Ottis Gibson enjoyed a dream start as South Africa’s coach – with a clean-sweep over Bangladesh a couple of months ago – and if he could have it his way, he won’t be waking up anytime soon.
Though South Africa’s assignments get tougher over the next three months, starting with the four-day, day-night Test followed by series against India and Australia, they are well resourced for the fixtures, better than they have been for several reasons. The return of star batsman AB de Villiers and as their premier pacemen – Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander, Morne Morkel and Kagiso Rabada – are all fit, selection could be a little bit of a nightmare. But Gibson doesn’t mind at all.
“Some nightmares you want to wake up quickly from but this one is a good nightmare because you are bringing back such good quality players,” Gibson said. “It’s going to be interesting selection but if we get right and you look at the strength of the team we can put on the park, that’s a pleasing thing. It’s good to have all those guys back. Getting the right blend is going to be a challenge but it’s one we’re all looking forward to.”
South Africa’s main dilemma will be deciding if they are going to get de Villiers in the team by lengthening the line-up to seven batsmen, or by leaving Temba Bavuma out and choosing three of the four seamers in the attack. Of those, Dale Steyn will demand the most attention, because he been sidelined for the longest and his chances of a comeback were the slimmest.
While Philander struggled with a back injury for a few months and Morkel battled through a side-strain, Steyn has not played an international in more than a year since last November. He is now aiming to return, not just to take the five wickets he needs to overtake Shaun Pollock as the country’s leading Test wicket-taker, but to play for a few more years or so. But he may not be included in the starting XI immediately.
Without giving too much away, Gibson said he wants to see how Steyn has come through the warm-up match against Zimbabwe, of which he and Bavuma played two of the three days before joining the Test squad. Steyn bowled three spells (of five overs, four overs and then three overs) in Zimbabwe’s first innings and went wicketless, but found rhythm and conceded just 16 runs. Assessing him in the next few days will be more crucial than any of that. “When you’ve had such a long layoff and a significant injury, you just have to wait and see how you pull up. Hopefully he pulls up well from that game, and we’ll see how he goes going into this summer,” Gibson said.
Like so many, Gibson is eager to see Steyn back to his best and work with him. “He has been a champion bowler for a long time, probably along with James Anderson, probably the best of the modern generation in terms of wickets taken, games played and the way he has led the South African attack for a number of years,” Gibson said.
For now, Gibson may have to content himself with trying to build the rest of the side into the formidable unit he wants to turn them into, especially as they aim to dethrone the world’s top Test side. “Against Bangladesh, we started to try and talk in a particular way around the dressing room and we tried to play in a particular way. We tried to be very positive in the way we went about Test cricket and take opportunities when they come along,” Gibson said. “Hopefully we will try and continue that in this game and then leading into the India series. India are the No.1 team in the world at the moment and we know we need to be at our best if we are going to compete with them and beat them, which is our ultimate goal. We just want to continue the progression that we started in the Bangladesh series.”
Zimbabwe may not present a same kind of challenge but it’s important for Gibson that the team starts to gel again, after more than two months playing domestic cricket. It is also a match Gibson will use to re-emphasise his own philosophies, especially as a new(ish) coach. “The players, in general, have responded quite well to me. I am quite a laid back person anyway and a bit firm when I needed to be and I think Faf has made it quite easy for me as well. He has been outstanding as a captain and a leader and we chat – I was just back home for a couple of weeks and we were talking constantly about the game and planning ahead so he has been very good. In general, the players have been good. We’ve been winning so its been easy that way,” he said.
He also wants to make sure South Africa have some fun in the new format – a four-day Test which will also be played under lights. With the novelty of the famous St George’s Park brass band, it may even feel a lot like home for Gibson. “I love the band. I’m from the Caribbean so music is in our blood over there,” he said, reminiscing about his own playing days down the coast in East London. “But hopefully they’ve learnt a few more sounds. Last time I was here I think they played the same song for about five hours.”