He makes things happen

IN an exclusive interview to The Sportstar in Dhaka, punishing South African opener Herschelle Gibbs touches on everything that has touched his career so far

S. DINAKAR

IN an exclusive interview to The Sportstar in Dhaka, punishing South African opener Herschelle Gibbs touches on everything that has touched his career so far — Hansie Cronje and his own involvement in the match-fixing scandal, getting into trouble for smoking marijuana in the Caribbean, his close encounter with Steve Waugh in the '99 World Cup and controversial words about Shaun Pollock's captaincy during the 2003 edition. As always, this free-spirited man does not hold much back.

"The whole World Cup experience was disappointing. We didn't expect to get out of the tournament so early," says Herschelle Gibbs. — Pic. N. BALAJI-

Question: Some great batsmen have dotted South Africa's rich cricket history. Names like Barry Richards and Graeme Pollock. Who was your batting idol as you grew up?

Answer: It was Peter Kirsten. He played a bit of rugby when he was young. I also played a bit of rugby. Then when I started playing first class cricket, Peter was my idol. He is now coaching my State team back home. I missed the opportunity of playing with him because, he went to another province.

The striking aspect of your batsmanship is the manner in which you use your feet against the spinners. There are not too many South Africans who can dance down the track like you do.

You get a feel for the spinners when you are young. You can either be defensive or attacking. Throughout my first class career, I have always been attacking. Peter Kirsten was also a very good player of spin. It's something that you grasp. You obviously got to practice it. You need to attack, especially in the sub-continent. If you cannot use your feet against the spinners, you cannot dominate.

With the willow, you are an entertainer. You do have a tendency to take risks.

I like to keep it as interesting as possible for the people who watch the game. I still give myself time to get settled. At the same time you have to find the balance between attack and defence. One-day game is made for the spectators. Being attacking is part of my repertoire. That's the way I enjoy playing the game. You cannot just strut around in the middle. That would be boring. When you want to unsettle an attack, you have to take a few chances. That's a part of my make-up as a batsman. I can use it as an attacking weapon too.

Looking back, do you regret the chance you took against Muttiah Muralitharan, in that vital World Cup Group `B' clash against the Lankans at Durban, moving too far across to sweep the off-spinner. Had you carried on, the South Africans could still have progressed.

The whole World Cup experience was disappointing. We didn't expect to get out of the tournament so early, we were a major host. Coming to the game against Sri Lanka, we lost too many wickets upfront there. We did not get any partnerships. The wicket played pretty quick in the beginning. I thought I could carry on in the way I got my first 50 runs. Unfortunately, that didn't happen.

The team-management also got its arithmetic woefully wrong.

It was something I would not like to remember. It was a great three weeks while it lasted. The end result wasn't what we expected. We have to move on.

The South African side is going through A re-building phase. As a senior cricketer, these are challenging times for you.

It is both exciting and challenging and a bit frustrating. Allan (Donald) won't be there, Jonty (Rhodes) won't be there either. This is a testing period for the UCBSA and the selectors. Allan and Jonty have been playing for the last 10 years, and they have taken that experience away with them now. Myself, Shaun (Pollock), Mark (Boucher) and obviously Jacques (Kallis) when he comes back into the team, are the most experienced guys. We have a lot of newcomers. Yes, it is a rebuilding phase. It is a new team, and the guys are still finding their feet. That takes time at the international level. You cannot just come in and make an impact straightaway. We have won a lot over the past few years, the people back home have got used to winning, but now, I think they got to be a bit patient.

You and Gary Kirsten formed an enduring right-left opening combination for South Africa. Now you have a much younger partner at the top of the order.

Gary and myself have been opening since '98, we travelled quite far together. He was more of a grafter. His brother Peter was a lot more naturally talented. But Gary is a hard worker. In fact, he is the hardest worker in the side. He enjoyed the sub-continent too.

