England’s fast-bowling coach Ottis Gibson talks to Scott Oliver about our country’s impressive stable of quicks, his philosophy on how to get the best out of those players and his unhappy memories of trying to unify a disjointed West Indies.
Over the course of a long winter in the UAE, South Africa and finally the World T20 in India, whenever England were in the field and the cameras panned up to the balcony, there in a floppy sunhat, looking approachable yet focused, would be sat Ottis Delroy Gibson, England’s fast-bowling coach. “I sit and watch every ball when we’re bowling because if someone comes off and asks me how I think we should try and get a person out, I want to be able to tell him what I think,” Gibson tells AOC.
For all the hunches and fiendish plans yielded by that surveillance, there is a way of feeding it back, a protocol. “It varies from person to person. Also, there’s a head coach in there who might have his own ideas. So I’d go to him first and discuss what I’ve seen, and then we’d decide whether we’d pass it on.”
Gibson insists that it is a collaborative rather than prescriptive approach, though, with the bowler always “leading the conversation”. This empowerment of the players extends to preparation ahead of a series, where the data and analysis is gathered, dumped on iPads, then left to the individual to absorb in their own way. “Some of the guys want to know a lot of detail, others just want the basics, but we tend to let people look at the footage on their own, then we’ll get together, with people feeding into the team meeting.”
A cerebral, inquisitive cricketer combining new-school knowledge and old-school knowhow, Gibson always seemed destined to follow this path and is in his element when talking about bowling. “When I was playing I always had an interest in coaching,” he says. “I always looked at other players, wondered how they did things that I couldn’t do, then tried to copy or emulate them.”
Growing up in Barbados in the late 1980s, he had some illustrious mentors. “There was Joel Garner, Wayne Daniel, Sylvester Clarke, Ezra Moseley, but I learned a lot from Malcolm Marshall – to my mind, the greatest fast bowler ever – things that I still use today. For example, trying things in the nets that you wouldn’t normally try, so you can keep adding new skills to your repertoire, keep growing as a bowler. Jimmy Anderson has 400-odd Test wickets, an absolute legend as far as I’m concerned, but he’s still playing. So, he should still be trying to learn and develop.”
For all the success he has had as a coach, Gibson’s playing career was in many ways unfulfilled. The first half coincided with the tail-end of West Indies’ 20-year hegemony, and if he was unlucky to have played only two Test matches then his all-round talents should certainly have given him more than 15 ODI appearances.
By 1999 he was playing club cricket in Staffordshire alongside getting his ECB coaching badges, and wintering in South Africa. Two years later, at the age of just 31, Gibson played what he believed was his last first-class match, for Gauteng, before beginning work for the ECB. “I was national coach for the North West of England, doing coach education, age-group cricket for the region, [under] 13s, 15s, 17s, as well as some work with England under 15s with David Parsons. Troy Cooley was at the National Academy and he took Kevin Shine and me under his wing with the Fast Bowling Programme. We’d look at different actions: how would you fix this? How would you make it safe? Coaching in general is about sharing experiences and helping people to get better.”
Then, in 2004, Leicestershire offered him a deal out of the blue: “a last hurrah”. Gibson’s coaching education allowed him to use his unexpected second coming as a sort of experimental laboratory in which he could apply the theory to his own game. “It was a massive four years for me, the chance to put into practice what I’d learned from coaching kids. The basics of the game haven’t changed that much, and my action didn’t change that much. I tightened up a few things, but certainly what changed was my mental approach, things I wish I’d known in the first part of my playing career. That was key to allowing me to have those few fantastic years.”
Gibson was a roaring success, enjoying two productive seasons at Grace Road before moving to Durham in 2006 where he won the PCA Player of the Year award in 2007, his final season, as well as taking a 10-fer against Hampshire. Against the same opponents he came within a gnat’s knacker of an astonishing hat-trick with the first three balls of the innings in the Friends Provident Trophy final at Lord’s. He nicked off Jimmy Adams and Michael Lumb, and then in strode Kevin Pietersen. “I used to see Kev at the academy and always got on well with him, but he may have been thinking, ‘This is the 38-year-old Ottis Gibson and I’m KP, world superstar’. Anyway, I got the first two wickets and Dale Benkenstein came to me and said, ‘What are you thinking?’ I said, ‘Put another slip in, so he sees the hole at cover, then I’m going to bounce him’. He was like: ‘What!’ I said: ‘That’s exactly why I’m going to bounce him!”
