Lance Gibbs, born September 29, 1934, was the most productive off-spinners in Test history before the advent of Muttiah Muralitharan. Surprisingly, he hailed from the West Indies — a team known to produce fast bowlers. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the life and career of the man who played the support role for most of his playing days and ended as the world-record holder in Test cricket.
The spinner Down Under
Before the Sydney Test, Frank Worrell and his think tank had opted for experience in the hostile conditions of Australia. Those ‘two old pals of mine’ had been entrusted with turning the ball on the hard wickets that could often be heart-breaking for the finger spinner.
The series had got off to an electrifying start with the first ever Tied Test at Brisbane. The following match at Melbourne had seen West Indies follow on and lose by 7 wickets. In the first 2 Tests, Sonny Ramadhin and Alf Valentine had taken 5 wickets between them in 82 eight-ball overs. The time was ripe to ring in the changes. In the tour matches, the 26-year-old Guyanese off-spinner Lance Gibbs, with his incredibly large hands and long slender fingers, had been taking a fair number of wickets. In the previous seasons, he had been quite successful against Pakistan, at home and in their backyard. It perhaps made sense to turn to younger fingers to give it a tweak. Hence, for the third Test at Sydney, the bold decision was taken and the veteran Ramadhin made way for the young, pencil-thin tweaker.
After Garry Sobers had plundered 168 to help the West Indians total 339, Gibbs bowled a tight line through the second day but remained wicketless. Most of the damage was done by Wes Hall and Valentine. The visitors held a slight edge when on the third morning Australia reached 200 with 6 wickets down, but the hosts batted deep. With Ken Mackay and Richie Benaud at the crease, the match was still in balance.
At this juncture Gibbs struck, sending the ball in from his towering height after five steps of ambled run up. He got Mackay, Johnny Martin and Wally Grout, all caught close to the wicket in the space of 4 balls. When Benaud hit one back to Valentine, Australia were all out for 202.
A hundred by Gerry Alexander stretched the West Indian lead to 463. The Australians fought back to end of the fourth day at 182 for 2, with Neil Harvey and Norman O’Neill going strong. However, on the final morning, Gibbs tore through the batting in a tantalising display of loop, flight and controlled variations. He accounted for both the overnight batsmen and followed it up with the scalps of Les Favell, Mackay and Grout. The Australians could manage just 59 more. The West Indies drew level in the series with a huge 222-run win. Gibbs finished with figures of 8 for 112 in the match.
With the series balanced on knife’s edge, the teams moved to Adelaide. When West Indies batted, Gibbs stuck around resolutely for an hour, helping Joe Solomon to add 59 for the eighth wicket. West Indies ended with 393. On the second day Gibbs dismissed the dangerous Colin McDonald as Australia started with a spirited reply. On the third morning the score stood at 281 for 5, Mackay and Benaud in a combative partnership.
And now Gibbs pitched one up to Mackay, who had not looked comfortable all this while. The ball spun past groping bat, trapping the batsman leg-before. Off the next ball Grout was caught in the leg trap by Sobers, that famous combination that would bring about the dismissal of so many batsmen in the next decade and a half. And then Frank Misson stretched out defensively to the next delivery. It turned just enough to breach the gate and hit the woodwork. Gibbs had become the first bowler to take a hat-trick against Australia in the 20th century. He wrapped up the innings by getting Richie Benaud caught in the in-field, ensuring a 27-run lead for West Indies. For the second consecutive innings, he had taken 5 wickets.
In the second innings, as the Australians stubbornly hung on for a draw, Gibbs bowled 28 eight-ball overs for 44, but did not pick up a wicket. The West Indians panicked as they failed to dislodge the stand between Mackay and Lindsay Kline. The ball was handed to Sobers for what seemed to be too many overs. The last few nerve-racking minutes saw too many bowling changes. Hall took 10 minutes to bowl the last over, hit Mackay with a thud on the chest, but failed to knock him over.
In the decider at Melbourne, Gibbs picked up 4 for 74 in the first innings as Australia took a crucial 64-run lead. He bowled his heart out in the second, sending down 41 overs for just 68 runs, scalping two more batsmen. But, the Australians held their nerve and clinched the rubber with a tense 2-wicket victory.
