Ottis Gibson: 'Fast bowling is about the donkey work sometimes'

Brian Viner Interviews: As England begin the third Test, their bowling coach discusses swing, Steve Harmison and the day that Malcolm Marshall taught him the value of hard graft
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The Independent Online

Ottis Gibson was named, 39 years ago in Barbados, after Otis Redding. His parents unwittingly added the extra letter, but the mistake at least sets Gibson apart, and indeed England's fast bowling coach is a singular fellow. He is passionate about Caribbean cricket, yet fully committed to improving England's bowling attack. And he was by his own admission an average cricketer, who in 2001 left Glamorgan's playing staff and turned to coaching, yet bounced back out of retirement to devastating effect.

Last year with Durham Gibson enjoyed the finest summer of a long career, and in July became the first man for 13 years to take 10 wickets in a Championship innings, ripping through Hampshire with figures of 10-47. The summer before he posted his highest first-class score, thumping 155 against Yorkshire. Rarely was the twilight of a sportsman's career so bathed in sunshine. But the sunshine was hard-earned. Once he resumed his playing career, first with Leicestershire in 2004 and then with Durham, Gibson worked tirelessly on his game. He knows from his own hard graft what a bowler needs to get better.

It might not be quite right to say that England's bowlers could not be in better hands, given how much they prospered in the hands of the popular Tasmanian, Troy Cooley, whom the ECB so witlessly allowed to return Down Under. But Gibson's gifts are similar to Cooley's: he is as engaging and genial as he is hard-working and astute. England's third fast-bowling coach since Cooley, following the brief tenures of Allan Donald and Kevin Shine, could be just the man to plot how to bowl out the Aussies next year. Stuart Broad, who played with him briefly at Leicestershire, drew attention this week to the clarity and simplicity of Gibson's coaching style, which has helped him to find more swing. "It's easy to run in with the seam straight up," Gibson tells me. "I've been encouraging Broady to see what else he can make it do."

We talk first at Lord's, before the first Test against New Zealand, and again before the second and third Tests. Gibson is happy with the way his bowlers have operated so far, even if it was Monty Panesar, not one of his charges, who inspired the remarkable victory at Old Trafford. "Fast bowling is sometimes about building pressure, not getting wickets," he says. "That's what they did at Old Trafford, the donkey work into the wind."

In the third Test, which begins today at Trent Bridge, Broad and Ryan Sidebottom will be operating on home turf. "Sid [Sidebottom] in particular will be giving us insight into how the ball behaves, and what the pitch might do," says Gibson. "Sid is very easy to work with. He knows his action inside out, and just wants to put the ball in the right place. If he does that and it swings, he asks serious questions of all batsmen. I thought he was the best bowler in the world during some of his spells in New Zealand. Nobody else could have swung it that much."

Gibson understands Sidebottom, a fellow late-bloomer. But then Sidebottom is an uncomplicated man. Not so Gibson's erstwhile Durham team-mate, the enigmatic Steve Harmison, still omitted from the squad but posting a timely reminder of his talent with a hat-trick against Sussex at the weekend. Gibson does not presume to comment on the selectors' decision, and indeed is relishing the chance to work with an attack unchanged in five Tests, but he feels he understands Harmison better than most, and is certain the 29-year-old can force his way back into the reckoning.

"I know from playing with Steve last year what a good bowler he is. There were days when he did world-class things, like when we were playing at Worcester one day. He was bowling to Phil Jaques, a serious player, and I was standing at mid-off. Before he ran in he told me what he was going to do with each ball, and he did it. Jaques was on 90-odd, and Harmy eventually bowled him leaving alone, round the wicket, a reverse swinging ball. The problem is getting him that relaxed, that comfortable with himself, in this [Test match] environment. I have spoken to him at length about it and I know he wants that too."

In refining the technique as well as building the confidence of his charges, Gibson's coaching philosophy is straightforward: get the basics right and the rest will follow. And never go into battle overlooking your primary weapon, in this case the ball. When I ask him how much emphasis he places on the properties of the ball, his face positively glows. "We talk about that a lot. Without giving anything away, we have people on the field with the specific task of looking after the ball, making sure it stays in the right condition. We have people like Sid, Jimmy [Anderson], who can swing it, but they're not going to swing it if it looks like a dog's been chewing it."

