West Indies v South Africa, 2nd semi-final, Champions Trophy November 1, 2006

Ntini and Nel face Gayle test

Chris Gayle will play a crucial role with bat and ball in the semi-finals © Getty Images

As Graeme Smith and Brian Lara size up each other's team, knowing that one will exit stage left come Thursday night, the form book suggests West Indies are a safe bet. Barring their collapse for 80 against Sri Lanka and then a loss to England in a match of little consequence, West Indies have been the team to watch. They don't have a single player out of form, and the only concern for the defending champions is over Brian Lara's back - which, though making endless headlines is yet to cause him to miss a match.

But the South Africans are not in Jaipur merely to take in the sights of the Pink City. They can rightly claim to being the second best one-day side in the world and the only one, barring Australia, to show some degree of consistency. And this could be the single most important thing in their favour in the semi-final. There are no second chances, and the 50-over format gives you little time to claw your way back if you lose early ground.

South Africa, some might say, did themselves a disservice by winning the last match against Pakistan and qualifying at the top of their group. Had they come second, they would have been at Mohali, potentially playing on a rock-hard surface that had enough grass on it to sustain a grazing cow for a day or two. The pitch at Jaipur looks surprisingly white, and quite dry, and it remains to be seen how much bounce it offers.

South Africa have come far on the back of their two tireless fast bowlers, Makhaya Ntini and Andre Nel. Their styles are different: One wide of the crease and slanting the ball in, the other dead straight and moving it out, one aggressive in the way the ball jags up towards the rib cage, the other confrontational in the manner in which he psychologically and verbally roughs up batsmen. Yet both are focussed, both are capable of winning a game single-handed.

And then there's Shaun Pollock to maintain order, getting slower by the day, but more miserly with runs as well. The weak link, if such a thing comes into the picture, is spin. For all Smith might say about backing a young spinner, Robin Peterson, the slow left-armer, will not cause any batsmen to lose sleep.

Shaun Pollock may be getting slower but he's also getting more miserly © Getty Images

In contrast, you might say that the West Indian bowling attack is no great shakes but you couldn't be more wrong. Ian Bradshaw may not sling it like Jeff Thomson or swing it like Wasim Akram but he's one of the best left-arm medium pacers around in one-day cricket. It sounds like stating the obvious but his adherence to line-and-length as if his life depended on it - and his cricketing one does, for at his pace you can't afford to stray - and canny use of cutters ensures that he usually gets through 10 overs, often on the trot, conceding no more than 40 runs and picking up a crucial wicket or three.

Jerome Taylor and Fidel Edwards both have pace but, as Curtly Ambrose put it so eloquently, you sometimes think a brain transplant is in order. Corey Collymore, if fit, walks into the line-up, and is steady and persevering. That Lara, and in his absence Ramnaresh Sarwan, have got so much out of this attack, is a testament to West Indies' clever leadership.

This has not been a tournament where batsmen have run away with matches but if there's one man who is a constant threat, it's Chris Gayle. He hits the ball so hard that Clive Lloyd must be having a chuckle in the dressing-room, thinking back to a time when he terrorised bowlers in similar merciless manner. Sarwan and Shivnarine Chanderpaul, joined by Runako Morton, Marlon Samuels and Dwayne Bravo, are developing into a potent batting line-up, capped off by Lara, who has batted so low down in the order in this tournament for strategic reasons.

South Africa's batting has its weak links, but goes so deep that it's hard to see this department being a worry. Mark Boucher, who has recently been restored to his A+ status as far as contracts go thanks to performances in the past year, is the kind of batsman who has the will and wherewithal to make runs on different surfaces, against a variety of bowling. He's a good man to have coming to the crease at 250 for 3, when you need a few big hits to lift you past 300, and equally dependable if you're 40 for 5 and need a rearguard. He's a scrapper, and that characterises this South African team. They just don't give up, even if they're taking a pounding. You don't beat them on points, you need a knockout, and West Indies will know this as they head into their semi-final on Thursday.

Anand Vasu is assistant editor of Cricinfo