Gayle and Fletcher blast past Australia
Don't call this an upset. Twenty20 is where it is at for West Indies, by their captain's admission, and they have copped a fair amount of flak for that comment and their subsequent poor performances in more traditional forms of cricket. So there was a sense of anticipation over how they would fare in their "preferred" format. Come match day in the Group of Death, and West Indies, and Chris Gayle, turned up for the first time in two months. They fielded pathetically but that characteristic trait was sandwiched between superb opening bowling and explosive batting.
Australia ended the match as they entered it - yet to beat West Indies in this format. Their previous meeting was a similar comprehensive defeat, by seven wickets in Barbados. This, though, was a full 20-over contest on a belter of a pitch that was flat and fast. West Indies still had 4.1 overs to spare in the end.
The pace off the surface worked for both the West Indies bowlers and batsmen. While Jerome Taylor and Fidel Edwards used the briskness and clever variations to take early wickets, the ball traveled as fast off the bats of Gayle and Andre Fletcher as it came on to them.
West Indies took the lead right from the first over of the match, bowled by Taylor. That over had everything: the outswinger, the slower ball, the slower bouncer, sharp straight delivery, and two wickets. But for three wides Australia would have been 0 for 2.
But while the other batsmen had to contend with fiery treatment from the bowlers, David Warner experienced the fielders' generosity. In Taylor's second over, two fumbles in the infield resulted in two boundaries and Warner was off. Australia were not out of trouble yet, though. When Michael Clarke toe-ended a fast short delivery from Edwards to third man, they had stumbled to 15 for 3.
A mix of responsible batting from Warner and sloppy fielding helped Australia slowly claw their way back. Denesh Ramdin missed a difficult leg-side stumping that would have sent Brad Haddin back even before he had started the reconstruction along with Warner.
A 66-run stand ensued, so did more misfields and drops even after West Indies came back to get rid of Warner and Haddin. David Hussey threatened to capitalise, hit three huge sixes, but finally fell for 27 to an impressive catch from Andre Fletcher, diving in from wide long-on.
Thanks to the poor fielding, Australia got to at least 15 more than they should have got, but it didn't prove decisive. What did prove decisive was not entirely unforeseen either. Gayle came out a man possessed, crashing through wide mid-off the first ball of the chase. Two balls later he upper-cut Brett Lee, and it rubbed off on to Fletcher at the other end.
His catch had minimised the damage towards the end of Australia's innings, and now he was in the mood to maximise damage. The first ball he faced, he heaved Mitchell Johnson over mid-on, and flicked the next over square leg for a six. Gayle chose to take his time as Fletcher went about dismantling the opening bowlers. He played fearlessly, lofting and hoicking and backing away and crashing Lee through the off side.
Once Gayle saw Fletcher get ahead of himself, though, and have a skier dropped by Michael Hussey, the captain took charge. And how. Lee's third over went for two fours and three sixes, one of them into the adjoining Archbishop Tennyson School and one on the roof, which in Ian Chappell's reckoning was the biggest six hit at The Oval.
If Australia were looking for some respite through slower pace from Nathan Bracken, there were barking up the wrong tree. By the time Fletcher got two leg-byes off James Hopes in the seventh over, the required run-rate had dropped to six an over. With the next ball, Gayle got to his 50, in 23 balls.
In the 2006 Champons Trophy final Gayle had got West Indies off to a similar start, but once he got out they had collapsed spectacularly. But Gayle dropped anchor today, letting Fletcher take the charge once more, and making sure the infamous West Indies collapse never happened.
Australia, who had chosen to be severe on Andrew Symonds, would have rued not playing a specialist spinner. That's the kind of balance Symonds provides to the team. But they moved their bowlers around. After Bracken failed, they tried David Hussey - who was lofted for a straight six first ball by Gayle.
Fletcher, too, went on the offensive, on-driving Bracken, and then heaving Johnson to reach his fifty off just 31 balls. In his sober incarnation in the latter part of the innings, Gayle got 38 runs in 27 deliveries, hitting three more sixes to take his tally to six.
By the time he got out he was within 12 of a century, and West Indies 13 of a win. More importantly, through responsible batting, Gayle made sure there was no repeat of the first match of the previous World Twenty20, when West Indies lost depite his century.
Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo