The theme of despair running through West Indies cricket for a decade and more has never been more blatant than in the current series against South Africa. It was increasingly so as the opposing batsmen gathered complimentary runs in the second Test at Warner Park on Friday and yesterday, three of them hundreds.
In the preceding five ODIs and the first Test, West Indies' batting lacked resolve and cricketing common sense (to use the phrase of coach Ottis Gibson). It will again be under pressure to survive against the weight of South Africa's mammoth total of 543 for six declared, the sixth over 500 in the West Indies' last 12 Tests. The bowling, further weakened by the unfitness of its fastest men, has been ineffective. When chances were offered as the ruthless South Africans built their strong foundation on Friday, they slipped through inattentive fingers. If not as many as the six put down in England's first innings at Kensington Oval last season or the same number fluffed in a single session at Lord's two months later, the three missed on the opening day on Friday were similarly debilitating. And, as usual, the overall fielding has been at a standard not expected even at the junior level.
Above all, the whole operation has been without direction.
When Graeme Smith won the toss on Friday, Chris Gayle immediately announced his disappointment that he would be kept in the field for a day or more on a pitch he described as 'a road'. He was simply resigned to his fate. In effect, he conceded the match was beyond West Indies before a ball was bowled. It was not a message his players, already short of self-belief, needed to hear.
The captain has never been one to exert unnecessary energy in the field. His movements befit his description of himself as the coolest dude in cricket. Now, reportedly carrying a strained groin, he was virtually motionless either at slip or short midwicket. His injury presumably prevented him from delivering a single over. He looked every bit the reluctant captain he declared himself to be in England last year. Gayle made bowling changes as if by rote. Even with the total passing 400 with only the three wickets down, he employed two short legs for his new offspinner Shane Shillingford. The Dominican has fit effortlessly into his role on his late entrance into Test cricket and responded manfully to his demands. But his figures were unflattering and undeserved. Only time will tell what damage they might have inflicted on his morale.
Others could have lessened Shillingford's load. He was called on for 52 overs, an amount he had never previously experienced. Sulieman Benn had 20 fewer. Ravi Rampaul and Dwayne Bravo had 18 each. The leader's attitude inevitably permeates his players.
Since he became captain three years ago, Gayle's main attributes have been the support of his players and his ability to lead from the front with his batting. The latter was most evident in his unbeaten 165, batting through the innings, and his 70-ball 102 in successive innings that led to the revival in the final two Tests in Australia late last year after an innings loss in the first.
That confidence was missing here. Perhaps his spirit has been finally crushed by the results leading into this series (19 losses against seven wins, four over Zimbabwe, in ODIs and Twenty20 Internationals for the year) and the loss of so many key players through injury.
The time has come for the selectors to seek someone else to try to lift players out of their insecurity. Gayle might even make the decision for himself. The perennial question arises. If not Gayle, then who? And if Gayle is replaced, would he stay on as the vital opening batsman he has been throughout his tenure in charge?
Dwayne Bravo is the answer to the first question. He is vice-captain and, for all the unfulfillment of his all-round talent, it is difficult to imagine him allowing things to drift as they did at Warner Park. His energy and enthusiasm are the antithesis of Gayle's cool. In the second case, Gayle would obviously be missed but equally, for all the Twenty20 tournaments mushrooming all over the planet and his widely publicised comments on Test cricket last year, international cricket has become too much of his life and he might find it difficult to abandon it altogether.
A rotation of captains over a dozen years, eight in all from Richie Richardson to Gayle, has made no difference to West Indies' woes. It might not do now either but, on the evidence of the last couple of months and, more especially, the last couple of days, Gayle has come to the end of the line.