An end to dismal memories
A long catalogue of humiliation and dismal memories for West Indies in South Africa were finally and emphatically expunged at St George's Park yesterday.
By whatever criterion it is judged, their victory in the first of the three Tests, quarter-hour before the close of the fourth day by the irrefutable margin of 128 runs, was as remarkable and satisfying as any in their history.
It was their first in South Africa after two previous series in which they were crushed 5-0 in 1998-99 and 3-0 with the thin consolation of a draw in the other in 2003-04.
Not since they defeated England by an innings in three days at Edgbaston in 2000-ahead of three successive losses-had they won an overseas Test against a team above them in the International Cricket Council (ICC) rankings.
Since then, they have drifted further and further down the table to No.8. Taking on opponents now ranked joint second who had won their previous four series, and just three days after their loss by 10 wickets in three days to South Africa's second team, West Indies were given as much chance as a shack in a hurricane.
The scenes of joy by the players on the field and the reserves who rushed on to join them when the upset was complete at quarter-to-six, with Daren Powell's catch at cover off Makhaya Ntini's skied slog, were unrestrained, understandable and completely justified.
It was especially sweet for Chris Gayle, captain by chance in his first Test at the helm, whose leadership has been credited by one player after another for the resurgence so evident since he took over in the absence through injury of Ramnaresh Sarwan in England last summer. For Dwayne Bravo, the newly appointed vice-captain, the thrill was extra special.
The ebullient allrounder had never been on a victorious team in his previous 23 Tests, a barren period only the New Zealander Bert Sutcliffe and the Zimbabwean Bryan Strang had previously endured. His 50th Test wicket as the end neared was a bonus.
The result was doubly satisfying in that it was earned through team work in which all eleven had an input and a level of all-round discipline not often maintained in the recent past.
The fact that their bowlers sent down a solitary no-ball throughout the match was just one indication of their self-control.
Their troubles were compounded as Sarwan, one of their leading batsmen, was back in the Caribbean nursing a leg injury back to fitness while Gayle was in doubt up until the morning of the match with a recovering torn hamstring.
Choosing to play, his first decision was to call the toss wrong so that his team was obliged to bat first on a pitch of unknown quality.
In spite of such a pessimistic backdrop-perhaps, even because of it, West Indies dominated every session of play except a mad final hour on the third day when the self-doubt that has been the bane of their cricket briefly resurfaced.
By then, they had established such a commanding position that the reversal could not shake their resolve.
They returned in hot, cloudless sunshine yesterday to complete the job with an efficiency that only lapsed when their triumph was a formality, allowing fast bowlers Andre Nel and Dale Steyn to blast three sixes and seven fours between them in a merry ninth wicket partnership of 67 from 10 overs.
It couldn't last and when Nel snicked a catch to Denesh Ramdin off Darren Sammy he was followed an over later by Ntini to set off the celebrations.
If the collapse of six wickets for 34 runs in the closing hour the previous afternoon caused anxiety among watching West Indians, in press and commentary boxes and in front of television screens back home, the players themselves were convinced that the blip was immaterial to the result.
Bravo said a lead of between 300 and 350 was enough for the bowlers to work with and the advantage of 359 at the start was stretched to a winning goal of 389, mainly through Jerome Taylor's adventurous 22 off 28 balls that included a six over long-on off left-arm spinner Paul Harris and two fours.
Harris rounded off the innings half an hour into the day and in the 18 overs available before lunch, the die was cast.
Generating speeds consistently clocked at around 90 mph on the speed gun, with allied control, Powell and Fidel Edwards prised out three wickets for 20 half-way through the 10th over.
It became 45 for from the fourth ball after lunch before, predictably, Jacques Kallis, South Africa's main man, dropped anchor and kept West Indies waiting for just over three hours in a partnership of 112 from 31.1 overs with AB deVilliers, the first innings top scorer.
Lacking rhythm, control or a wicket in the first innings, Edwards quickly found all three second time round.
Denesh Ramdin repeatedly had to leap to haul down screamers and then gathered Hashim Amla's edge from a defensive bat, too late to handle the pace.
It was Graeme Smith's turn next. He was almost throttled by two rib-ticklers in the same over, fending off the second with his glove for Daren Ganga to dive across the pitch to seize the catch. When the left-handed Ashwell Prince was taken low down at first slip by Gayle off Taylor's fourth ball into the second session, South Africa's fight was left, once again, in Kallis' competent care. Out for a rare duck in the first innings, he was in such command, advancing to within 15 of his sixth hundred in nine Test innings, that the only seeming way he could be removed was either through an unplayable delivery or a piece of luck.
It was the latter for the ball that claimed him, lifting and down the leg side, was better left not played. Instead, Kallis had a go at it and was clearly astonished to see umpire Russell Tiffin's raised finger in answer to the appeal for a keeper's catch.
With the greatest obstacle out of the way, West Indies bided their time, spreading the field with men patrolling the square boundaries on either side, and waited for the lesser blocks to fall. deVilliers survived a sharp chance to Runako Morton at second slip off Taylor at 43 but even he seemed to have no further interest in the fight.
Mark Boucher dragged the ball back into his stumps, attempting to pull Taylor, Harris did the same against Bravo and, with reputable partners all gone, deVilliers lifted Taylor to mid-on, a slack way to end a stay of three hours 40 minutes that yielded 60. To the accompaniment of the famous resident brass band in the popular stand, Nel and Steyn enlivened the small, previously muted crowd with their hitting but it was no more than a final fanfare.