Gayle puts the wind up the Proteas

Chris Gayle is back in top form at the wrong time for the Proteas. (Reuters)

Chris Gayle is back in top form at the wrong time for the Proteas. (Reuters)

Imagination is a powerful tool in cricket, but even the most fleet of mind could not have pictured just how much the landscape would change between the final game of South Africa’s dominant series win against the West Indies last month and Friday’s game against the same opposition.

Just a month ago, the Proteas clinched a series win so one-sided it seemed a formality that the match at the Sydney Cricket Ground would result in two points for the men in green. There wasn’t a single voice in Australia suggesting that was the case for the past 48 hours. Everything has changed.

Having been humbled by Ireland in their opening game, Caribbean pride kicked in.
Perhaps. Or the men from the West Indies simply thought, “To hell with it”, and threw caution to the wind. It is an attitude of mind that often prevails over “thoughtful and meticulous” in World Cups, though perhaps only in bursts rather than for a prolonged period.

Chris Gayle averaged a shade over 19 in one-day international (ODI) cricket for two years before Tuesday when he scored 215 against Zimbabwe, just the fifth double century in one-dayers and the first outside the flat tracks and small grounds of India. The magnetism and charisma of the “Cool Cat” Jamaican opener is not limited to his many fans. It has the same effect on his team-mates.

The depth of the crisis facing West Indies cricket cannot be overstated. Divisions within the playing ranks have been irreconcilable for years and the financial situation facing the West Indies Cricket Board also appears unresolvable, with the Board of Control for Cricket in India refusing to withdraw their writ for $42-million – a sum that would instantly bankrupt the game in the region.

Compelling savagery
For the moment, however, they are alive and kicking and it doesn’t matter how long it may last. Personal differences have been put aside, grudgingly, and the blingest man in a squad full of large egos and stubborn prides has suddenly united them all with a display of compelling savagery.

Vernon Philander, the man most likely to find an early edge to snuff out the clear and present danger, will miss the match with a hamstring strain. It would be understandable if the Proteas were quietly questioning the alignment of the stars.

“It’s unfortunate that Zimbabwe decided to bowl Chris Gayle into some really good form,” said a phlegmatic Faf du Plessis on Wednesday. “We have just played them so we know what kind of team they are – they can be very, very dangerous.

“‘Should beat’ are not words I put in my cricket anymore. I have been on the other side too many times. You can take nothing for granted in this game. Whatever we have done against West Indies in South Africa means absolutely nothing in this game.

“We have confidence that we beat them and, from their perspective, they lost to us quite badly, but it means nothing. We have to be on top of our game. If we’re not, they will beat us on the day,” Du Plessis said.

The ramifications of defeat would appear to be dire. With Australia and New Zealand looking like bankers to finish first and second in group A, South Africa will have to finish first or second to avoid playing the rampant cohosts in the quarterfinals. If they lose to the West Indies, the likelihood is that they will finish third and be forced to tackle one of the two.

First place in group A, meanwhile, could be decided on Saturday when the Black Caps take on the Australians – playing their first game in two weeks – at Eden Park in Auckland. An opening-day thrashing of England was followed by a wash-out against Bangladesh a week later, and now, finally, the Aussies get to play again. Far from being understated or below the radar before one of the most eagerly anticipated games of the tournament, Cricket Australia selected David Warner to promote the game.

‘Obscure swear words’
“You get a few obscure swear words – and some objects – thrown at you when you come here, but I embrace that crap,” said Warner, employing the full range of his subtlety.

“They can give it to me as much as they want. I’ll just let my bat do the talking,” he said, oblivious to the fact that it was already too late.

Much as Warner may not enjoy it, the man at the centre of attention on Saturday will be Brendon McCullum. The Kiwi captain became the first Test triple centurion for his country and added two more doubles for good measure in 2014 and carried that form forward to the start of the World Cup with an astonishing destruction of England.

“It’s not by fluke or chance that he’s scored the runs he has but, if we bowl well to him, we’ll create the pressure and he’ll have a brain explosion,” said Warner, with authority on the subject. “I haven’t played with or against him much but he seems like a great, humble guy but, when we get on the field, it’s going to be a different story.” More subtlety.

McCullum averaged 28 in 42 ODIs against Australia without scoring a hundred but many of those matches were played as a lower-order wicket-keeper with nothing like the knowledge of his batting game that he enjoys now. Nothing would please him – and many others – more than putting that record right this weekend.

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