India tour of West Indies, 2005-06 June 12, 2006

A rendezvous with the 'electrified tarantula'

Siddhartha Vaidyanathan chats with Lance Gibbs, one of the greatest spinners the game has seen, as West Indies do battle with India in St Lucia



Lance Gibbs: a legend in his time © Siddhartha Vaidyanathan

As Chris Gayle hurried through a staggering 21 overs on the second day of the second Test, he was being watched by none other than the ultimate connoisseur. Sitting high up in the corporate box of the Beausejour Stadium was another offspinner, arguably one of the greatest that's ever been. One just needs to glance at Lance Gibbs's massive palms, riddled with blister-like sores, to realise that he must have been a bloody good spinner.

Gayle, in his typically languid style, almost walked in with a five step run-up and fired the ball in. Gibbs, on the other hand, was supposed to have been all energy - they called him the "electrified tarantula" - with his legs hopping, arms swinging, and fingers ripping. The bruise in the middle portion of the index finger tells a story. "My big hands helped," he says showing his giant palms, "but my fingers used to get bruised. Once you get the bruise, with the skin eaten away you really can't get any spin. These are things that you overcome. When you couldn't spin it with the bottom of your fingers, you used the tips."

Gibbs knew he would be a spinner - "that's the only way I could have got into the side" - but strange circumstances pushed him into offbreaks. "I started as a legspinner and was called for the West Indies trials in that capacity. The problem was I couldn't bowl the googly. So I bowled like an offbreak and was successful. Also I was far more accurate while bowling offbreaks, so that prompted the shift. I grew up playing cricket at the Bourda Oval [at Georgetown] and in the Caribbean we don't doctor wickets, so no wicket was ever prepared for me. That's how I learnt to bowl on difficult tracks."

The statistics tell you the story: Gibbs was only the second bowler to cross the 300-wicket barrier (he went on to hold the world record for a short period of time) and ended with an exceptional economy rate that was less than two an over. Against India in March 1962, he managed an eye-popping 53.3-37-38-8, the best figures by a West Indian bowler at the time. Against Australia, in the historic 1960-61 series, he had two outstanding feats - three wickets in four balls at Sydney followed by a hat-trick in the following Test at Adelaide.

Was he, as Fred Trumann had predicted, "bloody tired" after breaking the record? "I wouldn't say that. I loved the game so much that if anybody calls me in the middle of the night, I would still get out there and play. I broke the record in a series that we lost 5-1 [against Australia in 1975-76] so it was a good highlight for us."

Gibbs has fond memories of playing against India as well - in 15 Tests he managed 63 wickets against them - and especially remembered the famed spin quartet. His favourite, though, was the "unusual" Chandrashekar. "Chandra used to get a lot of wickets against us. The bounce he managed, and the way he bowled were amazing. I mean, he could bowl a bumper. He was unusual for our batsmen and got his success from being unusual. He is like Kumble, and both are unusual due to the fact that they get a lot of bounce. Kumble has been successful in Australia because their wickets have more bounce in it."

Just as Gibbs finished his imitations of Kumble and Chandra, with his arms moving violently, his attention was wavering swiftly. Brian Lara was walking out to bat and Gibbs wasn't going to miss it for anything.

Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is staff writer of Cricinfo