In '98, when we played against the West Indies, the opening spot was the only slot in the top six that was really open. It was there for the taking. They asked me to open. I said, `'Why not.' Obviously, Gary and myself had a great understanding. He helped me through the last few years. Opening was not my usual position. I always thought of myself as a No. 4 or No. 5 batter.

How did you work on your game to meet the demands of facing the new ball from the big, fast men?

I think I adapted well. Tightened up my defence. If you can't defend, you cannot attack well, you know. I have a lot to thank Gary, and we have become very good mates over the years.

And he was your idol's brother!

I never got to play with Peter. Yes, Gary was the closest I got to playing with my idol!

Any particular knock you would like to remember?

I enjoyed the hundred that I got in the '99 World Cup against Australia, in that Super Six game. I timed my shots well, found the gaps.

That was also the match where you put down Steve Waugh. What did he actually tell you at that moment? Was it, `You have just dropped the World Cup mate?'

Everybody tells me that Steve said to me that `I had dropped the World Cup. But he never really said anything to me. The first time I heard about it was at the press conference after the match. He supposedly said that. I have no recollection of him actually telling me that. In any case, it took a special knock from him to win that game for them, you know. He played one of the top five innings that he has ever played. That innings took them to the semifinals. But I did enjoy my hundred earlier in the day.

Your favourite effort in Test cricket?

My double hundred against Pakistan this year at my home ground. And that's probably been my best Test innings so far. The Pakistani bowling is always challenging.

The finest paceman you have faced so far and why?

I have to say Glenn McGrath. He's not the fastest that I have faced. Brett Lee and Shoaib are the two quickest. For accuracy and tightness, it's got to be McGrath. You can never really relax against him.

The spinner who has tested you the most?

Shane Warne would probably be the most difficult. In the first innings, he really doesn't turn that much. He becomes a factor on the third, fourth and fifth days. As far as bowling is concerned, leg spin is the most difficult art. He has mastered that. He is the best leg-spinner that has ever played the game. Warnie and Murali are the two great spinners of the modern era.

You went through a turbulent phase on the personal front, when the Hansie Cronje match-fixing scandal broke out. You confessed to your involvement in the sordid episode.

I am a very easy-going sort of guy. I don't make life too complicated. I am a very happy person. I enjoy myself. Cricket is life, but it is not the only life that we have. We have life other than cricket. A few years ago when I was younger, that exuberance of youth you know, it took over. You tend to make those mistakes. Won't be the last mistake that I make. Though not as big as the one I made before. Everybody makes mistakes. If you don't make mistakes, you cannot learn about life, you know. It's something that I went through. It's obviously, something that I regret. I apologised to everybody concerned. I can say that I won't make the same mistake.

It must have been a big decision for you to come clean. There is a tendency in such situations to deny, deny and deny.

At the end of the day, I had to be honest. I was in court, and you can go to jail for lying in court anyway. Then again, I had to be honest with myself. Honesty is what got me through at the end of the day, despite everything else that had happened.

Then, you ran into serious problems again, for smoking marijuana during the Caribbean tour. An incident that threatened your future.

Things happen on tour. Things that youngsters do. Instinctive. It was just a victory celebration. It was a big feat to beat the West Indies in West Indies. There are not a lot of teams that have done it before, and there was every reason to celebrate. The manner in which we did it wasn't to people's liking. That's past now anyway. When I am not on the playing field, I think I can do what I want to, but I would surely not do pot again.

Coming back to cricket, you are a wonderfully talented fielder, naturally gifted. Do you feel this aspect of your cricket did not really receive adequate attention because of the presence of fielding icon Jonty Rhodes?

Not really. Jonty was sensational. As far as fielding was concerned, I was blessed. My father, Herman Gibbs, was a sprinter in his time. I got my speed through him. When you have enough speed, fielding become slightly more easy. Jonty obviously set the standards, and he's the world's best. We worked hard with Bob Woolmer on fielding skills. As long as Hansie (Cronje) was the captain, there wasn't anybody who could beat us on the field.

You combined well with Rhodes on the field, and the pressure would build on the batsmen.

