundred, a quarter-hour before fading light halted play for the day. Until half an hour before the start, it was doubtful whether Chris Gayle's slowly healing hamstring would allow him to lead West Indies in his first Test match. He did, after declaring himself ready following a casual jog on the outfield, and, in the manner of all worthy captains, made the assertive statement for his men to follow.
Soon assessing that the pitch was as flat as South Africa's early bowling and realising he had chosen a good toss to lose (he admitted he would have done what Smith did), the tall left-hander thumped 13 fours in all directions with typically dismissive power, scoring 66 from 49 balls. Such an immediate assault was not unfamiliar to South Africa. Gayle has blasted them more than once in the past but this was his first innings since his injury in Zimbabwe on December 2.
After initially, if inadvertently, putting it to the test with a sharp single and a full length dive for home to get off the mark in the first over, he thoroughly dictated terms. In successive overs from Makhaya Ntini and Andre Nel, he reeled off three fours each to raise 50 from 42 deliveries. He and Daren Ganga, who applied a steady approach, raised 98 for the first wicket before two careless strokes claimed them within three balls of each other and spoiled the growing optimism.
Two of Ganga's boundaries were delightful drives through cover and mid-off from Nel. Seemingly sweetened by the effect, he went for another from a delivery too wide to give merit to the stroke and nicked to Mark Boucher. At the opposite end, Gayle punched Paul Harris's first ball for his 13th four and, trying to repeat, edged a sharp catch to Jacques Kallis at first slip. His commanding play suggested much more but he didn't give himself enough time to scrutinise the left-arm spinner.
West Indies went into lunch at 130 for two, Samuels saved at 14 in the last over to the break by umpire Aleem Dar's call of Steyn's no-ball that was edged into Smith's lap at slip. Soon after, Dar's eagle eye was again to the rescue, spotting that Samuels' hand was off the handle when another catch was deflected to slip off the glove, also off Steyn.
The morning session yielded 22 fours from 27 overs. It was enough to place South Africa on the defensive and the tactics on resumption involved Jacques Kallis and Steyn testing the batsmen's patience by bowling well wide of off-stump.
The name Larry Gomes is not the first one brought to mind in association with Samuels or Morton but, for long periods during the afternoon, they followed Lloyd's mantra to dig in like the left-hander used to in his era.
The first hour brought 36 runs from 14 overs, the second to tea, also involving the more Gomes-like Shivnarine Chanderpaul, 24 off 14. The difference was that neither Morton nor Samuels remained to post the hundreds of which Gomes tallied nine.
Morton's 33, with seven fours, mostly with his trademark straight drives, occupied 71 balls in a stand of 66 with Samuels. Once he had gone, Samuels' next partnership with the typically adhesive Chanderpaul was worth 109 when he was snaffled at second slip slip by the leaping Kallis.
Either agitated by Nel's annoying verbal taunts that once drew censure from umpire Dar or seduced by the approach of his hundred, Samuels suddenly changed his long period of defence into all-out attack and stroked four boundaries each off Nel and Harris in successive overs. There are few more graceful batsmen around and it was exciting stuff. It was also fraught with danger and, making no provision for the harder new ball, Samuels fell to a drive executed with a flourish.
Chanderpaul, entrenched for three hours already for 43, resumes tommorow with the sizeable total necessary to support the bowlers mainly in his hands. In the circumstances, it was West Indies' most encouraging start to a series since 2005 when a team, decimated by the loss of captain Brian Lara and four key players through one of the interminable rows with the board, declared at 503 for five after two days at Bourda against the same opponents featuring many of the players they kept in the field for 84 overs here.
They might recall that, in spite of enforcing the follow-on they couldn't quite force victory then and eventually went down 2-0 in the series. A lot of hard work lies ahead here.