Clive Lloyd complained recently that T20 cricket had “messed up” West Indies but whatever the ills of the shortest format it certainly stirs something in the Caribbean soul. Easily cowed during the Tests, West Indies deployed arguably a stronger line-up for the first T20 and, despite an unconvincing finish, proved too good for an experimental South Africa. Newlands briefly became the badlands for bowlers as Chris Gayle demonstrated his enthusiasm for Lloyd’s bugbear with a rambunctious innings of 77 from 31 balls.
After the familiar slow start, with Gayle scoring 1 off his first six deliveries, he bounded to the fastest fifty by a West Indian, from 17 balls, and the joint-second fastest overall. The only surprise was that the record was previously held by Kieron Pollard rather than Gayle. He peppered the stands with eight languid sixes, mostly dispatched down the ground, before attempting something cuter against Imran Tahir and gloving a reverse sweep to the keeper.
South Africa, missing several of their first-choice XI, had happily worn the underdogs tag beforehand and Gayle’s innings ensured that it suited them. Rilee Rossouw’s second T20 fifty had helped push South Africa to what looked like a challenging score on a slightly slow surface but Gayle, who missed the 2-0 Test defeat while nursing a back problem, roused himself to dismiss such theories. Once he had gone, West Indies looked a far more manageable prospect but they could not be knocked off course despite losing 4 for 17 at the end.
When Gayle is in the mood, especially in this form of the game, there is little that the opposition can do. He is both unstoppable force and immovable object. Kyle Abbott implored for an lbw decision from the third delivery Gayle faced – it was just missing off stump – and the reason for his desperation soon became apparent. The following over, he concluded that he had seen enough of Kagiso Rabada and clubbed him for consecutive sixes to the leg side. He made it three in three off Abbott before again tucking into the unfortunate Rabada, a wide-eyed 19-year-old on only his third international appearance.
There is something of the gazelle to the lithe figure of Rabada and he was brutally hunted down by West Indies’ biggest cat. A sequence of four-six-four flowed from Gayle’s bat, then a thick top edge fell beyond the scrambling attempt of Rossouw running back from cover. Next it was Wayne Parnell’s turn to be mauled, four more boundaries taking Gayle to his half-century. Off 11 consecutive scoring shots Gayle had piled up 52 runs, putting West Indies on 78 for 0 after the Powerplay and almost halfway to their target.
wayne Smith fell lbw to Tahir in the next over, although he appeared to get some glove on the ball, and Gayle then throttled back a touch, content he had stated his case. Three times he reached out to swipe Tahir over the ropes before the big game reached his end game. Tahir was the pick of the South Africa bowlers and his exuberant celebrations seemed to inspire a late fightback. But by the time South Africa’s seamers were able to exert any control, the match was already lost.
West Indies’ attack had proved better suited to the surface, with their battery of medium-pace allrounders concentrating on bowling cutters and slower balls, asking the batsmen to force the pace. Rossouw and David Miller fashioned South Africa’s highest stand, 48 runs for the fourth wicket, but it only featured three fours and the latter fell trying to hit Sheldon Cottrell over the off side. That dismissal went some way to atoning for Cottrell’s drop of Rossouw in the previous over, as did an impressive final over that conceded just seven.
On his first international appearance in three years, Morne van Wyk swatted one pull for six and cracked another couple of fours square of the wicket but boundaries were otherwise hard to come by during the Powerplay. Reeza Hendricks managed to divert a bottom edge over Denesh Ramdin but fell next ball, as Cottrell got his inswinging yorker on target.
Jason Holder bowled an immaculate line first up, removing van Wyk with a ball that was too full to cut, and he had figures of 3-0-7-1 when Faf du Plessis collared him in the eighth over to get South Africa motoring.
Du Plessis, the senior batsman in a line-up missing the rested AB de Villiers and Hashim Amla, as well as Quinton de Kock through injury, briefly rampaged around Newlands, hitting five fours and two sixes in the space of ten deliveries. He should have been dismissed on 28, when Holder’s lame attempted catch only resulted in six at long-off, but the bowler, Andre Russell, had his revenge with a filthy full toss two balls later, du Plessis spooning to the edge of the ring off a leading edge. The calm had been disturbed but the real violence was still to come.
Alan Gardner is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @alanroderick