West Indies under pressure

Crisis follows crisis with unrelenting frequency in West Indies cricket and the latest, already formed, has become more pressing three days before the first Test against South Africa on Boxing Day.
As their feeble batting crumbled to their second meagre total and three-day defeat in East London against South Africa's second-string team on Friday, there remained doubt over whether captain Chris Gayle would regain fitness by then and be able to lead the team for the first time in a Test.

Media manager Philip Spooner said on Friday that the decision would be delayed until the eve of the match after day-by-day assessments by the medical staff, physiotherapists Jacqui Mowat-King and recently arrived Australian, CJ Smith. Gayle, who tore his right hamstring muscle in the second ODI in Zimbabwe on December 2, has returned to batting practice in the nets and resumed catching, running and stretching exercises, Spooner said.

But Gayle was realistic in his assessment of his injury. "I've been getting better and I'm really looking forward to playing in Port Elizabeth," he added. "Physically I'm feeling strong again and mentally I'm there. I have been doing work in the nets and trying to get back in the groove again."

Gayle is not only captain, albeit in place of the injured Ramnaresh Sarwan, but even more significantly the only available batsman apart from the perennial Shivnarine Chanderpaul with more than 50 Tests (68) and an average better than 35 (38.28). His handy offspin would also be missed in an attack based around pace.

He has thrived on his previous trips to South Africa, with two hundreds in three Tests and an average of 61, plus an unbeaten 152 in the final ODI, four years ago and 117 against the home team in the ICC World Twenty20 Championship last September.

The seriousness of his absence at the top of the order was simply emphasised by the double failure of the two openers, Devon Smith and Daren Ganga, in the East London match, the only one prior to the three back-to-back Tests. The left-handed Smith was out for ten and five, making a grand total of 51 runs in eight innings in matches in Zimbabwe and South Africa. Ganga, who played the first of his 45 spasmodic Tests here nine years ago, fell for 10 and 0, his first innings on tour since he was not in the ODI squad in Zimbabwe. For both, such setbacks would be psychologically shattering. Both struggled in the last series in England last summer, and must be aware they have all but exhausted their chances.

The only other opener in the team is Brenton Parchment, the one newcomer, whose highest score in his four knocks on tour have been 15, 25, 5 and 10.

Ironically, injury also kept Gayle inactive during the 2003-04 tour. He pulled a calf muscle on the first day of the first Test in which he batted at No.9 with a runner and missed the second. On his return, he blasted a 78-ball hundred (eventually 116) in the third Test, 145 in the next match against Easterns, 77 and 107 in the fourth and final Test and 152 not out in the final ODI.