A team, after all
A Test series against South Africa brought no Christmas cheer to the Caribbean. There was no outward sign of any significant difference on the West Indies front, and they were facing a side only twice beaten in their previous encounters. True, there was a new captain in Chris Gayle and a new manager in Clive Lloyd, but that was not exactly new - they've both been there before - what was brand new was coach John Dyson and he still had not had any chance to gel with the team yet.
Lingering in memory was the trauma of the dreadful encounter on South African soil in the 1998 series - the horrid bouts of strikes, acrimony, broken words and the yet unfathomable whitewash. One could not forget Michael Holding reporting how he saw fear in the eyes of the West Indies players as they faced all their imaginary demons on the pitch.
So when Graeme Smith sent them in to bat on the first morning, depressing scenes came to mind, and it seemed unlikely there would be many rising at four on these seasonally chilly mornings to watch them being replayed.
It was my friend Sam who accosted me on my dawn walk to apprise me of the news that Gayle had batted well and Daren Ganga was holding on and looking solid. I turned back and went home to watch it unfold.
Something was being carefully constructed here. It wasn't just the patience of Marlon Samuels or Shivnarine Chanderpaul's meticulous century. One or two often make an appearance of it; no, something suggested that everyone had listened to the same lecture, read the same book and watched a movie together. Each member of the team seemed bound by the same rules of conduct, and was intent on contributing something to the outcome.
When they got to 408, scepticism predicted that South Africa would surpass that comfortably. But they didn't, and more intriguingly, never seemed to be comfortable with the bowling. They couldn't even avoid the follow-on, which Gayle chose not to enforce. The bowling this time was a pleasure to watch because it looked intelligent, focused and as tireless as Ntini.
And then came the second innings and Gayle, standing tall, dispatching the ball like so many pesky flies until he lost it at 29, and it seemed to set a different tone. The temperament of the second innings did not sustain the calm inspired by the first. Familiar doubts perched themselves on customary boughs stirring cauldrons of dread and hope, salted by sweat and tears of times gone by.
Could they not keep the pressure on? Were they relaxing their hold too early? Was it possible that they thought it was already a done deal? Despite the pleading tone of commentator Adriel Richards reassuring listeners that only six times in history had a side chasing that 350+ total achieved it, it was hard to feel confident of victory at stumps on day three. In two days anything could happen. And it did.
That the West Indies sent South Africa packing in less than a day, winning their first Test in nearly three years, was almost too much to believe. Most of the players on the team had never experienced a Test win before, and for them it must have been an extraordinary experience.
So what really made the difference? Was it the camaraderie inspired by Gayle that opened the door to team solidarity? Was he able to convince them that he knew what he was doing by his field decisions? Did the presence of Lloyd illuminate their role in this ongoing West Indian saga? Was it the impact of classroom sessions being folded into the training mix? Out of regard for the impact of a coach on a team, the Dyson factor cannot be assessed yet; but did the absence of the old coach contribute?
What was on display does not seem to be the effect of any one factor, and that is why it is more reassuring than any of the now-and-then victories that have casually visited over the last few years. It wasn't a one-man show, nor was it one-dimensional. Something came from every quadrant. This was actually a well-deserved victory, won by dint of having outplayed their opponent at every stage and in every department. It is one worth celebrating well so the team has a chance to savour success in the hope that they will develop an appetite for that too.
Vaneisa Baksh is a freelance journalist based in Trinidad