It was a stroke of genius that almost paid off, KP’s attempted pull shot dropping just wide of mid-on. It summed up the sort of cunning, counter-intuitive approach that not only chimes with maestros such as Anderson and Broad, but also works well in Twenty20 cricket. “When you set a field in T20, the best batsmen look around and can tell what’s going to come. They are highly skilled, the grounds are small, the bats are big, so it lends itself to bluffing and double bluffing. You’ve got to get creative with your tactics. You have to be able to expand your mind, expand your thinking and learn new tricks: ‘What can I do to be effective?’”
So was Ben Stokes right to stick to Plan A – straight yorkers – in the final over of the World T20 final? “He nailed his yorkers against Angelo Matthews in a high-pressure situation [in the win over Sri Lanka in the group stages],” says Gibson. “He practises bowling at the heel, straight, wide. He just didn’t quite execute this time in the heat of battle.”
And was that defeat in Kolkata a slightly bittersweet experience for a former West Indies head coach, seeing a fellow Bajan blast his compatriots home? “There was nothing sweet about it at all for me! I’ve worked with West Indies. That’s the past. I work with England and I wanted England to win. And that was it. There was no feeling that, ‘Oh, it’s the West Indies, it’ll be good for the Caribbean’. Absolutely none of that.”
Indeed, the only time this amiable man falls momentarily silent is when reflecting on his time in charge of the West Indies: a job in many ways impossible to refuse yet also impossible to succeed in. There is a palpable hurt at the way events unfolded, yet also an admirable desire not to give rancorous, score-settling vent to frustrations with the systemic problems of the West Indies. “Every coach wants to coach their national team,” he says. “I knew it was going to be a challenge to coach West Indies but I thought I could do a good job. We did various things to try and change the cricket culture but they didn’t work out in the way we’d expected. I got moved on and I’m in a much happier place now. A lot of memories from that time aren’t fond memories, so I tend not to look back on that too much. I tend not to even talk about it too much, to be honest.”
Now more than a year into his second stint with England, Gibson says the country’s fast-bowling stocks “are in good order, but they could always be better… sometimes you can be just one injury away from a crisis”. With Broad and Anderson backed up by Finn, Wood, Stokes and Woakes, as well as Ball, Jordan, Plunkett, Footitt and the Overtons waiting in the wings, that crisis appears unlikely for the foreseeable and Gibson is quick to praise an old colleague for maintaining the production line. “Bowlers might not be on the England radar but they’re all at a point of the talent identification pathway. Kevin Shine [ECB lead fast-bowling coach] is doing great work at Loughborough behind the scenes.”
Critics have argued that the National Academy has not been an unequivocal success, pointing to the lack of spinners coming through and a certain homogeneity among the seamers; the implication being that Loughborough should somehow grow 90mph bowlers hydroponically, a view about which Gibson is sceptical. “Can you can get six bowlers and teach them how to bowl quick? No. If you could, the world would be full of fast bowlers. That’s a gift: genetically and from the amount of different sports you play growing up, which lends itself to making someone more athletic. Besides, I’ve seen many 90mph bowlers who haven’t been successful in Test cricket. Patience, accuracy and being able to move the ball in the air or off the wicket are more important than teaching them to bowl quick.”
Having grown up watching Marshall, Garner et al, and now coaching Broad and Anderson, Gibson is clear about the quality that separates decent quicks from the really great ones. “Knowing when the game is on the line,” he says. “Can you be a game-changer, or see yourself as a game-changer? When the game is drifting away, the great fast bowlers put their hands up and say, ‘Give me the ball. I’m gonna make the difference’. And that’s how you need to see yourself.”
Whatever the state of the game for England, you know Ottis will be there, watching, plotting, advising and learning. Always learning.