Gibbs had played just 3 Tests in that great series. Yet, his collection of 19 wickets was only 2 less than Hall’s 21. Obtaining his scalps at 20.78 apiece, he had topped the bowling averages and established himself in the team for good. Besides, with Jim Laker having recently retired from Test cricket, and with Hugh Tayfield having appeared in his last Test during the previous English summer, Gibbs was smoothly on his way towards becoming the best off-spinner in the world.
The greatest spell of all
Within a year, he was firmly placed on the top of the spinning world. With Wes Hall and Charlie Stayers blasting the visiting Indians out, there was little opportunity for Gibbs to get among the wickets in the first 2 Tests of 1962. But, then came one of the most spectacular displays of spin bowling at Bourda.
Capitalising on some inexplicable stonewalling by the West Indian batsmen on the third and fourth days, the tourists under young Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi looked all set to bat out the final day for a draw. On the fifth morning, steady batting by Vijay Manjrekar and Dilip Sardesai took India to lunch at 149 for 2, with more than decent chance of surviving the remaining hours.
But soon after the break, the guile of Gibbs hastened the end, spinning the visitors out in a mesmerising spell. On a wearing wicket, the tall off-spinner pitched with uncanny accuracy, purchased generous turn and the occasional bounce. One after another, the batsmen perished. A battery of close in fielders, led by the acrobatic Sobers, waited for the snicks and the Indians obliged.
Sardesai was brilliantly taken by Sobers at leg-slip. Manjrekar’s on drive was held by Worrell at silly mid-on. Pataudi himself lasted 2 balls, turning a disconcerting off-break into the hands of the backward short leg. Borde pulled fiercely, and it was plucked from the air by Worrell. Farokh Engineer stepped out, missed the line and was stumped.
The post-lunch session saw Gibbs bowl 15.3 overs, 14 of them maiden, and pick up 8 for 6. It ranks as one of the greatest spells ever bowled. His final figures read an unreal 53.3-37-38-8. Perhaps he was helped by the ultra-defensive approach of the Indians. With saving the match of supreme importance, even half-volleys were patted back tamely. But, once the off-spinner got into his groove, he was virtually unplayable.
And in the next summer, West Indies went over to England to engage in the celebrated series of 1963. Gibbs started with 5 for 59 and 6 for 98 at Old Trafford, bowling the side to an innings victory, picking up his first 10-wicket haul in Tests. By now he had 79 wickets from 17 Tests at 21.20. He had proved himself in the 3 major Test-playing nations of the day. And all the while, he had mostly played the role of the stock bowler as West Indies looked at Wes Hall, Charlie Griffith and other fast men to get them the wickets, sometimes even pinning their hopes on the versatility of Garry Sobers. This made the achievements of Gibbs even more remarkable and so they would remain for another decade and more. Gibbs had started out on the path to greatness and he would not lose his way.
Compton and Graveney
Lancelot Richard Gibbs was born in Georgetown, Guyana, on September 29, 1934. He learnt his cricket in Demerara CC, which had a long tradition of producing top-class Guyanese cricketers. Cyril and Robert Christiani were two products who had already represented the islands, and later the club would supply talent of the stature of Gibbs, Clive Lloyd, Roy Fredericks and Roger Harper.
Initially Gibbs bowled leg-breaks. He did not have a googly, though, and so occasionally slipped in an off-spinner for variety. This made it difficult for captains to set fields and since the off-break was visibly more accurate, he ultimately switched to orthodox spin.
Gibbs was 19 when he made his First-Class debut, playing for the then British Guiana against the visiting England side. Richard Hector gave the islanders a rousing start by dismissing the great Len Hutton for a duck, and Peter May for 9. With the score on 51, Gibbs picked up his first wicket — a supreme one — bowling Denis Compton for 18. He had to wait a day for the second wicket, and it was a big one as well — Tom Graveney caught by Robert Christiani in the deep. However, as the Gloucestershire great walked back, the score against the batsman showed 231. Willie Watson and Graveney had added 402 for the fourth wicket, Gibbs finished with 2 for 126.
