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.

Se­lec­tion meet­ings

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?

Ag­gres­sive mind­set

“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.

Pic­ture: Daniel Born

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.

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