Chalk and cheese

2010-11-06 00:00

 THE last week in South African cricket has been dominated by openers.

One on the field, and another off the field.

Their stories are in many ways very similar, and yet in other — more decisive — ways they are like chalk and cheese.

While one is growing in stature, gathering respect with every run he scores, the other has resorted to gathering infamy and alienating old mates with every word one reads.

Hashim Amla and Herschelle Gibbs have both reached the top of their sport, and both have thrilled the masses in their own, unique manner.

Yet, while Amla’s stock rises as rapidly as his standing amongst the best players in the game right now, Gibbs is going the other way.

Out of the national side although still contracted, Gibbs has released an autobiography that may seem entertaining, but is really a rather bleak account by a man who has not grown up in over two decades in the spotlight.

Gibbs has divided the country’s opinion, with his supporters praising him for his honesty, and his detractors lamenting a man who has let the side down by not only lifting the lid on what goes on during the long months away, but also by admitting how he himself has shown scant respect for the country he represents.

While Gibbs happily admits that he loves a drink too much to give it up, Amla is unflinching in his dis­association with anything to do with alcohol.

The national Test side’s shirt is emblazoned with the sponsor’s logo — but not the one worn by the number three batsman.

Amla’s serenity on the field is fuelled by his balance off the field.

There is no scandal that surrounds him because the only fuss he creates is a flutter when a drive of his pierces the off-side and someone from the inner ring has to retrieve the leather from the boundary.

He is a man at peace with his place in the world, and yet he is almost embarrassingly shy about the adulation that his exploits have attracted.

It takes all sorts, indeed, but the story of these two fine players is a stark reminder that talent will get you only so far.

The rest is down to strength of character, and a work ethic that does not diminish at the first sight of adulation.

Sachin Tendulkar was playing international cricket at the same age as Gibbs was playing first-class cricket.

More than two decades later, Tendulkar still sits atop the tree as the most treasured player in India — and indeed the world.

His longevity has been due to his hunger for the simple pleasure of batting.

Amla is much the same. His was not a smooth transition to the big time.

His wristy nature was ridiculed, indeed found out by the world’s best attacks.

But that hiccup only served to inspire the first Indian to play for South Africa to dig a little deeper into his character.

Amla Mark II is an absolute run machine.

Even during South Africa’s most recent trek to Australia, the highly respected collection of commentators from those parts were enthralled by Amla’s unflappable demeanour — and mightily impressed by his ability to gather runs in his own, unique style.

His hard work now sees him rightly recognised as one of the finest in the game.

And the legend looks set to grow.

And what of Gibbs, the man who was once the premier player of colour in the country?

What colour Gibbs and Amla are matters not in their cricket because they have both proved beyond doubt that they belong at the top level.

What the colour of their skin does mean, though, is that they are looked upon as an example, a beacon of achievement that the next lot must strive for.

They didn’t choose it, it just so happens to be an added responsibility due to this nation’s sporting climate.

If one goes by Gibbs’s book, the freckled flayer has failed his considerable talents by letting himself routinely fall into a system of glorification.

The picture his musings paint is of a boy in a candy-shop. The only difference is that this boy enjoyed it so much, he dug a secret entrance and kept going back for more and more.

At what expense?

Turning up drunk, hung over or even without adequate rest to key international matches is unprofessional, no matter how one twists it.

Yes, he made his startlingly brilliant 175 off the back of another bender, but how many more such incredible feats lie wasted in the bottom of empty beer glasses?

Talent is at its best when it is married to a relentless pursuit for excellence.

Gibbs admits that the game came easily to him.

But what if he had taken his ludicrous talents to another level?

What if he had employed that same eagerness to chase skirts and chase down lager to chase down the history books?

We will never know, of course, but it is a matter to be considered.

His tale bears a resemblance to that of Tiger Woods, who hasn’t won in a year since his secret life was exposed.

It is not for us to judge them, but the question does need to be asked.

Where would Gibbs be now if he had truly dedicated himself to his craft?

We will never know.

Meanwhile, away from the lights and the ladies, Amla’s approach to his game is now reaping rich rewards.

His stock is steadily rising to the point where he is being spoken of as a strong candidate to take over the ODI reins from Graeme Smith.

Gibbs, on the other hand, will hope his sales figures rise as high as the eye-brows he has raised.

In time he may earn a pretty penny for his thoughts.

But he has lost friends and face in the process.

His fleeting successes will always be toasted, but tempered with the realisation that it could have been so much more.

Gibbs has earned our respect, but in 21 years of professional sport, he has hardly grown up.

And for that, we can only pity him.


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