West Indies play down historical edge

Chris Gayle played some big shots before he was dismissed for 28 AFP

It was 15 years and four World Cups ago that Brian Lara battered South Africa into submission. They had dominated the group stage of the World Cup, winning every match and then they ran into him. He smashed 111 off 94 balls, and received few other valuable contributions from the rest of the order that helped West Indies amass 264 for 8. South Africa were stunned and not even intent from Andrew Hudson, aggression from Daryll Cullinan and fight from Pat Symcox could take them over the line.

Seven years later, that same Lara blasted South Africa's dreams somewhere onto Table Mountain. With each of the 12 fours and two sixes that came off his bat that day, a small part of South African hope drifted up, up and away. In the end, his 116 was part of a very gettable score of 278 for 5 that the West Indies posted, and it was the Caribbean bowlers bowlers who burnt the last remaining bit of ambition South Africa had to win their World Cup opener on home soil and scattered the ashes all over the Cape coast.

Four years after that, in a different tournament, the World Twenty20, Chris Gayle threatened to do the same, this time planting South Africa's goals onto Corlett Drive in Johannesburg - quite literally. Gayle became the first man to score a century in Twenty20 cricket, his 117 came at a strike rate of over 200 and he propelled the West Indies to a score that has not been bettered in the format to that date. South Africa faced another defeat in the opening match of a major competition but this time the West Indian bowlers were not up for it and the hosts won albeit after receiving an almighty scare.

More than three years have passed and the two teams have another date. It's not a tournament opener in South Africa, but it is the first match either side will play in this competition. "It's a new tournament and it's in a different setting," as Dwayne Bravo said, but it's still a small slice of history that can be used as inspiration to one of the teams and a warning to the other, despite all that has changed since 1996.

The West Indies have lost 169 of the 320 matches they've played since then, more than half, including six ODI series to South Africa. They've gone from bad to worse to joke and every time it looks as though they are turning the corner, they slide right back to where they started. Except twice. In 2004, when they won the Champions Trophy and in 2006, when they reached the final of the same tournament.

Their victims in the semi-final in 2006 were none other than South Africa and, as if by some magic spell, Gayle was it again. The West Indies were chasing a modest 259 and Gayle didn't want to waste time doing it. His 133-ball 133 snatched any sign of a contest away and had Shivanarine Chanderpaul not retired with the score on 194 without loss, the South African bowlers were at real risk of never making a breakthrough.

It's become such a habit for West Indies to pull the rug from under South Africa's feet, usually with the help of one centurion, that Richie Richardson, now the West Indies team manager, says it will be no surprise if they do it again. "We have always beaten them, if we do that again it won't be an upset," he said. Still, he has cautioned the team not to rely or even think about the history. "We will not be going into the match thinking, we beat them in the past."

Most are with Bravo, saying the team has not even recalled the stories of matches of tournaments past. "We don't discuss South Africa's history in the World Cup and we don't discuss our history in the World Cup," he said. Only Chris Gayle flirted with the idea briefly when he said, "Give and take they are beatable," but he quickly added a condition, "all teams are beatable, we just have to try and be discreet going about our business." Like all teams, the West Indies are not talking the big talk until they've walked at least some of the big walk.

If there is one team that can do that with a distinctive swagger, it's them, so don't be surprised if there is a mysterious little spring in the Caribbean step on Thursday when they walk out to kick off their tournament against South Africa.