The next few seasons saw him play a handful of matches. In fact, when Gibbs made his Test debut against Pakistan at Port of Spain in early 1958, he had played just 5 First-Class matches claiming 11 wickets. It was mainly a 4-wicket haul in the final of the Quadrangular against Barbados in 1956-57 that earned him the Test spot. However, he played a significant role in the victory on his debut, bowling out the tail with 3 second-innings wickets.
In the fourth Test of the series, played on his home ground in Georgetown, Gibbs picked up 5 for 80 in the second innings to engineer an unlikely triumph after Pakistan had scored 408 in the first essay.
The series haul of 17 wickets ensured a trip to India and Pakistan when West Indies toured in 1958-59. Even in the face of some horrendous umpiring in Pakistan, Gibbs played all 3 Tests and remained a most difficult bowler to get away. He picked up just 8 wickets in the Tests, but they came at a miserly 22.50 per scalp at 1.91 runs per over.
Gibbs was already showing early signs of maturity when he was included in the side to visit Australia in 1960-61, as the third spinner after Ramadhin and Valentine. By the end of the series he had become the first choice tweaker of the islands.
The stock bowler who struck more often
As had been the case in the series in Australia and at home against India, the England tour in 1963 also had Gibbs playing the role of a stock bowler as Hall and Griffith were in charge of knocking the opposition over. Incredibly, West Indies played 5 Tests using just four regular bowlers, with only Worrell providing some relief. Gibbs was again second with his tally of 26 wickets at 21.30, trailing Griffith (32 at 16.21) and ahead of Sobers (20 at 28.55), Hall (16 at 33.37) and Worrell (3 at 34.66).
Much of the 1960s was the same. Throughout, West Indies seemed to rely on the firepower of Hall and Griffith, with Gibbs in a support role. And all through he actually took wickets at a better clip than the rest. The following table is revealing. Gibbs was not only the stock bowler and workhorse of this period, but one of the most potent wicket-takers.
Top West Indian bowlers in the 1960s:
Winning efforts during this phase were plenty. When Australia visited in 1965, Gibbs destroyed them with 6 for 29 in the second innings at Guyana. Returning to England in 1966, he had another triumphant Test at Manchester, taking 5 for 37 and 5 for 69 in an innings win. In the fourth Test of the series at Headingley, he helped West Indies clinch the rubber with a devastating display of deceitful variation of pace, turn and flight which earned him 6 for 39.
In 1966-67, he won the battle with the Indian spinners at Calcutta when Rohan Kanhai, Seymour Nurse and Sobers kept Bishan Bedi, Bhagwat Chandrasekhar and Srinivas Venkataraghavan at bay, whereas the Indian batsmen had no answer to the venomous turn achieved by the long fingers of Gibbs. His 5 for 31 and 2 for 36 overcame even the fire and riots in the stadium to win it for the visitors by an innings.
The hardened professional
Gibbs arrived in England again in the summer of 1967, joining Warwickshire as the overseas pro. Those were days before instant registration and the off-spinner had to spend 12 months in the process of qualifying. By then Gibbs had 151 wickets from 34 Tests, but his stature in international cricket did not keep him from being the thorough dedicated professional.
Even as he waited to qualify, he slipped into the ground in a game against Surrey at The Oval, as a substitute fielder. Someone in the crowd did say, “It looks like Lance Gibbs.” He also turned out for a number of Second XI matches. Wisden eloquently voiced the question, “How many players of such eminence have made so modest a debut in English First-Class cricket?”
The following year, 1968, saw Gibbs turning out for Warwickshire and making his mark with 67 wickets.
But, as Hall and Griffith aged, and with no fast bowler yet on the horizon to fill their enormous boots, West Indian cricket was entering a difficult phase.
In early 1968, a weird declaration by Garry Sobers resulted in England going one up in the fourth Test of the series at Trinidad. And in the final encounter at Guyana, Allan Knott and Jeff Jones held out stubbornly to deny West Indies a series squaring win. Gibbs tried his heart out, picking up 6 for 60 in 40 overs, but it was not enough.
