Lance Gibbs: Call Him Mr Pressure

Nasser Khan
Date published: 
TT Guardian

Lancelot Richard Gibbs is one of the illustrious 24 cricketers to have taken more than 300 test wickets to date. Gibbs claimed 309 scalps in a Test career that spanned from February, 1958, to February, 1976, 18 years, and included 79 matches at an average of 29.09. He was a master of off spin bowling, a symphony of spin bowling orchestrated with intelligence, craftsmanship and determination.

His short, whippy, swirling, looping action, with Gary Sobers close by at a short leg slip, ready to snare yet another catch, is one of the memorable sights in all of Test cricket.

He was also an outstanding fielder to his own bowling and a gully specialist, where he held most of his 52 catches. One description of him is that of an “electrified tarantula,” with legs hopping, arms swinging and fingers ripping. He was only the second bowler and the first spinner to achieve the 300 wickets landmark in Test matches, the first being fellow ICC Cricket Hall of Famer, Fred Trueman of England. Other West Indian bowlers in this group to have taken more than 300 wickets at the Test level are Courtney Walsh (519 wickets), Curtley Ambrose (405) and Malcolm Marshall (376). Interestingly, among this elite group, Lance Gibbs has the lowest runs scored per over (1.98) and the highest number of balls bowled per wicket (strike rate of 87.7).

The old LBW law, which allowed batsmen such as Cowdrey, Boycott and Graveney to “pad out” successfully, militated against Gibbs taking more wickets, but also accounted partly for the low scoring rate per over off his bowling and the longer strike rate than most of the great West Indian bowlers. Tall and lanky, with long fingers, he is, arguably, the greatest exponent of the art of pure right arm off spin bowling who ever played the game, and has the company of Sonny Ramadhin and Alf Valentine (not forgetting the incomparable all-rounder Garfield Sobers) as other top class spinners from the region. His prodigious spin, nagging consistency, accuracy and variety of flight, line, turn, length and pace befuddled the greatest batsmen during the “Gibbs” era of West Indian cricket. Painful callouses, worn to the bone almost, were the order of the day during his playing career, brought about by the perpetual rubbing of leather and seam on flesh.

Later in his career, he developed and added to his armoury the quicker, straighter one to his already wide repertoire. “Mr Pressure” is how he best characterised himself applying pressure to batsmen, especially the new incoming ones after a wicket had fallen, sometimes with four to six fielders crowding around the bat and having to make correct decisions to six different variations of delivery.  This is best evidenced in a spell on an unresponsive Kensington track in March, 1962 against India, where after a stubborn partnership was broken, after bowling 40 overs for just 31 runs, he produced a spell of 15.3 overs, 14 maidens, 8 wickets for 6 runs, to end with his best Test performance of  53.3-37-38-8! The West Indies won by an innings and 30 runs.

Will we ever see such West Indian heroics again? Lance Gibbs recalls that “my first long pants was my cricket trousers,” and is one of the better raconteurs of cricket tales and history, possessing a sharp mind and wit today at the age of 75 (born in the then British Guiana on September 29, 1934) and serving as the team sponsor Digicel’s ambassador at large for the West Indies team. He has also managed West Indies teams to England in 1991 and to South Africa in 2009.

The cousin of former West Indies captain Clive Lloyd, he attended St Ambrose Anglican Primary and Day Commercial Standard High Schools in British Guiana (now Guyana), and started on his path to international stardom at the age of 14 at the DCC (Demerara Cricket Club), practising with friends across from his Crown Street residence at the time. He credits the late Berkeley Gaskin (the late West Indies cricketer and administrator) as his mentor and inspiration and the impetus for him wanting to play professionally and provide for his family.

While the regional score cards do not show hugely exceptional bowling performances up until his Test debut at Queen’s Park Oval in February, 1958, those that stand out are a marathon spell of 80 overs, 35 maidens, 113 runs, 4 wickets, against Jamaica in October, 1956, and another of 34 overs, 7 maidens, 68 runs and 4 wickets versus Barbados, later that very month. In his first test at the QPO which the Windies won by 120 runs against Pakistan, he had spells of 12-2-38-1 and 13.5-6-32-3 and a second innings score of 22 batting at number nine, NOT a sign of things to come in the batting department, however.

He headed the bowling averages (23.05) with 17 wickets in the four Tests in that series, and in the 1960/’61 away series in Australia (20.78) he took 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. He did not play in the first Test, which ended in the famous first-ever tied Test at Brisbane. In 1963, the West Indies toured England, and Gibbs had another highly-successful series, taking 26 wickets at 21.30, including 5/59 and 6/98 in a ten-wicket triumph at Manchester. Further successful series followed: in eight successive series from 1960–’61 and 1968–’69. Gibbs never took fewer than 18 Test wickets, and took five or more wickets in an innings on 12 occasions. He has the distinction of taking more than 1,000 first class wickets, his 330 matches yielding 1,024 wickets at an average of 27.22.

Early in his playing days, because he could not bowl a googly, he switched from leg spin to off spin, and as they say, the rest is history. He credits his ethic of hard work and patience and a regimen of rigorous and dedicated practice as the keys to his success, and laments the lack of discipline and professionalism so prevalent in today’s young players and their unwillingness to seek advice from former players to enhance their knowledge of the game. After a two-decade long first class career, he retired after playing his final Test against Australia at Melbourne in February, 1976, at the age of 41, a testament to his longevity in the game he played passionately and proudly for so many years.

Gibbs represented Burnley and Whitburn in the English Lancashire and Durham Leagues, as well as Warwickshire (from 1967/’68-1973) and enjoyed his best season in 1971 with 131 wickets (av. 18.89). He also represented South Australia in the Sheffield Shield competition (1969/’70, 9 games). In 1970,  he took a career-best 8/37 against Glamorgan. In 1964, as the first £1000 professional in the Durham senior league, he helped Whitburn win the championship with 126 wickets (av. 8.53) which remains a league record. Rohan Kanhai, Alvin Kallicharran and Brian Lara are other West Indians who served Warwickshire with distinction.

In 1973, at the age of almost 39, Gibbs made his One-Day International debut against England at Leeds, in the Prudential Trophy tournament, and played only two further ODIs, against England at the Oval and a single outing against Sri Lanka at Manchester, in the 1975 World Cup. He also had stints with the World XI teams during the period 1965-1973, playing in 11 matches. Ian Chappell is his pick as the most difficult batsman to dislodge, because of his excellent footwork and ability to play spin. More recently, he was a member of the fraud-accused Allan Stanford’s board of legends.

The inclusion of Lance Gibbs in a best 11 starting West Indies team of all time is often the topic of animated discussion amongst armchair selectors, some arguing that four destructive fast bowlers of the calibre of Holding, Garner, Roberts and Marshall, all with lower bowling averages, backed up by the multi-faceted spin of Sobers, does not warrant his place in such a hypothetical team. Non-existent batting skills, as well as his relatively lower strike rate than the four fast bowlers, are other justification for such armchair selectors.

Gibbs resides in Florida with his wife of 47 years, Joy, as do their two children—Richard and Kelly-Ann Cartwright, both successful professionals.