Courtney Walsh, for one, isn't surprised by the surprising West Indies' performance in their current Test series against South Africa.
"I never wrote them off or felt they couldn't beat South Africa because I never questioned the ability and the potential in the team," the former West Indies captain, who has followed the two Tests as television commentator, said. "What I did question was the level of commitment and team spirit. What I've seen in the two Tests here is a total turnaround. They've played as a tight unit and haven't depended on just one or two players."
He felt the main reason was that it is a basically young team with inexperienced players trying to make a name for themselves. There was also the influence of Chris Gayle's captaincy.
"Knowing Chris, I knew he could handle the job," Walsh said. "What was more of a revelation was the level of respect he has received from his team. Everyone seems to be playing for him which is key for any captain."
Walsh did not foresee a snag on the return to the team of Ramnaresh Sarwan, who was originally appointed captain following the retirement of Brian Lara during the World Cup in the West Indies last April. Gayle took over for the limited-overs internationals in England last summer once a shoulder injury ended Sarwan's involvement after the second of four Tests. He has done the same on the current tour of Zimbabwe and South Africa while Sarwan recovered from a leg injury.
"It certainly shouldn't be a problem between the two of them because they get on well," said Walsh, noting that Gayle had even tried to have the fit-again Sarwan join the injury-hit team in South Africa in time for the third Test. "I don't know what the [West Indies Cricket] board has in mind but it's a healthy position to be in with two men able to lead the team. But it needs to settle the issue soon before it has the potential to turn ugly."
Walsh was especially impressed with the advance of four individuals here. "We've known all along of Marlon Samuels' natural ability but what we've seen here for really the first time is the application to go with it," he said. "Brian has left a huge void in the middle order and it's there for someone to fill. Marlon has shown that he can be the man but he has to continue to buckle down if he is to become a genuine Test batsman."
Denesh Ramdin, Jerome Taylor and Fidel Edwards are others who commanded his attention. "Ramdin's been good behind the wickets and I liked the way he responded when he took on the job of opener [in the second Test] after Chris' injury. It showed character and that can lift a team."
Ramdin put his hand up in the team room when a volunteer was sought and, after an uncomfortable start, scored 32, sharing a stand of 59 with Daren Ganga. Taylor's fast bowling has been consistent and, after Edwards' fiery burst in the second innings that set up a West Indies victory in the first Test, Walsh felt this tour would have been the making of him as the spearhead of the attack.
He said the South Africans had been "put on notice" by Edwards' speed and controlled hostility. "It's a pity he broke down," he noted. "He would have made a difference in the remainder of the series and it would have given him the confidence to carry on."
While Gayle has already ruled himself out of the Durban Test because of the double whammy of his aggravated hamstring strain and fractured thumb in the second Test and Edwards is a very doubtful starter because of the grade 2 hamstring strain that restricted him to 4.5 overs in the second Test, Walsh stressed that their replacements can now make best use of the unexpected chance. "I've told all the players I've spoken to since I've been here to be ready to play their part, especially those who haven't yet been included in the Test XI," he said. "With Chris out, someone like [Brenton] Parchment or [Devon] Smith has a great chance and so does Pedro [Collins] if Fidel can't make it."
Parchment, the right-handed Jamaican, is on his first senior tour and yet to play a Test. Smith, the left-handed Windward Islander from Grenada, averages just under 25 in his ten Tests since his debut four years ago and could resurrect his career if chosen. Collins' 106 wickets in 32 Tests are more than anyone in the team but he has not played a Test since July 2006 against India in Kingston. His last first-class match for Barbados was in the Carib Beer Series final against Trinidad and Tobago last April.
It will also be a challenge for Dwayne Bravo, Gayle's deputy who takes on the captaincy for the first time in a critical Test. His first decision, if he wins the toss, is whether to bat or bowl. With rain in Durban over the last four days affecting preparation of a pitch that assistant groundsman Evan Flint predicts will be "soft and slow to start with" as a consequence.
Gayle did not have the choice under similar conditions prior to the first Test. Expecting a pitch that lacked preparation as a result, South Africa captain Graeme Smith chose to bowl when he won the toss. The decision backfired.Gayle's opening assault and his opening partnership of 98 with Ganga was the foundation for a total of 403 and the eventual victory.