As West Indies began training on the sun-bathed outfield at Basin Reserve on the eve of their World Cup quarter-final, two players stood out from the group: Marlon Samuels - because he was not there - and Chris Gayle. While his team-mates warmed-up more vigorously, Gayle did things at a gentler intensity a short distance away. While they played a game of football, Gayle had a light catching-and-throwing drill and then padded up to hit full tosses from coach Stuart Williams. One of his drives broke a picket in the fence.
Whether Gayle would play New Zealand on account of his problematic back was the piece of information anyone was after. He was filmed and photographed all through his practice session - he did not look limber in the nets but full-on training is not usually Gayle's thing - and six out of the first nine questions West Indies captain Jason Holder fielded were about Gayle. The inquiry persisted when their chief selector Clive Lloyd came down for an interview too.
So will Gayle play on Saturday? The short answer is West Indies don't know yet. The long one is that he has had a cortisone injection, trained for the first time in days on Friday, and will be assessed on the morning of the game. Holder said Gayle's scans "didn't show anything major," but he would not be drawn into a guessing game on the likelihood of Gayle walking out to face the new ball.
Lloyd said, "once Chris is fit, he must play," but might West Indies gamble on playing him even if he is not 100%? Can a batsman who might not be able to move as quickly as necessary combat swing bowlers in prime form? Will he be able to nip a single to take the strike if his partner is struggling against a particular bowler?
Is the notion of what Gayle might do clouding what he has done in recent memory? His 215 against Zimbabwe was only his second hundred in 37 ODI innings, to go with one half-century in this period, during which he averaged 22. Thirteen West Indians - and not all of them are specialist batsmen - average more than Gayle in this period. Samuels' figure is nearly 42, but if he were in doubt he wouldn't have got this attention. Gayle can perform super-human feats on a good day but they are becoming rare in international cricket, and if he is leaden footed at the Regional Stadium, Tim Southee and Trent Boult will more than fancy their chances.
"He's one of the most feared batsmen in world cricket," Holder said, when asked what significance Gayle held for the West Indies team. "So to have Chris in my squad is a plus for anybody. Just his presence alone is felt. We just hope that he can perform the way he's been known to perform over the years and we get the best of him.
"We won the last game without him, so I can't say we can't win without him, you know? We've got Johnson Charles who came in the last game, and he got a half-century and looked the part. So we've got people to fill the boots in a sense. But obviously having Chris Gayle is a plus for us."
That Holder was asked whether West Indies could win without Gayle is an indication of how the other batsmen have performed. Samuels has a top score of 133 not out in the World Cup but only 70 runs in five other innings; Denesh Ramdin has 107 runs in five innings; and Dwayne Smith's pre-tournament career average of 19 has suffered because he's been able to score only 93 in six innings. Apart from the game against Zimbabwe, West Indies have always been two down inside the first ten overs. There are no other batting options on the bench either, so a half-fit Gayle might indeed produce more than Smith.
The mis-firing top order is only part of West Indies' problems. They began their campaign without their strongest squad, were soundly beaten by Ireland and lost Darren Bravo to injury. Holder was matter of fact about the turbulence endured by his team.
"You know, we're professionals," he said. "We just have to be professional with what we do. Obviously there will be obstacles and obviously there will be difficult times, and it's important we just look past it and try to move on from it. It makes no sense to dwell on certain issues and certain situations. The quicker we find solutions and move forward I think it will be better for the team … the main thing is that we're here tomorrow in this quarter-final and we're looking to win it.
"Obviously, if you've been following, people pretty much didn't expect us to get to the quarter-final stage and now we're here. So for us, we're just going out all guns blazing tomorrow and just giving our all. New Zealand can be beaten."
New Zealand may indeed be beaten by Gayle. But if he doesn't play, and West Indies can still find a way past Brendon McCullum's well-oiled steamroller, what a story that would be.