Proteas get a dose of Ottisivity
Ottis Delroy Gibson of Barbados, the new coach of South Africa’s national cricket team, has been given a simple brief: win the 2019 World Cup. Easier said than done, especially with a team that over 25 years and seven World Cups has been led to water but
I like people to enjoy themselves. If you enjoy what you’re doing you want to do it more and you turn up enthusiastic The key thing we do is prepare guys for an event. You prepare them as best you can. Once the event starts you sit back
Ottis Gibson thrusts out a hand like a gunslinger on his day off, with easy snap and crackle but no rude pop. It takes up its invitation into your space with verve and hovers there, irresistible.
You try to shake it, but there’s no meeting a hand like this on equal terms. It looks as big as an aircraft carrier and, as your hand disappears into its mighty hinge, feels as if it carries angry porcupines across deserts for a living.
In the middle distance, past the hand, hulks a Zeusian shoulder, which is connected to an oak of a neck, upon which is fixed an oval moon of a head framing warm eyes and a molten smile.
There’s a lot to Ottis Delroy Gibson, and there has to be. The South Africa he first played in, for Border in October 1992, was, however theoretically, still an apartheid state. Then, as well as for Transvaal and Griqualand West, he played for the sad mess that West Indies had become in the lengthening shadows of Viv Richards, Michael Holding and all that. Then he coached that same sad mess.
Now he has returned to South Africa to coach a team that has made an unhappy habit of becoming smaller than the sum of its parts, and miserably so when it has mattered most. It’s also a team that, unlike others in its league, must keep a scorecard of events off as well as on the field.
Not quite three weeks after his unveiling as Russell Domingo’s replacement, Gibson has probably heard more about what needs to happen in selection meetings than he has about batting, bowling and fielding.
“The selectors and Cricket South Africa are managing that already, with regards to the quota system — that is transformation that everybody’s mentioning in every interview,” he said. “That process has taken place already.
“The selectors, it seems to me, are doing a good job of managing the numbers and I’m working closely with them and the captain to make sure that we hit the targets that are set out by government.
“It’s not about trying to fight that system. What I’ve heard from a lot of the players of colour so far is that they all feel like they’re meriting their positions. The team’s being picked on merit rather than anything else.”
If that makes Gibson sound like a Westerner being careful to keep as mannered a grip as he can on a society stewed in politics, that’s because he is — from Barbados and, until his appointment, England.
That helps inform his answer when he is asked whether, as a black man, he was worried about originally coming to a country that had freed Nelson Mandela but was more than a year from democracy.
“No, I wasn’t. When I was a young cricketer I wanted to broaden my horizons in terms of cricket knowledge and learn as much as I can. So in 1989-90 I went and played a season in Australia. That’s always been my way of looking at cricket.
“If I wanted to be a professional cricketer I wanted to have as many opportunities to play cricket in as many different conditions and among as many different people as possible. I’d heard a lot about cricket in South Africa.
“I played league cricket with [former Border captain] Pieter Strydom in England, and he told me I should come and play for Border. I said if we could make it happen I would come.
“Obviously I’d read about apartheid but I had no interest in getting involved in it then and I still have no interest in getting involved in it now. I’m here solely to focus on cricket.”
Was he questioned by others in a part of the world that gave us Richards, who refused to take up offers to play in boycott-busting rebel teams, and CLR James, cricket’s own marxist writer and thinker?
“No, absolutely not. I was a young man just looking for a cricket experience that was different from what I was accustomed to at home. That experience was huge in my development as a cricketer.
“I came here and suddenly I’m in a team with Peter Kirsten and playing against Kepler Wessels and all these great players. It was an amazing time in my life.”
That’s not to suggest Gibson does not see the realities of the picture James painted in his great work and unarguably cricket’s greatest book, Beyond a
Boundary. As a West Indian he has no choice. “Within your own country there’s all sorts of politics in the game,” Gibson said. “Take West Indies. There is no place on the map called the West Indies: the West Indies exists as a cricket team.
“You’ve got all these different islands with all their own governments and own cultures, and then you bring them together and it’s a kaleidoscope of colours and people and everything else, and it’s hard to maintain balance sometimes. When you get it right it works really well, but it’s always a tough balance.”
Gibson got it right in 2012, when he coached West Indies to triumph in the World T20. His brief with South Africa is outrageously simple: win the 2019 World Cup. That’s easier said than done, especially with a team that has spent seven World Cups spread over 25 years being the horse led to water and refusing to drink.
How might he make them take that first, long slurp?
“The key thing we do is prepare guys for an event. You prepare them as best you can. Once the event starts you sit back and watch, and you hope that you’ve prepared them for every possible thing that could happen.
“But the players take responsibility for how the event unfolds. If the guys can let their best talent come to the fore, I reckon we’ll be a very strong team and we’ll play some exciting cricket.”
Other coaches, of South Africa and other teams, have voiced similar sentiments. That’s how sport is supposed to work: prepare to win, and go out and win. Unless the other team has done that better. Then you lose. Or unless you are South Africa, who tend to beat themselves when the pressure is on.
The tightrope walked by coaches is thin, and that on which South Africa’s coaches must tread is no thicker than a hair from Hashim Amla’s beard. But, for men like Gibson, no rope is too tight.
“If you have the talent to play, then the ultimate is to represent your country. When you get into coaching the ultimate is to coach your country. I’ve coached the West Indies, and they were four tough years but we also had some enjoyable times and some success.
“Now I’ve got the opportunity to do it in another country. Coaching your own country is the hardest thing, but to coach another country means that you are seen a certain way within the sport.
“It means I’m seen around the world as someone who is capable of being a head coach.”
What can Faf du Plessis and his team expect from their new boss?
“I like people to enjoy themselves. If you enjoy what you’re doing you want to do it more and you turn up to work enthusiastic. I also like people to be curious. When you’re curious you’re open to learning.
“When I played cricket I was positive, so I want people to be positive and have an aggressive mindset. Aggressive doesn’t mean sixes and fours or bouncers. Aggressive means taking positive actions all the time and in your outlook; play front-foot cricket.
“Around the dressing room and the environment it is very calm. In preparation, myself and the assistant coaches take the lead and make sure the guys are talked up with everything that they need. And then once the game starts we take a back seat and the players become the stars of the show.” And the coaches hope for the best? “Once you’ve prepared the team well you know what you’re likely to get. So it’s not just hope. You don’t prepare and then hope. You prepare and you know what’s going to happen, or what you want to happen, because you’ve planned for it.
“We’re not going to be hoping for the best. We’re going to produce our best.”
Big words. Big man.
A hot seat in the front row is just one part of Ottis Gibson’s new job as South Africa’s cricket coach. The Barbadian must balance selections with transformation and a burning national desire for World Cup glory in two years’ time.