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Special features

Gibson gets the message across

Andrew Miller on England's new bowling coach, Ottis Gibson

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller

Ottis Gibson helps James Anderson fine-tune his bowling © Getty Images
The value of a cricket coach has never been convincingly quantified. Shane Warne was little short of scathing about the breed during John Buchanan's time in charge of Australia, and famously claimed that their sole purpose should be to transport the players from the hotel to the ground and back. More recently India's twin triumphs in the Test series in England and the World Twenty20 - their first such victories since the 1980s - came about in spite of a large "vacancy" sign over the hot seat once occupied by the supposed answer to their problems, Greg Chappell.
The jury is out, therefore. On a macro level, with all the nuances and pitfalls that can crop up in the game, there is no definitive answer. To take another example, Duncan Fletcher was the best man to marshal England's fortunes, until almost overnight he became the worst man. But on a micro level, it's an entirely different story. Specialist coaches, be they for batting, bowling or fielding, are among the hottest properties in the game. Venkatesh Prasad's input was invaluable to India during the England tour, and not even the sceptical Warne could do without his regular "oil-changes" with his mentor, Terry Jenner.
For England's cricketers especially, the role of bowling coach has become the ultimate touchstone. It was the 2005 Ashes that did it. When the Fab Four of Stephen Harmison, Andrew Flintoff, Simon Jones and Matthew Hoggard bowled England to their first win for 18 years, the credit was swiftly shared with their fifth Beatle, Troy Cooley. He was their friend, their confidante, their sounding-board - someone who could walk them through their anxieties like a best man on a wedding day. Regardless of the injuries and upheavals that have disrupted the team ever since, England's downturn in fortunes can be traced to the day in the winter of 2005 when the ECB allowed Cooley to slip out of contract and into the clutches of the Australians, in time for last winter's revenge whitewash.
Try as they might the ECB could not atone for that aberration. The spell had been broken. Cooley's initial replacement was the former Somerset seamer Kevin Shine, but he drowned his charges in theory and jargon, and failed to connect on that crucial personal level. "He's got the No. 9 shirt, but he's no Alan Shearer," was Harmison's damning assessment. Next to audition was South Africa's Allan Donald, who injected a snarl and a bit of situational knowhow into the performances of, most notably, James Anderson and Ryan Sidebottom, but once again found Harmison unfathomably enigmatic - never more so than when Harmison and Liam Plunkett went into freefall during the West Indies Test at Old Trafford.
Even so, such was Donald's stature that his decision to settle at Warwickshire rather than take up the England role full-time was initially greeted with dismay. Now however, it appears to have been a stroke of the sort of fortune that England have been lacking of late. In Sri Lanka last month a new breed of fast bowlers responded to the subtle prompting of their latest bowling guru, Ottis Gibson, to deliver England's first one-day series win in the subcontinent for 20 years. It's a drop in the ocean compared to Cooley's achievements of course, but the speed with which the rookies adapted from their bang-it-in approach during the first defeat in Dambulla to the steady and subtle attacks of their three subsequent victories is a testament to Gibson's powers of communication.
Gibson's record for West Indies is proof that he was never the greatest cricketer to walk the earth, but he enters retirement as Durham's greatest performer in their greatest ever season, and marches on to his second career knowing that when the time comes to demand that little bit extra of his new charges, he will have no reason to accept no for an answer
All in all, he has just completed a remarkable year. Back in 1995 Gibson took part in his one and only Test tour of England, of which Wisden recorded that he "achieved nothing of note". Next April's Wisden will not be so stinting in its praise. Few cricketers can ever claim to have excavated every ounce of their ability, but that's precisely what Gibson achieved en route to becoming the PCA Player of the Year. His 80 Championship wickets included all ten in a single innings against Hampshire, and his three scalps against the same opponents in the Friends Provident Trophy final included two with his first two balls, plus Kevin Pietersen for good measure.
Gibson's record for West Indies, two Tests and 15 ODIs over a four-year span, is proof that he was never the greatest cricketer to walk the earth, but he enters retirement as Durham's greatest performer in their greatest ever season, and marches on to his second career knowing that when the time comes to demand that little bit extra of his new charges, he will have no reason to accept no for an answer. "Sometimes you may search a lifetime for what you might consider is perfection," said Gibson back in September. "If I look back, it has probably been a perfect season for me."
In a happy marriage of his new job and old, he attributes his belated playing success to the qualifications he has been accruing during his six-year association with the ECB. He has now ascended to become one of the country's elite Level 4 coaches, and spent the bulk of last season putting that aggregated theory into practice. "Level 3 gives you an insight into your bowling, but Level 4 gives you an insight into yourself," he explained. "The sports psychology element challenges your thinking."
In November, Gibson returns to Sri Lanka with the Test squad, although he'll be taking a detour via South Africa, where maybe - just maybe - he can succeed where his predecessors have failed, and free Harmison from the paralysis that has gripped his game this year. He'll be looking on during Harmison's two outings for Highveld Lions, and as a Durham team-mate, could hardly be better placed to assess Harmison's readiness to return to the international fold. "I am a people person," said Gibson. "I like to get to know the guys I am working with and what they are looking for. That might be a kick up the butt or an arm around the shoulder."
A host of candidates have tried and failed to fathom what it is that makes Harmison tick. But if Gibson can rediscover that elusive competitive edge, those who remain sceptical of a coach's worth might just have to eat their words.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo