As early evening approached in Canberra, eyeballs darted from the mountain of cloud building above Manuka Oval to the mountain of a man building an innings below and they saw something strange. Chris Gayle did not seem nearly as large as he is when he pushed a ball to long-on and ambled the single that completed his first international century since June 2013. He looked like somebody still growing - growing comfortable at the crease that is.

Sixty minutes and 33 balls later, he appeared much bigger even though he was on his knees. Gayle got down in a show of gratitude after racing to a double-ton, his arms raised to the clearing skies. The storm had passed, the Gayle had arrived.

If you weren't at Manuka Oval, perhaps even if you were, you would not have known Marlon Samuels was there at all. Not just for that hour but for the entire West Indies innings, Samuels was the air under the hovercraft, barely noticed but holding things up.

The scrutiny and the silence defined the innings of the two men who now hold the record for the highest partnership in ODI history. Their success under those conditions scripted a story that will be stored among the tournament's most celebrated.

Gayle does not get away with treading lightly, especially not on a cricket field. The weight he carries - on his shoulders in the figurative sense and with bat in hand literally - simple does not allow him to but here the burden he carried was at its heaviest. It had been 19 innings and as many months since his last ODI century, eight innings since his last fifty. The last few days were filled with talk of a fan's tweet offering Gayle a retirement package, retweeted by the WICB president, and the fracas which followed.

There was a feeling, and on Zimbabwe's part it was more of a fear, that Gayle would not let that go without having a say of his own. But in the first over, there was the possibility he would have to wait. Two balls after Tinashe Panyangara stunned the sprinkling of spectators, more with his celebratory dance than his removal of Dwayne Smith, his not-out lbw appeal against Gayle was reviewed.

In the stands, it was first declared a desperate call and, given how anxious Zimbabwe were to get rid of Gayle, that seemed likely. But when the big screen showed the sound came from the pads, not bat on ball, and that the ball had pitched in line, "oohs" and "aahs" were everywhere. The eventual tracker, which showed the ball clipping the stumps and therefore umpire's call, was met with disbelief, not just from the Zimbabwe fielders.

The message that Zimbabwe were not going to make things easy for their higher-profile opposition had been sent and it was reinforced by their early efforts in the field. Gayle flirted with them when he chipped Tendai Chatara over mid-on and took on Elton Chigumbura's arm for a second run; Zimbabwe frustrated Samuels by denying him scoring opportunities with fuller lengths. They should have been rewarded but the chance Samuels offered was put down at backward point and that punctured Zimbabwe's resolve.

The air spewed out of them like a punctured tyre, Gayle got fifty by scrambling a single they might otherwise have been stopped and although Zimbabwe still squeezed in the middle-overs, West Indies squeezed harder.

Unlike in South Africa last month, Samuels was patient. He did not try to dominate spin with reckless gusto and was prepared to do some hard labour. Gayle was equally up for the graft, although he managed his at close to a run a ball for most of his innings thanks to the muscle that ensured when he cleared the boundary, he cleared it properly, and strategic milking of the bowlers the rest of the time.

So unremarkable were the first 35 overs that Zimbabwe's supporters, of which there were plenty, sang optimistically. "One more, one more," was their tune of choice, calling for another wicket. Of course, they needed many more but did not want to get too far ahead of themselves. Before they noticed it, Gayle had reached a century with a single as soft as the gentle drizzle which fell throughout the match.

There was no shouting, showmanship or significant smiling, no air-punching, no pulling of notes out of pockets. There was acknowledgement and, somewhere inside Gayle, the clutch engaged and the gear changed.

Panyangara, a bowler known for his discipline in the absence of express pace, was punished. Gayle pressed Panyangara's panic button in an over when he targeted both lengths he was presented with and then caused the Zimbabwean to unravel. His next over, the 40th, started with a wide, was followed by a no-ball, off which Gayle was caught, and a free hit, off which Gayle was caught again, before ending with a short ball dispatched to cow corner for six.

The next ten overs were a blur for Zimbabwe, even more of a blur than they had been against South Africa, when 146 runs were scored. Everything and everyone disappeared. Length, full, short, medium pace, spin, seam. Gayle had grown tired of the grind and was ready to go great guns. But he did not take shots in the dark. He aimed his firepower between the fielders, over them, and sometimes, it seemed, straight through them.

His drive to bring up the double-century was an example of that. It pierced the gap perfectly and it was celebrated with enough emotion to match the occasion. Gayle was grateful and great.

Samuels would have known nothing could overshadow that. Instead, he played a supporting role right until the end, except for the penultimate over when he took 22 runs off a hapless Panyangara. He had a hundred to his name too and, importantly, a share of history and of the stand that could change the course of West Indies' campaign.

They had already posted two totals of 300+ at the tournament but they had done it without these two. Andre Russell predicted if Gayle and Samuels both fired on the same day, West Indies could get 350. Jason Holder went 50 further and said a total of 400 could be in their sights. Between them they got it right. There's a prediction that deserves a few retweets, especially if it inspires a serious challenge for the trophy.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent