HAD the West Indies gone to South Africa without any fuss over pay scales or the like, they would still have been under great pressure to go home with victory under their belts. All the posturing that Brian Lara and Carl Hooper indulged in has only increased the pressure on them to deliver.
This is a historic tour, make no mistake about it -- the very first time that a black team under a black captain is officially visiting South Africa for a full tour. The West Indies played a triangular series back in 1993 but that was only a precursor.
The tour assumes added significance in view of the fact that the South African authorities are looking to cricket as a unifying factor after rugby, the sport which was expected to help the country gell together after apartheid was dismantled, was hijacked by a bunch of people who refused to give up the notion that whites are inherently superior. And the very sight of black cricketers playing at the highest level -- and, hopefully, giving the South Africans a run for their money -- will definitely inspire many of the budding black cricketers who nurture a hope of wearing their country's colours one day.
It is a pity that Lara chose this occasion to indulge in grandstanding. He has effectively ensured that some of the support that the West Indies could have counted on has been lost. Nevertheless, there will be a large number who will turn out to see people of their own colour excel at a game which has been for years the preserve of the white population.
There is little new about the West Indies team; there seems to be some kind of reluctance to rebuild, with the selectors choosing to depend on a squad which does not inspire much confidence. Curtley Ambrose and Courtney Walsh should have been pensioned off some time ago; the opening combine of Philo Wallace and Clayton Lambert are both on the wrong side of 30. The cupboard seems to be essentially bare. But then maybe the selectors were too funked to experiment on this tour.
The new elements on the bowling front are Mervyn Dillon and Franklyn Rose, both of whom have shown some promise, and Nixon McLean, who was described as more suited to the role of a nightclub bouncer when he made his one and only overseas tour -- to Australia in 1996-97. The man who made the comment was Peter Roebuck, certainly not one whose opinion can be dismissed.
The only thing which may drive the West Indies is motivation. That is, if they have it any more. Any match against South Africa has added significance if only for historical reasons. The two teams have played just one Test and that has gone the Windies way after an amazing performance by Walsh and Ambrose.
But the West Indies are coming up against a South African team which has just been made favourites for next year's World Cup and justifiably so. They have the best balanced team in international cricket at the moment with their only serious rival being Australia. The loss to England earlier this year can be dismissed as an aberration. Be it bowling, batting or in the field, South Africa have infinitely more resources. Man for man, they are better. Collectively, they are a whole lot better. They play as a team.
Given all this, I would be extremely surprised if the West Indies win either the five-Test or seven-match one-day series. I have been surprised in recent times, both by India's defeating Australia and the latter bearding Pakistan in their own den. This time, however, I don't see South Africa losing. Not unless Lara comes up with a stroke or two of genius. And Walsh or Ambrose do similarly on the bowling front. In short, one has to depend on miracles taking place. And those, dear reader, are things that do not happen very often.