Cape Town - New Proteas coach Ottis Gibson joked this week that his arrival in Johannesburg couldn’t have come at a better time as Durham, the English town he has made his adopted home with wife Jeanette and son Michael, is getting cold.
Given the Proteas’ dramatic and inexplicable loss of form in the past three months, the Barbadian – who began his two-year contract this week – is spot-on in many ways about the timing of his presence in South Africa.
But, as ever in a country that does a fine line in obfuscation, even he will take a while to make sense of his somewhat groundbreaking appointment.
In a world in which his predecessor Russell Domingo was not black enough thanks to our many subdivisions of race, pockets of the country have always yearned for a black coach. Now that they have one, he is a foreigner in one of the more xenophobic countries in the world.
Former Springbok Kobus Wiese, who’d be hard-pressed to know a switch-hit from a reverse sweep, took to Twitter a couple of weeks ago to ask if Cricket SA couldn’t do better than Gibson, whose comprehensive first-class career also took in Border, Griquas and Gauteng.
“I don’t see those things, it doesn’t bother me one bit,” says Gibson, who’s not exactly a social-media buff. “The players talk among each other and, while I’m sure there was some negative stuff said, obviously there was a lot of positive stuff as well, which is why I find myself here today.
“But people will say what they want to say, that’s never been an issue for me. In South Africa, you can’t get around the colour talk; that’s the way it is, that’s the way people see things. I don’t really know how to deal with that because I’m very happy and privileged to coach the country.”
But he won’t allow such everyday sideshows in coaching in South Africa to get in the way of his main mission: “I’m here completely and totally for cricket and to produce a winning cricket team. At the end of the day, that’s all the country wants, then it doesn’t matter what colour the coach is.”
Perhaps the telling thing about the lack of clutter with Gibson, whose signature work at international level is turning the notoriously individualistic West Indies into a team and succeeding as England bowling coach in the white-hot cauldron of that country’s hyper-critical media, is the reason he took the troublesome Proteas job in the first place.
“When you strip away the challenges and focus on the cricket, there are very talented players and huge potential you can work with.
“If the challenges, for the most part, stay in the boardroom as much as possible, and if we can get stuck into the cricket, the potential to do something special is there,” Gibson said.
Having set out his stall by saying he wants the team to return to being the number one ranked test side and to win the 2019 World Cup, what is his explanation for why the latter hasn’t happened for South Africa in seven attempts?
“It’s difficult to say,” he begins. “Sometimes, people are put in situations they are not ready for. When I look at the time when the West Indies won the T20 World Cup, what we used to do was practise situations out in the middle.
“Maybe, going forward, that’s something we’ll need to do – put people in situations they don’t necessarily think they’ll find themselves in so that if they do find themselves there, they’ve probably been there and will be able to stay calm and make good decisions.”
Incidentally, Gibson’s analysis on the Proteas’ recent meltdown is less about a team in decline than it is about a team that ran into three problems – inexperience, a little bad luck and better tactics by the opposition (England).
The 48-year-old reckons only the two players England decided to target, captain Faf du Plessis and Hashim Amla, had played a lot of cricket in England among the batsmen, while Vernon Philander’s injury enforced unavailability for the duration of the series and, together with Kagiso Rabada’s patchy form, were major deciding factors in who won the series.
In terms of what kind of coach he should make, the easiest way to gauge that is to look at the two players who are his greatest disciples, England’s Stuart Broad and Ben Stokes.
Both are usually only in the habit of giving themselves compliments, but one gets the impression they would murder and pillage for Gibson in gratitude for what he has done for their careers.
Much has been made of who his support staff will be once the series against Bangladesh, starting on Thursday, is concluded.
“In an ideal world, I would like a specialist in each of the four disciplines of the game. I’d like a specialist batting coach, fielding coach, spin bowling coach and a fast bowling coach,” he says.