South Africa v Pakistan, 1st Test, Centurion, 3rd day

Gibbs stuck in the nineties rut

Osman Samiuddin

January 13, 2007

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Gibbs's failure in the nineties was 'like a man on death row trying to delay the inevitable' © AFP
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It's a tricky thing trying to explain the presence of Steve Waugh and Rahul Dravid atop the list of batsmen who have been dismissed, or left stranded, in the nervous nineties. Common wisdom has it, after all, that traversing those ten runs provides batsmen with one of their more searching mental tests. Yet Waugh and Dravid, who are that peculiar breed of cricketer so loved by one and all, the 'mentally tough,' have failed the nineties test 19 times between them.

Actually, a brief glance at the list disproves that common wisdom further, though it doesn't much prove anything else. There are men as 'mentally secure' as Matthew Hayden, Inzamam-ul-Haq and Stephen Fleming there, sharing space with men you might taint temperamental - a Michael Slater or a Brian Lara. Falling six short, Herschelle Gibbs moved up another notch on the list today.

What type is he? If you judged him solely by his celebrations after taking catches, you might think he's a little cocky, a tad too cool, a bit bling maybe. Not unlike another (former) South African Kevin Pietersen, in presence at least. He may not share Pietersen's idiosyncratic range of strokes - preferring a seductive Caribbean flair - but Gibbs wouldn't mind Pietersen's consistency.

It has been suggested that he is one of those touch players who can't do a thing wrong when in form but can't do much right when not. Pakistan quite often helps him relocate his touch (Zimbabwe apart, he has not had more success against anyone else) and he was for most of his knock an imposter of the frail, insecure batsman he has recently appeared. But the hot/cold theory is not misplaced: having taken 13 Tests to get his first hundred - a double, mind you - he got another the next Test. But the third didn't arrive for another 15 Tests and when it did it forced open the floodgates: he made ten in his next 27.

He would absolutely kill for Pietersen's famously contemptuous disregard for, and brief stays in, the nineties for few active players in that list need a hundred more than he does. It's been 19 Tests and almost exactly two years now since his last. If he hasn't gone mad pondering that stat, then having made four nineties in that period surely will push him over. It got so bad that he froze when he even approached the nineties, fairly dawdling in the eighties like a man on death row trying to delay the inevitable.

You'd think advice from Waugh a bit rich but then he did overcome the nineties on 32 other occasions. Falling short twice in three Tests led Waugh, "to many a restless night's sleep and a complex I would have to confront next time I got into the 'nervous nineties.' I had made it an issue, no matter how many times I told myself it wasn't, and needed to find a method to get through next time. The answer was, as it normally is, very simple: keep on playing exactly the same way and forget about the scoreboard." Easier written, perhaps, than done.

Still, the nineties do have their uses. Gibbs's 94 and Ashwell Prince's century (not a bad man to speak to about conversion, this being his sixth hundred of ten 50-plus scores) were setting up South Africa nicely until Pakistan struck back, just about in time, falling back on that most familiar Pakistan ruse of legspin and reverse swing. And they just about scraped a gripping final session too, one run in deficit with eight men still hanging. Rain, gloomy clouds, spicy fast bowling, teasing spin, brave strokeplay - not to mention verbals galore - rarely fail to make for great cricket.

It's been a wonderful Test so far; three days gone, result in sight, yet still unsure which way it will fall. That is saying something given the officiating it has been dealt. Steve Bucknor's suddenly done a Rudi and decided lbws are not part of the game and Billy Doctrove...well, he's only increased the suspicions of most members that quite possibly the wrong umpire got sacked in the wake of the Oval Test.

Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of Cricinfo

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Osman Samiuddin Osman spent the first half of his life pretending he discovered reverse swing with a tennis ball half-covered with electrical tape. The second half of his life was spent trying, and failing, to find spiritual fulfillment in the world of Pakistani advertising and marketing. The third half of his life will be devoted to convincing people that he did discover reverse swing. And occasionally writing about cricket. And learning mathematics.
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