Proteas: Judgement day (or weeks) for Ottis

Ottis Gibson (Gallo Images)
Ottis Gibson (Gallo Images)

Cape Town - He knew it right from the outset.

The focal point of Ottis Gibson’s tenure as national head coach was always going to be, in the eyes of his Cricket South Africa bosses and no small number of Proteas supporters, to finally deliver a deflatingly elusive World Cup for the country.

His stated appointment duration was a giveaway, after all: the affable Barbadian took over from Russell Domingo in mid-September of 2017 and his race will be run – unless there is a greatly unexpected new, extension-linked development – by the end of imminent CWC 2019.

It was a relatively short-term deal (someone like the also soon-departing coach of host nation England, Trevor Bayliss, will have served four years, by contrast) and just seemed to say much about his overwhelming priority in the post.

Gibson has already been heavily linked with a return to English climes, where he retains strong links – and possibly even earmarked for filling the shoes of Bayliss from later in the year, once The Ashes is out of the way.

“His (Gibson’s) contract states he has to win the World Cup,” CSA’s chief executive Thabang Moroe bluntly reminded at a media opportunity during the last South African summer.

No pressure, then, Ottis.

In many ways it seems a highly unreasonable stipulation: South Africa certainly have no God-given right to the World Cup trophy; there will be nine other contenders over the next few weeks, an enticing majority of them all quite feasible champions, too, in what is being perceived as one of the most open tournaments in recent times.

Cricket is also an interesting case in that its World Cups aren’t quite as all-embracing, as all-important, as they are in soccer or rugby, for instance.

In those arenas, they are an obvious, clear-cut pinnacle of achievement every four years, whereas international cricket is dispersed into three formats ... including the Test landscape that plenty of more traditionalist-minded enthusiasts continue to protest is the most “real” cricket, providing abundant good reasons.

In short, if you win the one-day international World Cup, you can’t automatically be hailed as “best cricket team on the planet”.

It is only a portion, though a tasty one, of the pie.

There have been jolts aplenty for the Gibson-era Proteas in all three landscapes along the way – complacently losing a home Test series 2-0 to modest Sri Lanka was an absolute sickener, frankly, in 2018/19 – but I would argue that a massively agreeable element of Gibson’s legacy (if that’s what we will soon enough be mulling over) has already been cast in stone.

It was the prior season’s successive home Test series triumphs over an Indian side who nowadays travel beyond the Subcontinent unrecognisably more stout-heartedly than ever before, and then the even more seismic triumph when Australia visited for four Tests.

Yes, it was soured by the vastly-publicised Aussie ball-tampering impropriety, but that only happened when (and in no small measure because) the Proteas were so obviously beginning to tighten screws in the sometimes fractious but always extremely compelling series.

Considering that South Africa had last beaten the Baggy Greens on home soil back in 1969/70, it was a significant, gladdening 3-1 bogey-breaker and, frankly, gives Gibson more “cred” than many perhaps more new-agey, white-ball-inclined people will properly acknowledge.

There will be derisive hoots of laughter in some circles, but connoisseurs of the game would place that series, considering the historical backdrop, not substantially short of winning the 50-overs World Cup for gravitas of achievement in the SA annals.

As things stand, Gibson has won a not-to-be-scoffed-at 42 of 62 multi-format internationals as Proteas coach, so just over two thirds of all games (percentage of 67.74).

Now the merits of his broadly laidback, inclusive – by most accounts, popularly received - style of coaching/player management face their most acid examination in his likely final fling for the country, at CWC 2019.

If the Proteas come up quite starkly short, there will be the understandable, inevitably emotion-charged public clamour for change in the head-coach portfolio, regardless of what CSA/Gibson’s own future aspirations may be.

My own belief is that “par” for the 50-year-old, considering the strengths and shortcomings of the current crop of ODI players, would simply be to crack the last four of an impressive field ... and remember that if he gets them into the July 14 showpiece, never mind the pure nirvana of winning it, that would at least represent a notable, statistical step forward by South Africa in their hitherto most jinxed event where semis remains their farthest passage.

In short, he would have exceeded expectations in the eyes of sober observers, albeit that defeat at Lord’s – under whatever circumstances it might occur - would also lead to hugely widespread, knee-jerk fresh chortles of “chokers”.

Gibson does face a test of how astute (and flexible?) he is as a key architect of selection during the tournament, given that the Proteas will be one of the teams less blessed than others for how effectively they can balance their XI.

His instincts as a former pace bowler himself have long been to favour a beefily-equipped attack – and particularly the seam arsenal – and there have been times in all formats, during his SA tenure, when the Proteas have come a cropper partly because their batting resources have been left unpalatably thin (or at very least with a too-burdensome responsibility on certain specialists at the crease) as a consequence.

Gibson is at the fulcrum, almost certainly, of a belief that South Africa plan to fairly crudely “bomb” their way through the World Cup field, via a spicy, penetrative bowling line-up – at least by reputation.

Cynics (and military generals) may remind, of course, that bombs don’t always hit their intended targets, suddenly incurring a reasonably frantic need for Plan Bs.  

Firmly in his favour, you would think, at this tournament is his naturally calm, unflustered demeanour which should rub off positively on a team quite unavoidably still haunted to some degree by the ghosts of World Cups past, as well as Gibson’s very rich knowledge of conditions and other hallmarks at the various UK grounds the Proteas will play at.

Come up short over the next few weeks, and Gibson will quickly become, in the minds of many, just another ho-hum link in the already quite extensive chain of post-isolation SA coaches.

Win CWC 2019, though, and he will catapult dramatically in public perception to top of the pile, arguably worthy of a statue - perhaps alongside that of his faithful captain Faf du Plessis - outside the Wanderers or Newlands.

There may not be too much in between for him, really: such is the raw desperation for South Africa to finally get the infernal World Cup right ...

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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