'Teams fear us' - Gayle
Through two Tests, three one-day internationals and a Twenty20 practice match, West Indies had played the role of Peter McNeeley to England's Mike Tyson. Each crushing bodyblow took with it confidence and reputation, and if John Dyson had at his disposal a white towel, it would presumably have sailed over the ropes sometime around the third ODI.
Then came the shot at redemption. Already million-dollar babies after their Stanford payday, West Indies positioned themselves for a shot at a recognised belt with impressive World Twenty20 victories over tournament heavyweights India and Australia, and stoic defeats to title contenders Sri Lanka and South Africa. Standing in their way were the bruisers of England. Rocky films should pine for such a plot.
In the end, as with all good rags-to-riches tales, victory was both sweet and hard-earned. All but written off after their disastrous summer campaign - which, for good measure, included one final nine-wicket thumping to England in a pre-tournament 20-over warm-up - the Windies defied critics and opponents alike to qualify for the World Twenty20 semi-finals with a nerve-shredding victory over their recent conquerers.
After losing five early wickets in a rain-reduced run-chase - each a standing-eight count of its own - it was left to Shivnarine Chanderpaul and Ramnaresh Sarwan to guide West Indies past England's revised target of 80 with a composed stand of 37 from 20 balls. The veteran duo have been called upon to dig the Windies out of many a jam over the years, but their recent Twenty20 form - 71 runs in a combined eight matches prior to Monday - made this pursuit that little less predictable, that little more special.
"After the disaster of the tour here in England we wanted to give the supporters something to cheer about," Chris Gayle said. "It was good to see them in the stands cheering and jumping. We're trying to entertain and at the same time we're trying to get a few victories under our belts. We looked really happy and we're just trying to finish off on a high. I'm really proud of the guys and the way they've gone about it right through the tournament. It's been a long, hard summer for us and to be in the semi-finals is brilliant."
The signs looked ominous for West Indies when, barely a minute before the coin toss, Fidel Edwards was struck down with back pain while warming up. Those concerns were compounded when Ravi Bopara and Kevin Pietersen combined for a spirited second-wicket stand of 56, raising the expectations and volume of The Oval faithful.
Momentum began to lurch back the Windies' way when Lendl Simmons, fast emerging as a true Twenty20 trump in this tournament, claimed the vital wicket of Pietersen, and further still when Dwayne Bravo accounted for Owais Shah and Paul Collingwood. But the true shift in power came with the news that England's competitive total of 161 for 6 had been reduced to a far more accessible Duckworth-Lewis target of 80 from nine overs. Reckless batting could hardly be punished with a full ten wickets in hand.
"As I was looking at the game, it was one big over away from getting to a run-a-ball," Sarwan said. "We were calm and I had the support of Shiv at the next end. We both are experienced players and we've experienced situations like this before. It wasn't really too hard."
The bad vibes of a summer of discontent were dispelled to the dark recesses of the mind when the Windies stormed the field en masse following Sarwan's match-winning drive to the boundary. The images were reminiscent of those that accompanied West Indies stunning Champions Trophy victory at this very ground in 2004, and Gayle believes his rejuvinated team can emulate that feat in the World Twenty20 finals
"To be honest with you, a lot of teams fear us," he said. "We were written off from the start of the tournament and we're actually in the semi-final. If you look at each and everyone of our players and we're actually winners."
Alex Brown is deputy editor of Cricinfo