A day after South Africa’s pace-powered first Test win, African TV, a local channel, dug deep into their archives to fish out footage of vintage West Indies quicks. While drawing a parallel with their own pacer quartet that got 20 Indian wickets at Newlands in about 100 overs, they showed grainy videos of those towering Caribbean legends making batsmen slump on the ground wiping the blood on their faces. They also showed that iconic picture of Roberts, Holding, Croft and Garner with a running ‘Fast and Furious’ ticker. The West Indianisation of South African cricket was underway.
They also mention something about the special DNA that goes into making a world-class pacer. The hyperbolic tone and the non-scientific claims betray the raw emotions of a joyous nation getting carried away by the success of their pacers. Even in the past, their quicks have had an intimidating aura but the three men who surgically cut open the World No.1 Test side on the final day of the last Test are special, and collectively different from those past ‘fast-packs’.
The South African eye sees things differently. Years of race discrimination have given them a burdened soul and sensitive photoreceptors, those colour-reading tiny optho-cells. For the world, Kagiso Rabada, Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander are a dream pace unit with different skill-sets, but for South Africa, they are also black, white and coloured. It’s this rainbow hue that has given the Newlands heroes more acceptability and popularity.
This buzz has resulted in an almost sadistic anticipation among the locals fans. While the Indians sweat it out in the nets, constantly rising on their toes to counter the bounce and straining their eyes to read the movement, the Centurion hangers-on smirk. “Who’s that man in the last net?” one asks. Once he knows it is Virat Kohli, he lets out a mock laugh and says, “He better work hard.”
There are a few Indian jokes in circulation. Q: Which book did Indian batsmen buy at Centurion? A: Learn to handle bounce in two days. Centurion on Test match eve was crowded with those wanting to witness the ‘hot-tin roof’ dance of Indian batsmen to the tune composed by Rabada, Morkel and Philander. There is suspense over the fourth pacer, injured Dale Steyn’s replacement, but more about that later.
The catalyst to this recent nationwide pace-frenzy and the forming of the rainbow has been the former West Indian pacer and now South Africa head coach Ottis Gibson, the first black to be in that position. It’s early days but he has hit it off well with the fans. Both his actions and words have gone down well with the mood of South Africa’s sporting fraternity.
Foot on the throat
Within minutes of Philander taking the last Indian wicket, Gibson was there to convey that the foot on the throat will be getting heavier. “I’m a very fast-bowling minded coach and I’m always asking ‘can we get four fast bowlers in, and are conditions conducive?’ For the rest of the summer, I think we’ll be seeing how we can best fit four fast bowlers into the team. If you want to beat the best, then maybe you need to do things slightly differently and we want to get in their faces a bit, use our pace.”
South Africans have never hidden their love for West Indian cricketers. In the mid-90s, when West Indies toured South Africa, the tourists were more popular than many locals, especially in the townships. Even during the 2003 World Cup after South Africa’s exit, the locals adopted the Men in Maroon. So when Gibson speaks about four pacers, he’s selling the West Indian dream to South Africa. He is bringing their beloved champion past into the present, that too right into their backyard.
Gibson’s insistence on the four-pacer theory is understandable. Throughout his career, he had been the fourth pacer. Playing in the era of Ambrose, Walsh and Bishop; fourth best is all you can hope for and you always pray that the coach is no spin-believer. But Gibson isn’t the kind who will base decisions on nostalgia and certainly too pragmatic to base them on the romance of his playing days.
The 48-year-old coach has a background that makes him near-perfect for the job at hand. Always regarded as a thinking cricketer, besides being a high-performer on the county circuit, he represented three South African provincial sides during his playing days. A long coaching stint in England made him organised, strategically smart and a disciplinarian. So when Gibson speaks about the four-pacer theory, he knows what he is saying and isn’t a populist sop to please his new constituency.
After his stint as England’s bowling coach from 2008 to 2010, he returned home to West Indies to be their head coach. He brought in a hard-nosed English attitude and work ethic. But he remained very West Indian, his appetite for pace hadn’t been thinned by his time in the land of the swinging ball. He would often compete with the fast bowlers in the nets, bowling long spells at times and even nippy, short-pitched balls at the younger batsmen.
He wasn’t really an old-school coach, the first things he did upon taking over as coach was get an analyst, who he thought could help his team plan better rather than just bank on their raw skills. With new work ethics, he brings together men with diverse mindsets and nationalities. Gibson insisted on bonding sessions, making sure that there was at least one team dinner that everyone attended during or after every Test.
Former colleagues from the West Indies reckon Gibson might even be the best bowling mentor around. “Probably the best in the world. When he was with Windies, we bowled out every team in Test cricket due to his planning. Check (Kemar) Roach’s figures especially,” one says.
He adds his bit about the man’s meticulousness too. “He’s a student of the game and a meticulous planner. Loves order and structure and details and always seeks knowledge. Example he’s a self-taught golfer and a good one too!”
Lungi or Morris
These man-management skills will come in handy. In a number of ways, the West Indies and South Africa, after Apartheid aren’t too different. If West Indies are a team made up of men from different islands, the South African dressing room has players from different races. All these sections have to be nurtured and the decision-makers need to keep the sense of discrimination away from the team huddle.
The decision to pick the fourth pacer will be tricky; the kind that results in a collective wagging of tongues. One of the options happens to be a tall and really 56-inches chested Lungi Ngidi. Like all young speedsters with promise, there are enough stories being weaved about him, some myth and some real. Ngidi, they say, bowls 145 kph all the time. He can run all day but never get exhausted. He once bowled a ball that sailed over the keeper and crossed the boundary after first bounce. Most of them sound true, as Ngidi has most batsmen in trouble at the nets.
Will he join Rabada, Philander and Morkel at Centurion or will they make the conventional choice of all-rounder Chris Morris? The inclusion of Ngidi, with his pace, will give a very West Indian feel to Gibson’s South Africa. Indians, meanwhile, will continue to climb higher on their toes, get extra protection for their ribs and take valium before they sleep.