The South African cricket team is in a "beautiful space" ahead of next year's World Cup in the subcontinent, Herschelle Gibbs has said, thanks to a change at the management and personnel levels that has translated into a change of attitude on the field. It's a far more positive view of the team than is painted in the much-publicised extracts from his autobiography To the Point, in which he wrote of a disjointed unit, run by a clique of players and paralysed by a fear of failure.
Gibbs was speaking to ESPNcricinfo in a long and wide-ranging interview on Monday, the day the book was published. He's been part of the South Africa team for 14 years, and in his time has seen it go from a "fantastic team" that was unlucky to lose out on the 1999 World Cup final to a "team without focus" that crashed in the 2003 tournament to a unit that could not "handle the pressure" in 2007 to the men he sees them as now.
The current South African squad under Corrie van Zyl doesn't get a mention in the autobiography - though he praised the coach in his interview - but all the regimes from the Bob Woolmer era do. Gibbs feels the team never reached the heights it did in the Hansie Cronje era and is particularly harsh on Mickey Arthur's tenure. He wrote that Arthur was "not the most forceful personality" and that "without Graeme (Smith's) backing Mickey didn't have influence over guys."
Gibbs wrote that during that time the team was run by a clique consisting of Smith, Mark Boucher, Jacques Kallis and later AB de Villiers. It's a charge he repeated on Monday. "That particular clique was an issue I was asked about a lot, even by ordinary people," he said. "They'd always see those guys together because they are good mates and they (Boucher, Kallis and de Villiers) were senior players and they were outspoken so they assisted Smith."
The book reveals how Arthur was often held hostage to this clique and "bowed to senior players' opinions." Gibbs also described Smith as being "too powerful." Arthur reacted in an article published by the South African paper Business Day, saying that Gibbs "didn't know what was going on" when it came to player and management relationships. Gibbs had not had word of Arthur's reaction but said he expected his former coach to react in that way and stood by what he published in the book.
Smith reacted in a more personal manner. "He actually sent me a BBM (Blackberry message) this morning. I know he's just going on what he's seen in the papers but he didn't even say 'Good morning Hersch' or anything. He just wrote 'Too powerful? Is that what you really thought?' And I said it didn't take a rocket scientist to figure it out." Gibbs said he was never in Smith's "inner circle" of friends but that he hopes the two will not have a strained relationship going forward.
"I can't ever feel resentment or hatred for him because he was my opening partner and partners go through a lot together. We might have not spoken for a bit of time, but when I saw him the other day at the Cobras I SMSed him and said 'I can't be upset with you. It's just not possible.' He just replied saying he respects my opinion," said Gibbs.
One of the other members of the alleged clique also communicated his unhappiness. "Kallis has voiced his opinion and I believe is not entirely happy and he will support any move by Cricket South Africa (CSA) if they decide to take any action against me," Gibbs said. However, he hasn't only incurred wrath. Long-time friend Mark Boucher, he said, hasn't taken the revelations too badly. "Bouchie is a hardcore sort of boy and he went through the book and he said it's not as bad as people make it out to be."
Gibbs said the clique does not hold the same sway anymore, because van Zyl is now in charge, and, though he didn't write about it in his book, admits that the team are gelling. "Maybe they (the clique) are still close but they don't have as much influence on the coach." Van Zyl's induction has played out on the field, he said. "We had a workshop a couple of days before the Zimbabwe series started and for the first time in a long time, I felt the team was a unit. There was a sense of togetherness and they are in a much better space."
He also thinks that the likes of David Miller, Colin Ingram and Rusty Theron have added to the new sense of hunger in the side. "There are a couple of youngsters now, who have brought in a lot of self-confidence. Those guys haven't struggled to make the adjustment to international cricket and it bodes well for the World Cup."
The 2011 tournament is one Gibbs would dearly love to be a part of. "All I've ever wanted to do", he said, was win the World Cup, and didn't even hang on to his man-of-the-match trophies because he only aimed to keep a winner's medal. Gibbs signed a new contract with CSA this year and van Zyl has assured him that he is in their plans for the tournament, but Gibbs has resigned himself to not taking part. "I can't see the current squad changing too much. They've got such depth, both with batters and bowlers."
Although it was a lifelong ambition of his, Gibbs said he won't be disappointed if he doesn't get to participate in the tournament. "Maybe when they'll play without me, they'll win," he said in jest.
He has two pieces of advice for the team that will travel to the subcontinent in February. The first is to lose the "fear of failure" that he says has crippled South Africa since the 1999 tournament. The second is more of a warning. "Until we win a World Cup, the chokers tag will stay."