Dip in form
But, even a side past its prime could ride on the Gibbs magic and Sobers brilliance to beat Australia at Brisbane in 1968-69. The off-spinner picked up 5 for 88 and 3 for 82. By now, he was the vice-captain of Sobers and a respected senior member. Yet, this series was the start of a dip in his performance.
The 24 wickets in Australia came at 38 apiece. This was followed by an embarrassing stalemate in New Zealand where he struggled to pick up 8 wickets at 45 each. And the happy hunting grounds of England proved barren when West Indies visited in 1969. The hosts won 2-0 and Gibbs picked up just 6 scalps in 3 Tests at a staggering 52 runs per wicket.
The 3 unproductive series on the trot as usual had the fans screaming themselves hoarse and growing pressure on the selectors. And in one of the most peculiar moves even for Caribbean cricket, 34-year-old Jack Noreiga replaced Gibbs in the home series against India in 1970-71. The Guyanese great played just one Test on his home ground and did not pick up a wicket. At Trinidad, West Indies lost to India for the first time in a Test, and finally humiliation was piled on as they lost the series as well.
It was a tough period for the 36-year-old spinner. His career figures stood at 209 wickets from 51 Tests, and if he had bowed out even then it would have been as one of the greatest spinners of all time. However, his reaction was to promise to capture 100 wickets in the English summer for Warwickshire.
And by the time the season was halfway through, according to Wisden, Gibbs had made “the dash to 100 wickets look like a one-horse race. Plainly a great deal of the improvement was due to a much less arduous winter after so many years of cricket round the clock.” He finished the English season with 131 wickets at 18.89 and was named a Wisden Cricketer of the Year in 1972.
He made a lukewarm comeback in the stalemate of a series against New Zealand at home in 1972. However, by the next year was back near his very best. When Ian Chappell’s Australians visited a depleted West Indian side in 1972-73, Gibbs was in the thick of things once again. He picked up 26 wickets in the series at 26.76, and spun the team to a winning position at Trinidad with 8 wickets in the match before the batting collapsed, the last 6 wickets amounting to just 21 runs to lose by 44 runs.
In 1973, he had a decent series in England in the Tests and made his debut in ODIs at the age of 39. In his second ODI at The Oval, his figures read 11-4-12-1.
And that winter he was bowling West Indies to victory against England at Trinidad, with a marathon 57.2 overs which earned him 6 for 108.
There was a final great Indian trip, under the leadership of his cousin Clive Lloyd. The Tests were keenly contested, and the series saw a see-saw battle ending in a 3-2 verdict in favour of the visitors. Gibbs skittled the Indians out with 6 for 76 in the second Test at Delhi in an innings win. And as the decider was played out in Bombay, he captured 7 for 98 from 59 overs to ensure a 198-run lead and finally a huge win. Bowling at the age of 40 to batsmen brought up on a steady diet of high class spin, he ended the series with 21 wickets at 21.61.
So, Gibbs left for the 6-Test series in Australia in 1975-76, with 293 wickets in his bag, needing 15 more to overtake Fred Trueman as the highest wicket-taker in Test cricket. It was billed as the battle for the World Test Championships and the young West Indian side travelled with hopeful dreams, with the wise old spinner still very much a force to reckon with.
He started with 5 for 102 in Brisbane, 6 in the match, taking his tally to 299. At Perth, West Indies tasted their only success in the tour, and Gibbs snared Gary Gilmour to claim his 300th wicket. The series was locked at 1-1, and the veteran bowler needed 8 more wickets for his record.
And then the series turned into a nightmare for the tourists. Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson unleashed thunderbolts of terror, the hardened Australian professionals did not give an inch on the field and the West Indians capitulated. Gibbs managed just 2 wickets at Melbourne and none at Sydney. He was also shocked by a bouncer that almost took his head away and left him sprawling on the ground with a dumbfounded expression on his face.
In the fifth Test match at Adelaide, the third loss on the trot, Gibbs had a better outing with 5 wickets in the match. As Australia gathered quick runs in the second innings, Gibbs got rid of Ian Redpath and Alan Turner, and finally induced Ashley Mallett to snick to the wicketkeeper to draw level with Fred Trueman.
