Any expectation that West Indies would provide South Africa with a meaningful challenge leading into the World Cup was always a delusion.
They hadn’t beaten South Africa over 50 overs since November 2006, through Chris Gayle’s unbeaten 133 off 135 balls in the Champions Trophy in Jaipur. Their previous such victory in South Africa was at Centurion on February 1, 2004 when Shivnarine Chanderpaul, Ramnaresh Sarwan and Brian Lara combined to carry them to a target of 300 with seven wickets and five overs in the bank.
South Africa’s Vernon Philander celebrates the wicket of Chris Gayle during the third ODI against WI last month. Pic/Getty Images
Firmly ensconced at No 8 in the ICC rankings in both Tests and ODIs, against mighty South Africa at Nos 1 and 3, they were clearly competing out of their class, a lightweight against a champion heavyweight.
Their hopes realistically extended no further than a couple of competitive series in all formats in an unfamiliar environment. That would at least bolster confidence as they moved on to Australia and New Zealand for the game’s showpiece event. Instead, they head east after six debilitating weeks in South Africa.
Given the absurd preparation of one day’s play in a solitary warm-up match, they were ambushed by an innings in the first Test, by eight wickets in the third; weather committed the second to a draw.
A 2-1 triumph in the Twenty20s, their favoured format, and a pulsating, one-wicket victory in the fourth ODI momentarily lifted their spirits. Heavy defeat followed both.
The ODI’s staggeringly lop-sided statistics reflected the wide gap between the teams, even as some of South Africa’s prominent players were repeatedly rested.
South Africa compiled six hundreds, West Indies not one. South Africa rattled along at an average of 6.81 runs an over and 61.04 runs per wicket, West Indies were kept to 5.41 and 23.32. South Africa amassed 439 for two in the second match, four short of the overall ODI record, and 351 for five off 42 overs in the fifth; West Indies didn’t pass 300 once.
AB de Villiers’ 100 off 31 balls in the second match in Johannesburg, astonishing even by his superior standards, was faster than any in the 43 years of ODI cricket. Hashim Amla, their nemesis through the Tests, and Rilee Roussow, a 25-year-old left-hander basically still on trial, twice shared record partnerships of 247; no West Indian pair passed 100.
All through the ODIs, the exclusion from the World Cup squad of Dwayne Bravo, the previous, widely travelled captain, and Keiron Pollard hovered overhead like an ominous dark cloud.
As the senior member of the team, Chris Gayle’s harsh public criticism of the decision was an untimely distraction. It appeared to have an effect on his performance; he managed just 71 runs in five innings, his last a first ball duck.
Whenever there was a hint of a turnaround, it proved transitory. So it was after their sudden revival following the ignominy of an all-out 122 in the third match.
New captain Jason Holder, inexperienced, untested and the youngest in the team, took the initiative to cancel a practice session in favour of thrashing matters out in a straight-talking meeting behind closed doors at the team’s hotel.
Darren Sammy, the former captain in all three versions, said Holder had pressed his players “to show some pride and man up”. He saw it as evidence that Holder, who had been given an awesome responsibility by head selector Clive Lloyd when named to replace Bravo, “is a young man with some character behind him”.
The immediate follow-up, South Africa’s victory by 131 runs in the next match, came as a final, shocking prelude to the World Cup. Another, equally upsetting, came as they were packing their kits for the flight across the Indian Ocean.
Sunil Narine, indisputably their most effective white ball bowler, unexpectedly withdrew from the squad. It was, he explained, “a little too much too soon” following a negative report on his action by international umpires, Rod Tucker of Australia and S Ravi of India, during last October’s Champions League in India. He has not bowled for West Indies since.
Supporting Narine’s decision, the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB) noted that he has “undergone intense remedial work” in Trinidad and, while preliminary tests show all his deliveries to be under the 15 degrees flexion of the elbow allowance, he needs more time “to be able to confidently bowl for a sustained period in international cricket with his new action”.
Narine’s cocktail of dipping off-breaks, knuckle balls and doosras has confused the finest players of the day. His 73 wickets in 52 ODIs have been gathered at averages of 26.49 runs a wicket and 4.10 runs an over; on both counts, he is ahead of any other contemporary West Indian. The ICC places him top of its list of Twenty20 bowlers, second in ODIs.
His absence appreciably weakens the patently vulnerable bowling. The return of Kemar Roach as the strike bowler is partial compensation; his average runs per wicket (26.85) and economy rate (4.90) from 98 wickets in 64 ODIs are not that far behind Narine.
Litany of woes
A shoulder strain that ended his India tour before it started and a damaged ankle midway through his 17th over in the first Test in South Africa raise concerns over his fitness.
Given such a litany of woes, it is not difficult to imagine the team’s mental state as they prepare for their opening match against the most dangerous associate, Ireland, in the New Zealand town of Nelson on February 16.