What can one say about the West Indies but for the fact that they keep flattering to deceive again and again. And their opening encounter against South Africa was no different. Despite making an impressive start with the bat against the Proteas they capitulated miserably and allowed the South Africans to walk away with an easy victory. It was a highly disappointing effort by the Windies given that this was tagged as the first big clash of the tournament following a week of clashes between the bigwigs and the minnows. Not only that, the West Indies possessed an impressive record against the South Africans in World Cups having beaten them in recent times – 1996 and 2003 to be specific. All that came to naught on Thursday as the Windies batsmen succumbed under pressure and gave away the advantage on a platter.
At the start of the game, there were a lot of uncomfortable questions raised regarding the inclusion of the third spinner in the South African side at the expense of a genuine batsman. However, that did not prove to be much of an impediment as the Windies failed to exploit this possible weakness. They were very good at the start though in spite of the early loss of the dangerous Chris Gayle. Darren Bravo, in particular, was impressive soaking in the pressure and taking on the task of rebuilding the innings. Considering this was his debut World Cup knock, it was nothing short of a fantastic effort. He never looked uncomfortable against either pace or spin — a tribute to his obvious talent. And even though West Indies did not run away with the game during his stay at the crease, Darren ensured that he kept picking the gaps and stroking the boundaries at will whenever the opportunity came along. As long as he was in the middle, the Windies had a genuine chance of upsetting the South African applecart. But, yet again they managed to plunge deeper into darkness.
Bravo was well supported by Devon Smith at the start of the innings, following Gayle dismissal. Even as Darren maintained the steady flow of runs, Smith made sure his attacking partner got the majority of the strike during their partnership. And when the two were together the West Indies looked well in command to register a challenging total. However, once the duo was separated, the rest fell over inexplicably, exposing their mental aptitude or lack of it. There is no dearth of talent in the West Indies middle order. In fact in Ramnaresh Sarwan, Shivnarine Chanderpaul and Dwayne Bravo they have three of the most talented batsmen in Windies cricket. Yet, they could not manage to resurrect their side. Being so, it clearly has to be something wrong in the mental aspect of West Indies cricket. Obviously, all the chopping and changing with captains and players has helped the least. Every team is not a Pakistan that can rise above the worst of controversies off the field and still manage to inspire themselves while on a cricket ground. Unless these things are set straight Windies cricket will continue to be down in the mire with only sporadic flashes of individual brilliance coming through, like the innings by Darren on Thursday.
Shifting focus to South Africa, they kept their act together like the thoroughly professional unit we have come to know them of since the Hansie Cronje days. While there was some criticism over the selection of three spinners, no such thing can be said their innovative approach. A Dipak Patel-inspired decision to open the innings with off spinner Johan Botha worked perfectly well. A clearly surprised Chris Gayle got tentative and found himself back in the pavilion within minutes of the game getting underway. And even though the second wicket partnership kept the Proteas at bay for a long duration, to their credit, they did not allow the batting side to run away with the game. And once Botha came back to break the partnership, the Proteas were soon all over the Windies bastmen.
Even as the former South African skipper Botha impressed with his tight line and length, opening the bowling and being rewarded aptly, there were others to whom the West Indies middle and lower order had on answer at all. Leg break bowler Imran Tahir lived up to all the hype that had been surrounding him. Three of his four wickets were the big fishes, as even the experienced Windies perceptibly struggled against him. Not only did Tahir keep it tight but he was equally adept at foxing the batsmen, providing he had plenty of tricks in his repertoire. It might be a bit too early to say this, but considered his first-class record and also how highly he is rated in South African cricket, the Proteas, at last, might have discovered a quality spinner since Pat Symcox. Tahir’s biggest challenge though will come against the Asian team. How he performs against them will determine his standing in World cricket.
Even as the South African bowlers impressed, the batting led by AB de Villiers was not far behind either. Losing Hashim Amla and Jacques Kallis early to some good Windies pace bowling early in the innings was a definite setback. However, with a mediocre total to chase, there was never any pressure on the South Africans. This was evident in the settled manner in which they went about rebuilding the innings courtesy their captain Graeme Smith and de Villiers. Once the two were set, there was no trouble at all for the South Africans in the chase. de Villiers, in fact, batted just like he has been doing for the last two summers, looking in no trouble at all, stroking the ball with ease en route to his match-winning hundred. His form has been one of the reasons why the Proteas are among the favourites to clinch the crown this time. And de Villiers did no harm to his team’s chances with his charming effort on Thursday.
The African campaign got underway just in the manner Smith had hoped for. West Indies, contrastingly, will need to further polish their game to make a mark in this World Cup.
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