The Oval has witnessed many an astonishing innings since its first international match in 1880, but perhaps none featuring the raw, unadulterated power produced by Chris Gayle on Saturday. Those residing within a half mile radius of World Twenty20 venues this month should be advised to board windows and shore-up roof tiling on the evidence of Gayle's destructive innings, during which he deposited Brett Lee onto Harleyford Road and the top of the Bedser Stand in the space of three deliveries.
This was Twenty20 batting at its most violent. Set a reasonable victory target of 170 by a scuffling Australian batting line-up, Gayle and opening partner Andre Fletcher afforded the opposition bowling all the respect of a park attack. By the end of the six-over Powerplay period, the West Indian duo had taken their team's total to a rollicking 83 for 0. Australia, at the corresponding juncture of their innings, were 35 for 3. There ended the lesson.
Rare is the time that a 31-ball half century is completely overshadowed, but such was Andre Fletcher's lot on Saturday. For Gayle was simply awesome, whether slashing square or driving straight, prompting his opposing captain, Ricky Ponting, to wonder aloud whether he had ever witnessed an innings of such brute force in his 14-year international career.
"Probably not many - in any form of the game," Ponting said. "We obviously know what he's capable of on his day. We tried a lot of different things to Chris. He got off to a great start and hit a couple of boundaries. We tried going around the wicket and taking his angles away and we tried bowling wide yorkers to him. Those things we did today probably weren't executed perfectly, but he still came up with an answer and put the balls away."
SKY technicians measured Gayle's square six off Lee, last seen headed towards Vauxhall, at 95 metres, and his ensuing blast over long-on at a monstrous 105 metres. After the initial six, Stephen Fay, the esteemed English cricket writer and former Wisden Cricket Monthly editor, remarked that not since Clyde Walcott could he recall a blast of such magnitude at The Oval. And Walcott, presumably, did not put one on the roof of the Bedser Stand roof two balls later. Or took the bowler for 27 runs off the over.
By the time of Fletcher's dismissal for a dashing 53, the West Indians were assured of victory with 133 runs from 11.3 overs. Gayle fell with the finish line in sight for an imperious 88 from 50 deliveries, and when Ramnaresh Sarwan sliced Mitchell Johnson to the fence for the match-winning runs with 4.1 overs remaining, West Indies had all but secured their safe passage through to the next phase of the tournament with a net-run rate of +2.413.
When asked whether he could recall unleashing bigger sixes than those off Lee's bowling on Saturday, Gayle paused momentarily in contemplation.
"It's the first time I've hit it so far," he said. "Maybe I did [before], but I can't remember. That was a good hit against a top-class bowler. It felt like the ball was in the slot and in Twenty20 these things will happen. There are other guys who can hit it further than me. I just stick to my strengths and once I've cleared the boundary I'm satisfied with that. It doesn't matter how far it goes."
Lee's figures of 1for 60 were the most expensive by an Australian in the short history of the World Twenty20 competition, and the sixth highest of any bowler in the tournament. But perhaps the more revealing statistic of the West Indians' dominance was that of the net run-rate, which could force Australia into an embarrassing first round exit. Only an emphatic victory against Sri Lanka on Monday will keep them afloat in the tournament.
"We wanted to lose as few wickets as possible because there might by a situation where it goes down to run rates," Gayle said. "Australia might beat Sri Lanka and Sri Lanka might beat us. It's a situation we have to be aware of and make sure our run-rate is good.
"We are very satisfied. After a tough series against England we put back some smiles on the West Indies' fans faces. But it's not over. This is the first game. There's still a long way to go."
Alex Brown is deputy editor of Cricinfo