Gibbs defies modern logic

South Africa 246-6 West Indies 20-0
(Play resumes at 10.15am today)

South Africa defied conventional wisdom at The Oval yesterday. Worldly-wise cricket analysts apply a simple formula to one-day cricket in England in September, especially when it starts at 10.15. A captain's principal duty is performed before play begins. He must win the toss, put the opposition in to bat, and be magnanimous in victory. Justice doesn't come into it. The Champions Trophy emphasises unequal opportunities.

South Africa defied conventional wisdom at The Oval yesterday. Worldly-wise cricket analysts apply a simple formula to one-day cricket in England in September, especially when it starts at 10.15. A captain's principal duty is performed before play begins. He must win the toss, put the opposition in to bat, and be magnanimous in victory. Justice doesn't come into it. The Champions Trophy emphasises unequal opportunities.

When Brian Lara won the toss, he must have felt as though all was for the best in the best of all possible worlds. More so since Herschelle Gibbs, a potential match-winner, was hopelessly out of form. But South Africa's batsmen did not behave as they were supposed to, particularly Gibbs who returned to form with a flourish, scoring his first one-day hundred since the World Cup 18 months ago.

South Africa must have been mildly disappointed with 246 for 6. They seemed poised for 20 or 30 more runs when they were 148 for 1 at the start of the 35th over. But there was no doubt they had made a game of it despite having batted first.

The sun also defied expectations at the start, shining out of a clear blue sky, though that did not last long after midday. The rain that had been forecast started shortly after 2pm, retreated for long enough for Chris Gayle and Wavell Hinds to show their intentions, before returning just after 3pm; 90 minutes later a majority of the 13,000 spectators had given up the ghost and left.

Graeme Smith, South Africa's powerfully opinionated captain and opening batsman, declared the pitch was "spongey and slow". But that did not deter Gibbs. He is a touch player who has been badly out of touch for more than a year. Anxiety was growing among his colleagues; during an unproductive tour of Sri Lanka recently it was as if he was trying to play by numbers and they were stubbornly refusing to add up.

But now Gibbs shone in the sun. Off the mark with a well-timed clip off his legs to the midwicket boundary, his first three scoring shots were fours. He is not an introspective cricketer and he said later that he had always felt it was only a matter of time, and with the second of those fours he felt the time had come.

Smith is a vigorous striker of the ball while Gibbs strokes it, and in those forbidding early-morning conditions Smith set the pace. For seven overs they had been circumspect and then they took off, 50 came up in the 12th over, by which time Gibbs was driving straight, cutting and sweeping. There were seven fours in his 50, scored out of 92.

The hundred stand - a record for South Africa against West Indies - was raised in the 23th over and Smith was out immediately after, trying to cut when he had insufficient room, bowled by Gayle, Lara's semi-secret weapon. Gayle raised his arms high and gyrated his hips. When he bowled Jacques Rudolph later, he aimed like an archer at the stumps.

Gayle's façade is impassive, hidden behind his shades, but it disintegrated three times in South Africa's innings: 3 for 50 from 10 overs was West Indies' best bowling, and exposed the somewhat second-rate opening attack. It was Corey Collymore and Ian Bradshaw who had been unable to make the eagerly anticipated early-morning breakthough.

After South Africa's second 50 runs had taken only 57 balls, the third took 90 more. The innings was not stuck but it had lost its sparkle. Jacques Kallis, wearing a red ribbon in his helmet to acknowledge the ICC's Aids awareness campaign, accumulated 16 runs, and they were all singles.

Gibbs had slowed down too, travelling at a dignified pace through from 70 to 95. Then he suddenly launched into Gayle, hitting him high and straight to the sight-screen at the Vauxhall End to bring up his hundred. It was a splendid performance, elegant and bold, with shots lofted into the covers over the ring of fielders, played fine on the leg side and reverse-swept. The hundred had taken 133 balls, and two balls later the innings was over, the shot to extra-cover not lofted high enough, and he was well caught above his head by Dwayne Bravo.

True, Rudolph was dropped twice before he was bowled by Gayle for 46, but the West Indies fielding was markedly better than it had been in the Tests this summer. Catches were well taken in the deep by Shivnarine Chanderpaul and Ricardo Powell. Ground fielding was reliable and throws went in hard to the keeper.

The reward was three wickets in 16 balls as South Africa tried to raise the run-rate. Lance Klusener and Shaun Pollock added 24 more in the last three overs, and, in these depressing conditions, they had certainly managed a competitive score, and quite possibly a winning one.

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