Thursday, September 29, 2011

My Favourite Cricketer: Herschelle Gibbs, by JLaw

In our continuing series "My Favourite Cricketer", JLaw of Wicket Maiden examines the flawed genius of Herschelle Gibbs.

It was only in 2010 - when I finished reading Herschelle Gibbs’s biography To the Point - that I noticed the shape of a bottle of Jack Daniels was remarkably similar to that of a cricket bat.
During the heyday of his career, my favourite cricketer, Herschelle Gibbs, was equally talented when it came to holding either object. These days – at the tender age of 37 – it’s just the willow which is still being yielded by this highly talented sportsman.

My appreciation for Gibbs goes back to my junior school days in the early nineties when he was perceived as a near demi-god at our school. He was a gifted sportsman with provincial and national colours in rugby, football and cricket – all before his grade 12 year. Despite having well below average academic results, Gibbs was the admiration for all the youngsters at school as he was already playing for the senior Western Province side shortly after his 16th birthday and was always destined for big things.

For me, Gibbs’ provincial debut in the 1989/90 season was less memorable for his performance with the bat, but rather for the fact that his call up was so unexpected that his name could not be printed on his shirt correctly in time for the match.

In those days, each individual letter of the player’s names were ironed on the shirt. I assume that the backroom staff had run out of letters that day as a freckled teenage Herschelle walked on the field with the word ‘Dibb’ printed on his back. Sometimes it’s tough being the junior in the side.

Despite failing to, uhm, stamp his name on that match, Gibbs went on to become one of the most successful batsmen in South African history, albeit with a lingering flavour of controversy.

But it is his off-field antics which have kept me equally entertained as his on-field exploits.

He had to wait until November 1996 to make his Test debut. It was an even longer wait as he was set to come in at number three against India at Eden Gardens, but a remarkable 236-run opening stand between Andrew Hudson (now South Africa selector) and Gary Kirsten (now South Africa coach) meant it was a nervous and elongated wait for Gibbs who eventually got in and made a cautious 31 off 112 balls.

I believe the period in which Gibbs really vindicated his continued selection in the South African national side came in 1999. In January that year he hit his maiden ODI ton against West Indies in Port Elizabeth and three months later, Gibbs smashed a sterling 211 not out in New Zealand – his first of two career double tons in the longer format of the game. The other came in 2003 when he made 228 against Pakistan at his beloved Newlands.

Then who could ever forget what was arguably Gibbs’ finest moment in a Proteas shirt – the 438 game.

A match that will live in the records for years to come as the best ODI ever played took place in Johannesburg on 12 March 2006 and Gibbs was the star of the moment. After Australia scored a then world record of 434/4 in 50 overs, South Africa did the improbable by scoring 438/9 with Gibbsentertaining the crowd in a knock of 175 from 111 balls including seven sixes and 21 boundaries.
After the match Gibbs was quoted as saying in The Guardian: “I don’t know where that innings came from. I don’t think I’ve played better.” It was later revealed in To the Point that Gibbs had broken team protocol the night before and went on an all night drinking bender before taking to the field with a hope of sobering up.
Gibbs later said he was very thankful South Africa lost the toss and were put in the field as it gave him a chance to avoid facing both the new ball and his coach Mickey Arthur.

It’s because of Gibbs’s ability in this case to drink hard and play hard that I am able to call him my favourite cricketer - and make the parallel between the holding of the bat and the holding of a bottle of Jack Daniels.

1999 was, however, also the year when Gibbs had his best chance to win a World Cup were it not for hisinfamous ‘You just dropped the World Cup’ moment when he ‘dropped’ Australia captain Steve Waugh who went on to score a century and force a win against South Africa.

But, for as much excellence as there was on the pitch, there was a controversial side to the career of Gibbs, perhaps going back to a 2001 tour to the West Indies when he was part of a group of Proteas cricketers who were caught smoking marijuana in a hotel room in Antigua.

There is of course the match-fixing cloud which will always hover over Gibbs’s career. Having admitted his involvement in the Hansie Cronje-led match-fixing scandal, Gibbs was banned from cricket for six months and could not tour India for six years due to a self-imposed banishment to avoid Indian police.

Adding to that, a few racist remarks in a 2007 Test against Pakistan, some scandalous affairs, drunk driving charges and at least one stint of rehab for alcohol abuse that we know of kept the name Herschelle Gibbs in the media.

While it’s been over two decades of ups and downs, Gibbs, in the twilight of his career, continues to be both a fear for opposition bowlers and a threat to opposition batsmen when he’s lurking at backward point.

Despite a name fail in his First Class debut, the name Herschelle Gibbs now will never be forgotten by cricket fans worldwide. 

JLaw contributes regularly to Wicket Maiden and tweets at @justinlawrence.

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