Without putting too fine a point on it, West Indies' 128-run victory in Port Elizabeth was one of the major surprises of 2007. They hadn't won a Test for 19 months and, more significantly, had beaten major opposition away from home only once since the turn of the millennium. Now the question is whether they can continue to turn the tables on South Africa in the New Year Test in Cape Town and complete a series triumph no one really thought was possible.
The key to their success last week was a determined effort from the batsmen, which set up a total of 408 for the five-pronged pace attack to bowl at. An undercooked South Africa battling line-up slumped twice, although West Indies still showed their ability to conjure a collapse as they lost 6 for 22 late on the third day. It didn't cost them dearly - and meant the possibility of a safety-first declaration was taken out of Chris Gayle's hands - but they will need more of their stickability to keep the home side at bay for a second time.
Shivnarine Chanderpaul led the batting with a fine 104, but his limpet-like qualities are already well-known. The eye-catching performance came from Marlon Samuels, named Man of the Match after his innings of 94 and 40, as he showed previously unseen powers of concentration and responsibility.
"Test cricket is very difficult and I would love to get a chance to play more Test matches back-to-back instead of being in and then out of the side so often," Samuels told the Jamaica Gleaner. "It will give me the chance of getting better scores more regularly and being more consistent. I was very disappointed that I didn't get the century, but if I could score 94 and the West Indies go on to win every time, I'll be satisfied."
South Africa have tried to avoid appearing in panic mode and they have recent form in bouncing back from an early loss. Last year they slipped up against India in Johannesburg before coming back to taking the series 2-1. Mickey Arthur, the coach, said: "We've won four Test series in a row. We intend to win this one too. The bowling attack has led us to victory in the last four Tests we've played, and don't forget they bowled the West Indies out for 175 in the second innings. We had one bad innings and that happens to teams from time to time."
Captain Graeme Smith is also banking on the past experiences of his team: "We had a very good training session yesterday, and we seem to be hitting our straps again," he said. "Hopefully it's just about executing and getting things right out in the middle. We know we're capable of it, we've proven our worth. We know we're going to play this game under pressure, and we know we can play a lot better than we did in Port Elizabeth."
However, the call-up of Neil McKenzie highlights the concerns over the top order, which has failed to perform consistently for a lengthy period of time. Even during their success in Pakistan and easy victory over New Zealand the run-scoring was largely in the hands of Jacques Kallis and Hashim Amla. Smith is desperately in need of a score and Herschelle Gibbs appears set to pay the price for his pair in the first Test.
The axe has been looming over Gibbs for some time; his last Test century came in January 2005 against England in Johannesburg and in the subsequent 26 Tests he has averaged 26. But the selection of McKenzie, one of the few high scorers in domestic cricket, to open while he is primarily a middle-order batsman shows the lack of options available. Boeta Dippenaar was another option, but there has been a push around South Africa to get McKenzie back in the fold for some time.
Another old face pushing for a recall is Shaun Pollock, who hasn't played Tests this season after being left out in Pakistan, and Arthur said "he's definitely in the reckoning." A return for Pollock would strengthen the lower order to a more familiar level for South Africa. However, the management has been keen to build the attack on the three frontline quicks and Paul Harris, with a view to the tough tours of England and Australia later this year. Recent events, though, could force a rethink as this series against West Indies, initially thought to be a formality, has now became a major challenge for South Africa.
South Africa (probable) 1 Graeme Smith (capt), 2 Neil McKenzie, 3 Hashim Amla, 4 Jacques Kallis, 5 Ashwell Prince, 6 AB de Villiers, 7 Mark Boucher (wk), 8 Shaun Pollock, 9 Paul Harris, 10 Dale Steyn, 11 Makhaya Ntini
West Indies (probable) 1 Chris Gayle (capt), 2 Daren Ganga, 3 Runako Morton, 4 Marlon Samuels, 5 Shivnarine Chanderpaul, 6 Dwayne Bravo, 7 Denesh Ramdin (wk), 8 Darren Sammy, 9 Jerome Taylor, 10 Daren Powell, 11 Fidel Edwards