• Cricket’s mavericks

    If you happened to be in a particular beach bar in St Kitts in the early hours of 15 February 2007, you would have seen Herschelle Gibbs living the good life, writes TELFORD VICE.

    Did Gibbs get through a lot of rum that night? Who could tell – he was a picture of politeness and propriety, happy to mingle with civilians and simply enjoy being Herschelle Gibbs.

    And there was plenty to enjoy in the wake of him having put every ball of Daan van Bunge’s fourth over way, way, way beyond Basseterre’s baby boundaries in South Africa’s World Cup match against the Netherlands the previous afternoon.

    What time Gibbs went to sleep that night – or if he slept at all – is probably best left unestablished. But the next morning, not long after the sun rose, he was up and at ’em on the golf course.

    Not all stories starring Gibbs end this happily. Often, these tales are strewn with crowded beds or sharp-tipped lawyers or enough Jack Daniels to make a donkey bray all eight verses of Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika. When that happens, we roll our eyes and wonder what we have done to deserve people like Gibbs.

    But we are never indifferent to him. In an age when cricket is doing its damnedest to drain its last drops of humanity – to make sure every player sounds and behaves like every other player, that they never say or do anything that has not been marketed to death, and heaven help them if they express an opinion that does not meet with the approval of the suits – mavericks like Gibbs are a godsend the game should treasure.

    ‘I still live every day as if it’s my last, but maybe not like I did in my 20s,’ Gibbs said as his 40th birthday loomed on 23 February this year. ‘Maybe I’d rather let loose at home these days. Anyway, if you don’t have a sense of humour, you’re going to have a very boring life.’

    Bless him. He is what sets cricket apart from sports like golf, tennis and F1, in which competitors even look as dull as each other, rugby, in which pecs pass for personality, and football, in which money makes men out of mice.

    For all cricket’s issues – it takes too long, it is too easily upset by the weather, it looks to the innocent like a ritual that aliens from some far-flung planet endure in homage to their god of pointlessness – it arrests the attention like no other major sport in countries like South Africa.

    And players like Gibbs are magnets for that attention. The premise of the Van Bunge story is not that he hit each delivery of a single over for six. Instead, it is that he had the audacity to do so. Yes, you and I and nine of our mates could win a game against the Dutch. Yes, the ground at Basseterre is the size of Patrice Motsepe’s en suite. But only Gibbs had the bravado, the sheer balls, to do what he did.

    At the same World Cup, Glenn McGrath took 26 wickets – the tournament record. Do you remember any of them? Of course not. Neither does any South African kid who stayed up late to watch those games. But Gibbs’ six sixes … Could we ever forget? Of course not.

    Players like Gibbs make cricket – especially T20, the engine of the game’s growth – look like a shoot-em-up video game to young eyes. And without kids, cricket is bowls waiting to happen.

    Not that Gibbs has the champagne lounge all to himself. Kevin Pietersen is also a fully paid-up member, as are Chris Gayle and David Warner. That all of them have egos the size of their bank balances is part of why they are who they are: it’s not bragging if you can do it, and we know as well as they do that they bloody well can and will do it, whatever it is. Naturally, that could allow arrogance to fester. K bloody P? Who said that?

    That all those players are batsmen has everything to do cricket’s unhealthy obsession with making sure those nasty people we call bowlers are kept on a short leash in terms of the ethos and laws of the game. But some bowlers have the talent and the personality to rise above cricket’s anal instincts. Shane Warne is at the top of that list, but Dale Steyn and Mitchell Johnson – tattoos, ’taches, tantrums and all – are right up there.

    All of them distill the essence of what cricket should always be: entertaining. Geoff Boycott could bat for days, but who the hell besides an abject Yorkshireman would pay good money to watch him do it?

    In all sport, one generation begets another. Before the Gibbs, KPs, Gayles, Warners, Warnes, Steyns and Johnsons of today, we had the Viv Richards, David Gowers, Mike Procters, Dennis Lillees and Bishen Bedis of their day. And before them came Keith Miller, and Ranjitsinhji, and all the way back to WG Grace himself.

    And what of the next crop? Who among the players starting to stick their heads above the parapet will hog the spotlight with that intoxicating alchemy of talent and nerve that makes us stop whatever we are doing to watch them?

    In the South African context, Quinton de Kock’s light shines brightest out of the greyness of orthodoxy. He does not seem to have given himself the start that Gibbs did – he was bust for drinking at Nuffield Week and protested with: ‘But by then I was 18! I was eligible!’ and was almost sent home from the South African U19 tour to the West Indies in 1992 for staying out all night.

    But there is a whizz-bang zing to the way De Kock hits a ball that we have seen before, that we see now, and that we will want to see forever. Long may he and his iridescent ilk grace the game.

    This article appears in the January-March issue of SACricket magazine, currently on sale.

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