June 14, 2014

Gibson on thin ice

West Indies' coach has proved to be quite the survivor, but he may be running out of rope

Of all the national head coaches in place when he was appointed by West Indies in October 2010, Ottis Gibson is the only one still standing.

Australia have gone from Tim Nielsen to Mickey Arthur to Darren Lehmann. Jamie Siddons has moved on from Bangladesh, as have Mark Greatbatch from New Zealand, Corrie van Zyl from South Africa, Waqar Younis from and back to Pakistan, Gary Kirsten from India.

Alan Butcher ended his stint with Zimbabwe after the West Indies tour last year. England shifted Andy Flower from his role of team coach, where he was highly rated, to technical director of elite coaching after their recent Ashes drubbing in Australia.

So Gibson remains the exception to the global trend of a regular turnover of coaches. The well-travelled 45-year-old Barbadian allrounder had been England's bowling guru when West Indies signed him up; according to his contract, renewed last year, he is now scheduled to carry on to October 2016.

It is an astonishing permanence, given West Indies' record of 13 defeats, three victories and nine draws in 25 Tests under his watch against opponents ranked above them on the ICC's Test table; major successes (five wins, no losses and a draw) have been achieved against Bangladesh and Zimbabwe.

It is difficult to think of a chief coach in any major sport who would have continued for so long with such a damning CV. But Gibson is the great survivor.

He has been the butt of regular criticism (Michael Holding said he needed to "learn how to man-manage"; others have been more strident). He was at the core of heated, divisive controversies involving senior players. The most prominent was Gayle's standoff with the West Indies Cricket Board over harsh words exchanged at long range between the two, leading to Gayle's exclusion from the team for a year and a half until a couple of prime ministers intervened to sort it out.

Ramnaresh Sarwan accused Gibson of telling him "some negative stuff that hurt me mentally and emotionally [and] took a toll on my confidence and the way I play".

In contrast, Gibson has had the full support of the WICB, both under Sir Julian Hunte's presidency and the new dispensation of Dave Cameron. There was, as well, his close, like-minded, discipline-first relationship with captain Darren Sammy, with whom he shared the team's first 30 Tests at the helm until Sammy's recent replacement.

"Ottis has added significant value to the development of the West Indies team during his tenure," the WICB chief executive Michael Muirhead said in extending his contract. "Most notably is that he led the implementation of a system of professionalism within the team unit, and curbed the negative results which we were experiencing with some frequency".

Muirhead spoke after 2-0 series wins over Bangladesh and New Zealand and West Indies' joyous triumph in the World Twenty20 in Sri Lanka; the 2-0 pasting of Zimbabwe in the Caribbean a year ago carried the winning streak to six Tests, a sequence not achieved since the heady days of the 1980s.

The subsequent meltdown in back-to-back contests late last year in India, hastily arranged as a backdrop to Sachin Tendulkar's emotional goodbye, and in New Zealand abruptly undermined Gibson's position.

None was more devastating than the debacle at Sabina Park in Kingston last week, in Gayle's much-hyped 100th Test, on his home ground. Events in India and New Zealand were Sammy's undoing; Sabina could be the final straw for Gibson.

Still, Gibson is the great survivor and, apart from its enduring faith in him, the WICB might see a couple of pertinent factors to justify his retention. They lie in the voluminous report by the director of cricket, Richard Pybus. It recommends fundamental changes as to how regional cricket is organised. It is likely the WICB would want Gibson involved from the start.

Pybus calls for a "West Indies First" selection policy that ties contracted players to availability for domestic tournaments, the first-class version of which is to be expanded from one to two rounds.

The WICB has already confirmed that it means business on this one, with Sunil Narine's exclusion from the current New Zealand series because of his late arrival from the IPL (by a couple of days) for the pre-series training camp.

One of the points in the proposal is that the time allowed for playing, training and recovery by West Indies selectees would be controlled by the head coach and the chief selector.

Another envisages an overall manager "to oversee and implement coaching programmes regionally". There has previously been no such coordination, leading to players raised on assorted coaching methods joining West Indies teams, causing confusion for the head coach.

Close attention to the quality of the pitches that produce substandard cricket and, as a consequence, substandard cricketers, is also a Pybus requirement. Gibson and others before him have repeatedly found themselves trying to make silk purses from sow's ears.

In the circumstances, Gibson's frustration has been increasingly evident. After the innings loss in three days last December in Wellington, he revealed to the media that harsh words, like "embarrassed" and "lack of fight", were spoken in the dressing room; he famously called on his players to "man up". He later chastised reserve players for not taking the opportunities offerd by the absence of some of the main players.

After Sabina he again went public, this time with his censure of the batting. It was, he redundantly noted, "bitterly disappointing". He presented as an example to his charges the way New Zealand went about it, "making runs, starts, getting yourself in first, assessing the conditions, assessing the bowlers, scoring areas".

These are forthright comments, justified as they are, that belong in the dressing room, not in front of microphones and before television cameras.

In the end, the decision on Gibson's future is likely to hang on nothing more complicated than the direction of the last two Tests of the current contest.

The words of Sammy during the bad times in New Zealand - "we cannot continue like this" - keep repeating themselves. He prophetically listed himself among those whose careers were on the line when they returned to the Caribbean.

Gibson cannot afford two more performances like Kingston - or like Mumbai, Kolkata, Wellington and Hamilton last year. Otherwise he could suffer Sammy's fate.

Tony Cozier has written about and commentated on cricket in the Caribbean for 50 years