Lance Gibbs, a master of the craft of off-spin

By RON FFANFAIR

In the 133-year history of Test cricket, just 24 bowlers have claimed 300 or more wickets.

The list contains six spinners, the first of which was West Indies off-spinner Lance Gibbs who was the second bowler to attain the landmark achievement in 1976 after England’s Freddie Trueman.

A master of his craft who used his unusually long fingers to turn the ball and exploited every conceivable change of pace, flight and length, Gibbs’ economy rate – runs conceded per over – is 1.98 which is the best of the 56 bowlers who have claimed 200 or more Test wickets.

It’s an achievement he’s proud of during a productive 18-year career in which he claimed 309 wickets (av. 29.09) in 79 Tests.

Gibbs, 75, has remained close to the game since his retirement, managing West Indies touring teams to England (1991) and South Africa (2009). He’s also the cricket ambassador for Digicel – the leading mobile service provider in the Caribbean – which is the West Indies team’s sponsor.

One of seven children, Gibbs’ journey to international cricket began at age 14 when he showed up at Demerara Cricket Club (DCC) – just across the street from his then 150 Crown St. residence – for practice with close friends Colin Wiltshire, who died last year, and Mickey Mortimer.

“Berkeley Gaskin (the late West Indies cricketer and administrator) was the man controlling cricket at the club at the time,” Gibbs told Share during a recent visit to the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). “He was my mentor and the one that really inspired me…The fact that my father (Ebenezer) died when I was young was another impetus for me to want to play the sport professionally and provide for my family, which I did.”

Starting out as a leg-spinner, Gibbs changed to bowling off-spin on the advice of former England wicketkeeper Arthur McIntyre who died last Boxing Day at age 91.

“I could spin the ball bowling leg-spin, but I could not bowl the googly,” Gibbs, who attended St. Ambrose Anglican Primary and Day Commercial Standard High schools, explained. “I would bowl an off-break and it was easy for a batsman to hit it through mid-wicket. If you are bowling off-spin, you would obviously have more men on the leg-side. My line and length as far as off-spin bowling was concerned was particularly good. With leg spin, it’s harder to control.

“While doing some coaching in Guyana, McIntyre told me I would have to choose between the two bowling styles. I turned to off-spin and it was a success. I could always spin the ball, but the control and variation of pace were added. It was an easy transition.”

Gibbs, the cousin of former West Indies captain Clive Lloyd, said playing on the small DCC ground and a rigorous training regimen prepared him for a successful international career.

“If you could bowl at DCC without being carted around the place, that was a feather in your cap and it made it easy when you played on a big ground,” he said. “I also trained hard and that is something that is affecting our West Indian cricketers. I used to get up early in the morning and run and I would be the first person at practice and the last to leave. I worked very hard to become successful.”

In addition to being Test cricket’s highest wicket-taker for five years before Dennis Lillee broke the record, Gibbs was also an outstanding fielder to his own bowling and a gully specialist where he grasped the majority of his 52 catches.

“I put in a lot of time on the catching cradle at DCC where the ball came off at different angles,” he said. “That’s how I was able to sharpen my reflexes and become a specialist in that close-to-the-wicket position. I recently told Chanderpaul (Shivnarine) and Sarwan (Ramnaresh) that if they wanted to continue playing international cricket a bit longer, they would have to consider moving into the slip corridor and not be running around in the outfield and getting tired. Clive (Lloyd) was an excellent cover fielder, but he moved into the slips. So too did Viv Richards. As you get older, you want to conserve energy so that you will be able to put more into your batting.”

Gibbs vented his frustration and disappointment at the lack of discipline and professionalism displayed by young players and their unwillingness to seek advice from former players to enhance their knowledge of the game.

“I benefited from picking the brains of former players,” he said. “I always sought advice if I figured I could gain from it. I used to talk to players who I thought could help me improve my game and they were quite pleased to give me advice…It’s only in the West Indies that young people don’t seek advice and autographs. You go to England and other countries and they would line up to get your name on anything.

