Cricket: Cape crusader finds his touch

Herschelle Gibbs is now displaying temperament to match his talent.
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The Independent Online
AT ONE time the prospect of a four-Test series against New Zealand seemed hardly designed to capitalise on the resurgence in interest the Carnival of Cricket was expected to inspire in this country. But with the benefit of hindsight, perhaps the authorities are to be congratulated on their foresight as now, given England's parlous state, New Zealand appear to be the ideal opponents.

It is to be hoped that several players of promise will be given their first, or another, chance in these games and if proof were needed of the benefits of facing one of the least fearsome attacks in world cricket then South Africa's Herschelle Gibbs would be a star witness.

Life has not always been comfortable for the 25-year-old so-called Cape Coloured batsman since he broke into the South African side, but yesterday his polished contribution towards the highest opening stand of the tournament hinted at the brightest of futures. And it was consecutive Tests against New Zealand last winter that kick-started Gibbs' international career after it had stalled at the first time of asking.

Gibbs, the son of a tennis writer, made his debut for Western Province as a 16-year-old, still attending Bishop's School - the "Eton of Cape Town" - but it took him several seasons to establish himself in the side. In those days he was a gifted enough footballer to be offered a trial by Tottenham Hotspur and as a rugby player he went on to play for his province at under-20 level.

When the time came for him to choose, though, it was cricket to which Gibbs directed his formidable all-round talent and he battled through to gain selection for South Africa's A tour to England in 1996 where he topped the batting averages.

The following season he was elevated to the senior side but he failed to impress, other than as a fielder to rival even Jonty Rhodes. Doubts were raised about his batting temperament.

What may come to be seen as a watershed in his career, and for South African cricket in general, arrived in December. With Adam Bacher out of form, a new opener was needed for the second Test against the West Indies at Port Elizabeth. Furthermore, pressure from the African National Congress to include a non-white player in the side was growing all the time, but the idea of positive discrimination did not sit comfortably with everyone.

Happily Gibbs' selection proved satisfactory to all concerned and after making his maiden one-day international century at the end of that series he went on to make 211 not out and 120 in successive Tests in New Zealand.

So far in this tournament he has kept a low profile but, while that means he has avoided being used as a political football, he has also, like his opening partner Gary Kirsten, been a little short of runs. That changed for both men yesterday, Gibbs catching the eye with three sweetly struck boundaries off consecutive deliveries to take him to his second half-century of the competition.

If he has a weakness, by his own admission his shot selection sometimes leaves a lot to be desired, especially at the start of an innings. But on the evidence of yesterday's chanceless 91, everything seems to be coming together for him at just the right time.

Until now the lack of runs from the top of their order has been South Africa's only cause for real concern as they make their seemingly inexorable way towards the final. But now, thanks to Gibbs and Kirsten, even that is beginning to fall in to place for the Proteas.