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Windies win warms the hearts

Posted in England in West Indies 2009

Chris Gayle

Chris Gayle emphasised his growing maturity with a fine century in last week's win

Amongst the England fans who made it to Jamaica for the first Test, there are sure to be one or two wondering if it was worth it.

But for every tourist who trooped disconsolately out of the ground after witnessing England post the third lowest total in their Test history, there was a group of jubilant West Indies supporters already well under way with their victory celebrations.

The party went on long into the night in Kingston, and only those with the coldest of hearts would begrudge West Indians the right to enjoy themselves after a miserable few years on the cricket field.

The phrase that a strong West Indies team is crucial to the strength of world cricket may have been trotted out countless times over the last decade, but it is difficult to dispute the sentiment behind it.

Certainly, those who witnessed the stands come to life on the fourth afternoon at Sabina Park, after three days of attritional cricket, will testify to the importance placed on the West Indies side - and, more pertinently, a successful West Indies side - by cricket followers in the region.

This column will not even attempt to explain the unique link between cricket and the Caribbean people; for that, you need look no further than CLR James’ definitive ‘Beyond a Boundary’.

But, as the only major sport which this disparate group of islands plays under the banner of the West Indies, suffice to say that cricket holds a special place in the hearts of players and fans alike in this part of the world.

Hence it is easy to look beyond the disappointment of England’s performance and enjoy, instead, the hosts’ triumph, which was as surprising as it was exhilirating.

This is a side, we musn’t forget, who sit seventh in the International Cricket Council Test rankings, with only New Zealand of the major Test nations below them.

West Indies had been on the receiving end of 3-0, 4-0 and 3-0 defeats in their last three series against England, and there was a general assumption, certainly among the majority of journalists and pundits who landed in the Caribbean recently, that this tour would cause Andrew Strauss and company few concerns.

Shivnarine Chanderpaul, Sulieman Benn & Chris Gayle

Recent results suggests Gayle (far right) is growing into an increasingly impressive leader

That theory was made to look optimistic at best - and arrogant at worst - during Jerome Taylor’s explosive afternoon burst and, while it remains to be seen whether victory is the “turning point” that West Indies captain Chris Gayle claimed, the signs are that West Indies are on an upward curve.

They went two years without winning a Test until June 2007, when they beat South Africa in Gayle’s first match in charge, and came from behind to share the spoils with Sri Lanka later that year.

A 0-0 series draw in New Zealand before Christmas hardly set the pulses racing, but Gayle’s 197 in the second Test in Napier - made over eight and a half hours - was further proof of his growing sense of responsibility, an impression he underlined with a disciplined century in West Indies' only innings last week.

Surely as cool a man to have pulled on whites, and boasting a far from spotless past, Gayle was hardly an obvious candidate for captain when the West Indies Cricket Board went searching for a replacement for Ramnaresh Sarwan.

Yet he has proved himself a fine skipper: calm, assured and boasting no little tactical acumen, as England’s batsmen discovered in Jamaica (Kevin Pietersen fell victim to his bold captaincy in the first innings, caught trying to clear the infield after Gayle refused to post a man on the boundary despite three successive boundaries).

Long since established as a batsman of the highest repute - albeit with a reckless streak - Gayle has gradually earned the respect of team-mates and opposition alike for his astute leadership, assuming the role of navigator as West Indies begin to plot their route back to the top of the game.

“I’m not too much into meetings and talking,” he said, when asked to describe his management style. “Most of them have been playing for quite a while now, so it's up to them to take responsibility and get the job done.”

On the evidence of the past week, Gayle can have no complaints on that front.

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