“As a youngster, I had a book with cricket clippings. I also used to look out of my window at home just to see Robert Christiani, who lived just a few doors down the street, walk past my house. That was how keen I was about the sport.”

Gibbs made his first-class debut in 1955 against the Marleybone Cricket Club (MCC) and his regional debut the same year against Barbados at Kensington Oval. In his second regional game, also against the Bajans, he captured six first innings wickets, including Cammie Smith, Sir Garfield Sobers and the late Conrad Hunte.

The skilful bowler headed the bowling averages (23.05) with 17 wickets in four contests in his first Test series against Pakistan in the Caribbean in 1958 and in the 1961 away series in Australia (20.78) with 19 wickets in three Tests, including three wickets off four balls in the second innings in Sydney. In the next Test in Adelaide, he took a hat-trick. (Wes Hall, Courtney Walsh and Jermaine Lawson are the only other West Indian bowlers to perform the rare feat).

He was omitted from the side for the first two Tests, including the game’s first tied contest in Brisbane where he was the 12th man.

“There was never a tied Test before so nobody knew what the outcome was until the players were in the pavilion,” he said. “It was a great experience but the thing that stands out about that tour was the way in which Worrell was able to bring the players together. Prior to that series, the White players were invited to most of the parties and the Blacks stayed behind. Worrell changed that and made it clear party invitations would be for the team. That meant we would all go as a unit or nobody went.”

In March 1962 at Kensington Oval, Gibbs turned in one of the most remarkable Test bowling performances, clinching eight Indian wickets for six runs in a devastating 15.3-over spell with 14 maidens to lead his team to a convincing innings and 30-run victory and become the first West Indian bowler to take eight wickets in a home Test.

The match seemed headed for a draw at lunch on the final day when Gibbs spun his magic.

“I had bowled quite a lot during that game and was starting to feel a bit tired,” he recalled. “After lunch, I was going to take up my fielding position when Frank (Worrell) tossed the ball to me. I soon picked up my first wicket (the late Dilip Sardesai caught at leg slip by Sobers) and after that I started to feel good.”

When he was not on duty with Guyana or the West Indies, Gibbs represented Burnley and Whitburn in the Lancashire and Durham leagues respectively, Warwickshire – he enjoyed his best season in 1971 with 131 wickets (av. 18.89) – in the English county championship and South Australia in the Sheffield Shield competition. In 1964 as the first 1000-pound professional in the Durham senior league, he helped Whitburn win the championship with 126 wickets (av. 8.53) which remains a league record.

One of 12 former West Indian cricketers who made up fraud-accused Allen Stanford’s board of legends, Gibbs singled out ex-Australia captain Ian Chappell as the batsman he had the most difficulty dislodging because of his excellent footwork and ability to play spin well.

The highlights of his career were the hat-trick and his 1976 record-breaking performance in Australia, while the lowest point was when he was omitted from the West Indies side for the third Test against New Zealand in Barbados in 1972 and Jamaican Maurice Foster was retained as the only off-spinner. Gibbs and Foster played in the first two Tests.

“Maurice never turned the ball in his life, so I don’t know how he could have replaced me,” Gibbs still fumes.

Gibbs resides in Florida with his wife of 47 years, Joy, and their two children – Richard and Kelly-Ann Cartwright – who are successful professionals. Richard is the senior director of Communications with the Everglades Foundation while Kelly-Ann is a prominent South Florida lawyer who, in November 2007, became the first Black woman to run a Holland & Knight – one of the world’s largest law firms – office as its executive partner.

“The kids have done very well,” acknowledged Gibbs who was honoured as one of Wisden’s 1972 Cricketers of the Year.

So too has their dad who has a street in Guyana – Almond – named after him and is the proud owner of a prized International Cricket Council (ICC) Hall of Fame cap presented to 60 of the world’s finest players last year to mark the centenary of the sport’s governing body.

 

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