The battered and bruised West Indian side took on the Australians in the final Test at Melbourne. Towards the end of the first day Redpath swung Gibbs high towards the deep midwicket where Michael Holding held the catch. Gibbs became the number one on the list of wicket takers and it gave the beleaguered West Indians something to cheer about. He took one more wicket in the match and finished his career with 309. It stood as a record until Dennis Lillee went past him in December 1981.
When Fred Trueman had become the first man in the history of Test cricket to capture 300 wickets, he had been asked whether anyone else would ever do it — a question that seems quite anachronistic on this day. The inimitable Yorkshireman had answered, “If he does he’ll be bloody tired by the time he does it.”
True, Gibbs was a spinner as opposed to the fiery England fast bowler. But, according to him, he loved the game too much to be prone to fatigue. He loved bowling on and on, and this is borne out by figures.
In his 79 Tests, Gibbs picked up his 309 wickets at 29.09 with 18 five-fors and 2 ten-wicket hauls. He bowled more balls than anyone in the history of the game before increased number of Tests saw the modern-day bowlers go past him. Even when we look at the tables today only Muttiah Muralitharan, Anil Kumble, Shane Warne, Daniel Vettori and Harbhajan Singh turn out to have run up and rolled their arms over more times among the spinners, and Courtney Walsh, Kapil Dev and Glenn McGrath have done so among pace bowlers. All of them have played over hundred Tests.
Bowlers with the highest number of deliveries in Tests:
Gibbs averaged around 57 overs per Test through his playing days. This made him the fifth-most overworked bowler in the history of the game. No one else shouldered that amount of workload across so many Test matches.
The high number of overs also implies incredible accuracy. Gibbs was right up there among the most miserly bowlers of all time with an economy rate of 1.98.
Running up to the wicket, Gibbs was a picture of taut energy, being carefully preserved before being released all of a sudden. His long legs ambled towards the crease, his long arms swung as he delivered and his long fingers performed their intricate manipulations, sending the ball whirring towards the batsman. His long limbed movements earned him the curious nickname ‘electrified tarantula’.
Releasing balls from the towering height, Gibbs extracted bounce from even the deadest of tracks. The long fingers released the ball with a considerable tweak, and he could control the degree of turn at will, always varying it to keep the batsman guessing. Towards the end of his career, he added a potent arm ball to his armoury.
There were occasions when through prolonged periods of friction his spinning finger suffered serious abrasions rendering it raw. However, such problems never could manage to keep him out of action. He often used his long fingers to spin balls from the very tips if they were bloodied and painful further down.
With Garry Sobers lurking close in, Gibbs formed a phenomenal partnership. With the off-breaks turning across the batsmen, Sobers crouched close behind the wicket on the leg-side to pouch incredible catches. Sometimes he walked stealthily up and took the ball off the face of the bat. As many as 39 wickets bore the description caught Sobers bowled Gibbs — a record for bowler-fielder combinations at that time. It has since then been exceeded only four times and equalled twice more.
The best bowler-fielder (non-wicketkeeper) combinations in Test cricket:
Gibbs himself was an excellent close-in fielder, mostly in the slips or gully. His 79 Tests brought him an impressive 52 catches. With the bat, though, he was one of nature’s confirmed rabbits. He managed to keep his collection of runs ahead of his wickets, but not by much. His 488 runs came at an average of 6.97, with a highest of 25 with 15 ducks. Even in 352 innings in First-Class cricket, he did not quite manage a half-century.
After retirement Gibbs migrated to the United States, but later came back for a brief while to manage the West Indian tour of England in 1991.
Gibbs will be remembered as the greatest spinner hailing from a cricketing culture renowned for producing fast bowlers. He will remain remarkable for ending up as the highest wicket-taker in the world even though his job in the side was to act as support the lethal fast men in the line-up.
Considering that the only West Indian spinner since Gibbs to take a hundred wickets has been Carl Hooper and the name after that is Chris Gayle, it seems unlikely that he will ever be surpassed by a tweaker from the islands anytime soon. Gibbs indeed represents a very special breed.