Well, Jonty is not there any more. The standard has dropped slightly. The few years I played with Jonty, he had a big impact on me. He used to work on one side, and I used to work on the other side. He's sorely missed. He could inspire and lift the entire side. I don't think there will be another Jonty Rhodes.

Can you tell us about the famous spirit of the South African team, on the side's intensity on the field, especially in the 90s, when it peaked?

We play with pride and passion. We play the game hard, but fair. We wait for the opportunity and want to make the most of it. We also enjoy our cricket, want to bring joy and happiness to the spectators. We won a lot, we also made a lot of people happy. I guess, we still are a popular side. Lots of people want us to do well, feel for us.

Returning to your penchant for getting into trouble, your remarks about Shaun Pollock's captaincy during the World Cup weren't received too well by the men in power.

It was a very emotional thing, the World Cup. The passions were strong. Like a lot of others, I was disappointed and said some words. I did apologise to Pollock later. Honestly, he did not have the same bowling options that Hansie had. Shaun accepted the apology. I have a lot of respect for him. He has done wonders over the last few years, taking over at a very difficult stage.

How would you compare Hansie Cronje's captaincy with Shaun Pollock's methods?

Hansie was more of a natural leader. He had the respect of his team-mates. He could grasp a situation very quickly, get the cricketers motivated. He was also given a lot of powers by the UCBSA, that Shaun did not receive. I think South African cricket achieved a lot under Hansie, we had so many good moments, but...

Cronje went out in disgrace, and then lost his life under tragic circumstances. Your thoughts on the rather controversial man.

For all his strengths as a captain and a leader, he was a human being after all. He had a weakness in him. Money, greed. Unfortunately, they got the better of him. Unlike some others, he was the first to admit it. He came out clean, and you got to give him some credit for that. Looking back, I feel sad at the sequence of events. For most part he was such a fine captain, worked so hard at his game, but in the end, made such a bad mistake. We are all human beings. It was very sad too, the manner he died.

Your impressions of the new captain, Graeme Smith, a surprising choice in the eyes of many?

He is a big, strong lad and doesn't get intimidated easily. But you got to give him time. He has a tough task ahead, and we all have to support him during this period. I've just started opening with him. He's an attacking batsman as well.

How do you look at the future? You had a rather bumpy start in international cricket, but settled down well.

I was in and out for the first few years. They kept chopping the side. Actually, I became mentally strong during that period. I was determined to survive. I have settled down in the side now. I have a lot more to offer South African cricket.

Your thoughts on the Indian side. They had a wonderful World Cup, until the final.

Sachin has obviously got to be the best batter in the world. He is explosive, can change course of matches. I think Harbhajan is a quality spinner. The Indian pace attack is much better too.

The Indians will face a big challenge in Australia next season. The South Africans, traditionally, have stumbled against the Aussies... even in the best of times.

I think, the reason is mental. We freeze up a little bit mentally against Australia. In the last series we were slightly unlucky. You got to give them some credit. Mentally, it is a big challenge to take them on.

Q: The Proteas are no longer the force they used to be. They are still winning a lot, but not doing so with the same conviction. What do you feel the side lacks now?

From 1992 to '98, we had a great pace bowling attack. We had a wealth of fast bowlers. When I started playing first class cricket, there were at least 25 pace bowlers in South Africa who could have made the Test team. We could bundle teams out quickly, and that took a bit of pressure off our batting. We've missed those pacemen in the last few years. And now Donald would not be around. Having said that Makhaya (Ntini) has developed into a very good pace bowler. Nantie Hayward is as quick as Brett Lee. It's just that he has to work on his control. We've had some worries with batting too. But Boeta Dippenaar, who has been in and out of the side, and Jacques Rudolph, are good prospects. We could be back on our feet quicker than what many think.

Q: Your interests apart from cricket, Herschelle?

When I have free time. I love to play a lot of golf. I picked it up a few years ago, and have carried on. I love my family, I hardly get to see them though. I generally keep to myself. Not too much of nightlife!

Q: You don't want to get into any more trouble!

That's for sure (laughs).