Brian Lara and Carl Hooper turned the gathering gloom at a packed Kensington Oval yesterday into flag-waving celebration with a partnership of exquisite strokeplay that pulled the West Indies from impending trouble.
Their fourth-wicket stand of 116, filled with 17 boundaries that found every corner of the ground, lifted the West Indies from a desperate position on the third day of the third Test. But the South Africans regained their grip late in the day when, with eight overs remaining, Lara pulled the pacy Jacques Kallis, using the second new ball in the absence of Alan Donald, straight to mid-on to end his best innings of the series at 83.
It was a crucial break as the West Indies struggled to deny South Africa the option of enforcing the follow-on.
They were still 37 short of their target when Lara headed sadly for the Sobers Pavilion after four hours, 50 minutes' batting. His innings had developed from cautious beginnings into the dominance that still makes the left-hander, for all his recent failures, the most devastating batsman of the day but he knew it was not enough.
With only wicket-keeper Ridley Jacobs and an insignificant tail to follow, the West Indies faced a nervous six-and-a-half overs to close. But captain Hooper and Jacobs carried them to within three of their goal at 252 for five.
Hooper, continuing the form that has brought him over 1 000 runs for the season at an average in the 80s, remained unbeaten 74, his highest score in 11 Tests at Kensington and with his first hundred as West Indies captain beckoning. He hardly made a blemish in three hours, 20 minutes in which he hit 11 fours. It is not altogether true that he is incapable of an ugly stroke for there was one, a skewed drive that spooned just short of cover, off the 142 balls he has received.
The late, eminent English cricket writer, E.W. Swanton, once wrote: "Cricket has nothing so purely delightful as the sight of Hooper and Lara together."
For three hours, 50 minutes yesterday, on a gloriously sunny day, a happy, colourful, cosmopolitan crowd appreciated the sentiments.
Their contrasting styles, one left-handed, one right, added to their attraction and every shot in the book was on show - some all power, some all timing.
They came together 25 minutes before tea when Ramnaresh Sarwan's careful stay of an hour and 35 minutes was ended by a catch to cover off Makhaya Ntini's first ball of a spell.
With his team faltering at 102 for four, Hooper joined Lara who, short of runs in the previous two Tests, had batted cautiously for two hours for 28. Half-hour earlier, at 21, he had a long and tense wait while third umpire Halley Moore considered several television replays, including an isolated magnified view, of a claim for a low catch by wicket-keeper Mark Boucher off Shaun Pollock. The pictures proved inconclusive and Moore pressed the green light to the jubilant relief of the 12 000 in the stands.
Lara went to tea on 35 after two-and-three-quarter hours in the middle but he and Hooper immediately raised the tempo on resumption against a South African attack without fast bowler Alan Donald who was having a sore right hamstring attended to on the physio's table.
They peppered the boundaries with strokes in every direction, adding 54 from 14 overs in the first hour of the final session.
In Donald's absence, Kallis was given the second new ball and, at a pace not much below Donald's, rushed Lara's pull shot that brought his downfall. The stand between Lara and Hooper contrasted with the first half of the day when the four young West Indies batsmen failed to make use of the ideal batting conditions.
The left-handed Jamaicans Wavell Hinds and Chris Gayle survived the four difficult overs available to South Africa on the previous evening and saw off the opening salvo of Pollock and Alan Donald yesterday morning.
The first change, after 50 minutes, made the breakthrough. Hinds lazily prodded at Jacques Kallis' second ball and touched a catch to wicket-keeper Mark Boucher after spending three-quarters of an hour and 30 balls on two.
In height and in backfoot style, Gayle, 21, is reminiscent of Clive Lloyd, the former West Indies captain and murderer of bowling in his heyday.
He thumped six powerful off-side boundaries and earned a seventh from a delicate leg glance off Donald when Ntini beat him with pace and then found his edge in a challenging over. Gayle had made 40 from 71 balls before Cullinan snapped him up at first slip.
Marlon Samuels, 20, entered in the demanding No.3 position and was kept on two for 25 balls before Kallis tempted him with a bouncer that he uncertainly hooked to the square-leg boundary. Two balls later, Kallis offered him the bait again and this time the shot lobbed to mid-on, a dismissal that emphasised Samuels' youthful innocence. Sarwan had fallen into the same trap at a critical stage on the last day in the second Test.
It left the West Indies shaky at 60 for three at lunch and when Sarwan departed after a stand of 45 with Lara it needed something special from the captain and his finest player. They delivered.