Gibson's hands cup an imaginary ball as he talks; here is a man manifestly captivated by his craft. But then he had a good teacher in the late Malcolm Marshall, with whom Gibson, as an unworldly young buck, opened the bowling for Barbados years ago.

"I remember making my debut for Barbados, my first spell in first-class cricket, and I went for 28 in the first four overs. All I wanted to do was bowl fast, bouncers followed by yorkers. After lunch Maco stood at mid-off.

"He said, 'I want you to bowl two feet outside the off stump'. I bowled a wide. He said, 'well bowled'. I'm like, OK. I bowled the next ball well outside off stump and the batsman left it.

"Maco said, 'what are you going to bowl now?' I said a bouncer. He said, 'why not bowl the same ball again?' So I did, and the batsman left it.

"Maco said, 'what are you going to bowl now?' I said a yorker. He said, 'why not try the same again?' Suddenly I had three dot balls, and at the end of the over, apart from the wide, I'd bowled a maiden. And when a batsman's not scoring, that puts pressure on him. And that creates opportunities for the bowler."

Gibson leans forward in his chair, as if bowed with memories. "I spent hours talking about cricket, or just listening, to Maco. He was a fantastic person, and of course one of the greatest of bowlers. He was a small man in fast-bowling terms, but so athletic, with a very quick run-up to the crease. Umpires never heard him coming. Patrick Patterson and Joel Garner they'd hear from 20 yards back."

In November 1999 he was playing in South Africa when he heard that Marshall had died, aged 41, from colon cancer. "An unbelievable thing," he says quietly. "It was one of the few times in my life that I cried."

Marshall would be proud of his old protégé. And even though an eyebrow might rise at the sight of his fellow Barbadian wearing an England shirt, he would be pleased to hear that Gibson still nurtures an ambition to become head coach of the West Indies. "I would love to do that. Any coach wants to work at international level, and I'm no different. But I'm only 39. If the career of a coach is 15 or 20 years, there's plenty of time. And it might be some other team." The glimmer of a mischievous smile. "It might be England, who knows?"

He is certainly wholeheartedly behind the England cause for now, but the Caribbean is in his blood, and he is troubled by the decline of the West Indies as a cricketing force. "People talk about basketball or football being to blame. I think that's absolute rubbish. Where are the Barbados-born players in the Premier League? There aren't any, as far as I know. Anyway, those sports were around when I was young, but all I wanted to do was play cricket for the West Indies because of the way [Desmond] Haynes and [Gordon] Greenidge, and men as far back as [Sir Garry] Sobers and [Wes] Hall, were revered in the Caribbean and around the world. Now there are no heroes. You could pick out [Brian] Lara from the last 15 years but that's all. That's why the game isn't as strong there, because everyone wants to emulate their heroes. I have a six-year-old son. He watches Power Rangers, so he wants to be a Power Ranger. Back then I listened to cricket on the radio, listened to Haynes walking out for the West Indies at Lord's or the MCG. That's who I wanted to be. Cricket was the thing to make me a hero."

Except to the Durham faithful, he never quite got the chance. Gibson played just twice in Test matches for the West Indies, in the mid-1990s, and in 15 one-day internationals. In truth he was unlucky to be dropped; he enjoyed two five-wicket hauls in one-dayers, and finished with an impressive one-day average of 18.26. With the bat he scored his best one-day score against Australia, a knock of 52. He has never quite understood, he says without rancour, why he didn't play more international cricket. Maybe it helps him to be a better coach, maximising the opportunities for others that he was denied.

Whatever, it is time for him to get back to the nets, and time for just one more question. Who, his beloved Malcolm Marshall apart, has the best bowling action he has ever seen? "Allan Donald," he says. "I loved everything about his action. His run-up was fast and athletic but smooth and rhythmic at the same time. He was well-balanced, strong at the crease, the fastest in the world at his peak." And now here he is filling Donald's shoes, I remark, as the man running England's pace battery. "Yes," he says, and gives a small, satisfied smile, as if to add, "how about that!"