Under Gayle, confident Windies bid to wrap it up
West Indies enter the second Test against South Africa in Newlands in such an unaccustomed position that their greatest challenge is knowing how to maintain it.
Their resounding victory in Port Elizabeth was their first in the opening match of a series since an even heavier triumph over England in Edgbaston in 2000. The problem that has developed in the seven years since, and led to the failure to win another Test overseas, except over Zimbabwe and Bangladesh, has been as much in the mind as anything. As one loss followed another, it became a habit. Now they have the opportunity to develop a winning routine once more.
The present, justifiable euphoria will rapidly disappear should their cricket slip back into the mediocrity that has marked it for so long and, except for the last hour of the third day when six wickets tumbled for 22, was so happily replaced by all-round excellence in Port Elizabeth.
The momentum has shifted markedly in the short time between Tests. While West Indies can carry the same confident XI onto the field today and captain Chris Gayle can have the bonus of warning against complacency, South Africa are about to change their team for the first time in six Tests.
Herschelle Gibbs, one of their most senior players with 89 Tests to his name, is set to be dumped after an extended lean patch. A belated call went out Monday to Neil McKenzie, the 32-year-old right-hand bastman whose last Test was three years ago. He will reportedly open, a position he has rarely filled for Nos. 3 and 4 are his usual spots.
Shaun Pollock, now 34 but one of the finest allrounders the game has known and still a fine cricketer, was not required in their successful series in Pakistan in October or their 2-0 thrashing of New Zealand at home in November. Suddenly, his batting is needed to bolster the lower order and his accuracy to bring discipline to the bowling.
The word "panic" has appeared in cricket reports in the media and Alvin Reeve, writing in the Port Elizabeth Post the day after the Test, even argued the case for South African cricket to be overhauled. The confidence that South Africa was developing into a force ready to tackle Australia on equal terms in home-and-away series in a year's time has been eroded by one loss.
|While West Indies can carry the same confident XI onto the field today and captain Chris Gayle can have the bonus of warning against complacency, South Africa are about to change their team for the first time in six Tests|
Gayle and coach John Dyson would be buoyed by such disorder that is usually the preserve of West Indies. But they have been at pains to maintain their players' focus on their game rather than on the woes of the opposition, however satisfying that might be.
Whatever their troubles, South Africa's coach Mickey Arthur was in bullish mood yesterday. He noted that South Africa had come back from defeat in the opening Test against India to win the remaining two and had followed by taking the decisive final Test against Pakistan for a similar 2-1 outcome. "We've won four Test series in a row and we intend to win this one as well," he said. "The bowling has led us to victory in the last four Tests we've played and don't forget they bowled West Indies out for 175 in the second innings. We had one bad innings and that happens to teams from time to time."
In fact, West Indies amassed 408 in their first innings after they were sent in and South Africa had two bad innings in the first Test, all out for 196 and 260. Only AB de Villiers, in both innings, and Jacques Kallis, in the second, passed 50.
The cause was principally the quality of West Indies fast swing and seam bowlers, Daren Powell, Fidel Edwards, Jerome Taylor and Dwayne Bravo. It was the difference between the teams for South Africa's heralded spearhead, Dale Steyn, was well below his best in both speed and control and Makhaya Ntini, Andre Nel and Kallis were made to work hard for their pickings.
On what is regarded as the best pitch in South Africa, bowlers on both sides can expect more hard work. The result in Port Elizabeth has given new impetus to a contest that attracted daily crowds of less than 5000. West Indies cricket enjoys enormous goodwill here and there is an unmistakable sense of elation that it might just be on the rise again.
The same is true elsewhere. An e-mail to me from Osman Samiuddin, the Pakistan editor of Cricinfo, typified many that have been lodged by friends and colleagues. "Somehow through all the madness that has hit this country over the last few days, the one thing that kept a smile on my face through it was West Indies beating South Africa at Port Elizabeth," Samiuddin wrote from Lahore. "I watched all of it, as relief to the blanket coverage of Benazir's [Bhutto] death, and I haven't enjoyed a Test match played between two countries other than Pakistan that much since the Ashes 2005. I hope it leads to better things."
The coming few days will provide an early indication.