Stronger than before
Although still beset by general inconsistency and the technical deficiency of their batsmen, West Indies emerged from their third series in South Africa stronger than when it began.
They won an overseas Test over established opposition for the first time in seven years, an entirely unexpected result, and an antidote to the defeatism that had enveloped West Indies cricket as a whole, in spite of their subsequent reversals. In Chris Gayle, holding on while Ramnaresh Sarwan regained fitness, they found a captain by chance, an unlikely leader with the indefinable quality of getting the best out those under him.
Clive Lloyd, himself such a skipper in the glory days of the 1970s and 1980s, felt that Gayle has "got the sort of charisma that's been lacking in the past". "I believe he can become the hub of a team that is only a player or two short of becoming very good," he said.
The difference between the on-field performance when Gayle was in charge and when he was missing was marked. He must surely now retain the position with Sarwan, when he returns for the demanding home contests against Sri Lanka and Australia, as his deputy.
South Africa's captain Graeme Smith noted that this team showed "a lot more discipline, a lot more character" than he had experienced in his two previous series against the West Indies, home and away. Their coach, Mikey Arthur, was even more fulsome in his comments. Their defeats in the second and third Tests were by the irrefutable margins of seven wickets and an innings and 100 runs. They were the kind of results that had been widely anticipated prior to the series yet Smith said his team had "to work very hard" to draw level.
John Dyson, the new head coach, acknowledged that South Africa had improved after their loss in the first Test and that they were the better team. Even so, West Indies were considerably handicapped by injury and illness. In the second Test, Fidel Edwards limped off after 4.5 overs with a strained hamstring, only to return to bat with a runner. It instantly removed the bowler whose pace had been a major factor in completing the first Test triumph a few days earlier.
Gayle bravely came in last in the second innings with his own hamstring problem and a fractured thumb, effectively forcing him to bat on one leg and with one hand. Yet he still smashed three sixes and four fours in 38. His absence from the decisive Test was an incalculable setback but not the only one. Dwayne Bravo, an apprentice in such a role, had to fill the breach as captain without the services of one of the game's most feared opening batsmen to take on the opposition's loaded fast attack but, carrying a side strain, also without his own bowling. One was as serious as the other since there was no more likely wicket-taker in all conditions than Bravo with his controlled and varied medium-pace swing and cut.
Nor was the misfortune at an end. There was no way back from a first innings deficit of 417 but, in ideal batting conditions, no one was more certain to make the South Africans sweat than Shivnarine Chanderpaul. Instead, he was the one doing the sweating, under several blankets as a debilitating flu prevented him from batting. Marlon Samuels filled his role, closing a series in which he finally affirmed himself as a Test batsman with a hundred, only his second in 27 Tests and seven years.
This was a born-again cricketer, not the strokemaker who had infuriated all who recognised his ability with flashy cameos. He batted as long, all told, as the adhesive Chanderpaul, just over 17 hours, and actually received more deliveries, 674 to 662. Yet it didn't curb his flair. His 46 fours were more than by anyone on either side.
There were other advances. Jerome Taylor, pacy and probing, seldom had a poor spell and his batting prompted Dyson to encourage him to pay more attention to it. "He really should aim to become a genuine all-rounder," Dyson said. "His batting is certainly good enough for it." Denesh Ramdin, whose wicket-keeping was immaculate throughout, was another Dyson felt was worth more with the bat. "We've worked on Denesh's technique just to tighten his defence," the coach noted. "He's got a good range of shots and a good head. He certainly has it in him to give us more runs at No.7."
Shortcomings remain. An opening partner for Gayle, bowlers not only with pace but with control and, according to Lloyd, a left-handed all-rounder who bowls decent spin are required to make the team competitive against the best. For his experience, Daren Ganga's continued selection was understandable but no longer. Devon Smith couldn't get a run, far less a game and Brenton Parchment didn't look the part on debut.
Opportunity knocks for someone not yet tried. Sarwan's return to No.3 will be an obvious boost. Runako Morton, a 100 per cent trier, was given the awesome, almost unfair, task of filling the position once occupied by the likes of George Headley, Everton Weekes, Rohan Kanhai and Viv Richards but was never going to be up to it. As Edwards, Taylor, Bravo and Daren Powell dispatched the South African top-order cheaply in both innings in the first Test, a dangerous fast bowling axis seemed to have formed.
Edwards and Powell are the quickest but their inconsistency was evident in the later Tests when they repeatedly pounded the ball in short and were just as repeatedly hammered. It was futile bowling that accentuated their already unflattering statistics and obliges selectors to look to other contenders. They, and all those who deal in speed, should have taken note of the formula for success of the Man of the Series, Dale Steyn - very fast, straight, with a little movement and the odd bouncer. The West Indies once produced Steyn equivalents by the score. They could do with one now.