OF all the disappointments the West Indies have endured for so long and heaven knows there have been numerous none was more frustrating and infuriating than the last ball loss to South Africa in the ICC Champions Trophy at the Sinhalese Sports Club here yesterday.
A spirited effort to defend a total of 238 for eight against favoured opponents who had beaten them 11 times in their previous 14 one-day internationals was undermined by a series of irritating mistakes that accumulated to count crucially in the end.
The costliest was the leg-side wide sent down by Merv Dillon with what should have been the last ball of the match. With another ball added for the resulting bye, it levelled the scores and set up the edged boundary by No.10 Andrew Dawson that completed the deflating defeat.
South Africa, docked one over from their allotted 50 for the sluggish over-rate, began the 49th and final from Dillon requiring 13.
Their captain, Shaun Pollock, smote the first ball high over long-on for a six that reduced the equation to seven from five. But, when he and the dangerous left-hander Lance Klusener skied catches to cover off the third and fifth balls that Shivnarine Chanderpaul gathered in as calmly as if catching butterflies, the left-handed Nicky Boje was left to score three off what was to be the last.
At a similar point of an equally close finish in a Test against Australia at Brisbane almost 42 years ago, captain Frank Worrell turned to his bowler, Wes Hall, and said: "Whatever you do, don't bowl a no-ball because they'll never let you back into Barbados."
Hall didn't, Joe Solomon threw the stumps down from the resulting Australian shot and Test cricket had its first tie.
This time, captain Carl Hooper, whose bowling had been one of the principal reasons for securing a winning position for his team, left Dillon to his own devices and the fast bowler misdirected a slower ball far enough down the leg-side for umpire Srinivasaraghavan to correctly signal a wide.
As Boje and his No.10 partner, Andrew Dawson, scampered the bye, wicket-keeper Ridley Jacobs and Dillon only recognised the possibility of a run out at the bowler's end too late.
Boje made his ground and the scores were tied with still one ball remaining.
Hooper drew all his fielders in to save the winning run but Dawson, receiving his one and only delivery, got enough of his bat onto a drive to send it scurrying to the vacant third man ropes.
It prompted wild celebrations on the South African players' balcony for they had somehow scraped the 29 they required off the last three overs. In contrast, there was an understandably pained reaction from West Indians who could scarcely believe they had let the chance of an uplifting victory elude them.
A crowd of around a thousand or so had noisily supported them throughout, with the band trying its best at Bob Marley renditions, the most inappropriate on a day of sweltering, 35 degree heat, "Coming In from the Cold". They were stunned into immediate silence.
Greater bowlers than Dillon have let matches slip at the death Courtney Walsh in Pakistan in the 1986 World Cup springs to mind and, while his error settled the issue, Hooper noted afterwards that it was only the last of key moments that led to it. Jonty Rhodes, the Man of the Match for his 61 off 70 balls, was caught off Dillon at 42 but the bowler was left kicking the turf in frustration as it negated by umpire Venkataragahavan's no-ball call.
Rhodes and Boeta Dippenaar (52 off 84 balls) added another 30 in their restorative partnership of 117 (a South African fourth wicket record against the West Indies) before Hooper tilted the balance by dismissing both in the 40th over, his first of a new spell.
The left-handed Klusener was dropped on a stiff caught and bowled chance by leg-spinner Mahendra Nagamootoo when 10 of his 23.
In the penultimate over, Pedro Collins dropped a chance to run out Pollock at the bowler's end from Nagamootoo's over-the-stumps return when the South African captain had made only one of his 10 and before he hoisted his crucial, last over six.
By the fourth over, Dillon and Collins had given South Africa back their lost over through three no-balls and three wides and, midway through the innings, a no-ball was given because three fielders were behind square-leg, one more than allowed.
These are the mistakes, seemingly trifling at the time, that are decisive in a close limited-overs match. They were the difference between victory and defeat - and almost certainly a place in the semi-final and elimination after the first round. The other team in the pool is Kenya, talented but inexperienced, and South Africa should not be troubled in overcoming them to advance.
For a change, the West Indies could not be faulted for effort.
No one bowled badly and Hooper, Collins, Nagamootoo and Vasbert Drakes, in his first spell of six overs in his first international match for seven years, seldom wavered. They were backed by generally sharp, intense ground fielding and throwing.
Dillon made an early break by removing the threat of Hershcelle Gibbs, bowled off the inside edge in the third over.
Drakes dismissed Jacques Kallis with his sixth ball and when the left-handed opener Graham Smith was neatly taken by Jacobs on the leg-side for the first of Hooper's three wickets, Dippenaar and Rhodes were obliged to regroup.
They did so by gathering 39 singles between them through the gaps in the well spread field and, at 178 for three in the 39th over, seemed to be coasting home.
But Hooper removed both with the fourth and last ball of a second spell to set the stage for the ensuing drama.
Earlier, the West Indies, sent in, could find no one to play the major innings that would lift them to a more challenging total on a pitch that offered early movement to the seam bowlers and was never the batting paradise it appeared.
Chris Gayle presented some astonishing, typically explosive strokes in his topscore of 49 off 55 balls, the most productive a straight six off Dawson and eight fours. Three were in the first over from Allan Donald who claimed his revenge with a catch at the wicket for his 250th one-day international wicket.
Brian Lara (21 off 33 balls, three fours) and Hooper (27 off 32 balls, three fours) threatened better things but Chanderpaul, his timing all awry, was the handbrake on the West Indies advance.
He had 65 scoreless balls of the 98 he took to reach 45 before he tamely presented a catch to mid-off in the 36th over.
Hooper followed three balls later, lbw to rival captain Pollock, and although Ramnaresh Sarwan batted silkily for 36 off 34 balls with a clear, straight six off Dawson and two fours, and Jacobs hustled 25 off 21 balls, 239 never seemed enough. It should have been but wasn't.
The win earned South Africa US$50,000 and almost guarantees them a place in the semi-finals