WORLD CUP OR BUST
Can Ottis Gibson lift Proteas?
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 refused to drink
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...