Lance Gibbs in Georgetown, Guyana
© AFP/Getty Images


When I'm 84

The great Lance Gibbs looks back in laughter, and a little annoyance, at a life in cricket

Vaneisa Baksh  |  

Writing a biography of someone who has been dead over 50 years is challenging. The people with first-hand memories are aged, with faulty memories (if they can dredge them up), infirm, or worse, dying just before you get to them. So when I was told I should talk to Lance Gibbs to get his stories about Sir Frank Worrell, I decided to track him down in Florida, where he has lived for several years, following his retirement from Test cricket in 1976.

It wasn't as easy as I thought it would be. Email addresses I got bounced back, there was no answer from repeated calls to his phone, but as I was about to give up, I got through. It turned out he had been in Guyana, right next door to me in Trinidad, watching the last round of matches of the CPL. He would be happy to reminisce about Sir Frank, he said.

By the time I got to Miami, it was down to the end of the tournament. Gibbs suggested I come over to watch the final and we could talk before the game. It turned out that the game was between Trinbago Knight Riders (my "home" team) and the Guyana Amazon Warriors (Gibbs' home team).

My niece, Sarrayah, driving me to his house, wondered what the protocol for support would be. Should we be demure or was it okay for us to jump and shout and high-five each other during the game? When we got there, two of Gibbs' long-time friends were there. Dempster "Candy" Veira, from St Vincent, and Dennis Watson from Jamaica. The pre-match show was on, and it didn't take long to figure out how expressive we could be, or that there was no possibility of an interview.

Dennis scathed West Indies cricket, administration and players alike, doing it with the rahtid humour only a Jamaican with a drink in his hand can employ. Lance called everyone a chucker - TKR bowled first. He dismissed the good balls with a sneer and a sip. Candy was neutral - he turned out to be the demure one.

Amazon Warriors were playing fiercely and Sarrayah, sitting next to Lance on the sofa, and I communicated only by eye contact. But as the game got more intense and tensions rose, inhibitions floated away. When wickets fell she leaped up and we reached across and high-fived each other. Dennis threw everyone into the rubbish heap. Candy reminded us that they were all West Indians, as we were. Lance grumbled about the batting: a set of sloggers.

Gibbs with Hanif Mohammad, waiting his turn to bat for Rest of the World against an England XI in Scarborough, 1965

Gibbs with Hanif Mohammad, waiting his turn to bat for Rest of the World against an England XI in Scarborough, 1965 © PA Photos/Getty Images

Listening to him, one would think he had decided that T20 cricket was all about sloggers and chuckers, but Lancelot Richard Gibbs, one of the high men of West Indies cricket, was behind the efforts to get cricket, mainly T20 cricket, into the USA, starting with Florida, where he not only lives but has a key to the city of Miami, perched on a wall in his living room. He never, naturally, played in a T20 game; in fact, he only played three ODIs. The first was in 1973, when he was bordering on 39. He was a Test match player for practically all his 18-year career, and remains the oldest player to reach the 300-wicket club, 41 years old when he did.

Yet Gibbs was one of the people behind a bid to get the 2007 World Cup to host matches in Florida. The bid failed, but Central Broward Regional Park in Lauderhill, Florida, which had been developed for it, has grown considerably since. It has hosted eight T20Is, and since 2016 has been the site of some CPL matches.

Gibbs might have been influenced by his involvement in the Stanford 20/20 cricket tournament that had first been staged in 2006 in Antigua. There, he had been the chair of the Legends, celebrated former West Indies players who were ambassadors for Allen Stanford's grand plan to breathe new life into Caribbean cricket, and make a lot of money. The other legends were Viv Richards, Garry Sobers, Everton Weekes, Curtly Ambrose, Joel Garner, Gordon Greenidge, Wes Hall, Desmond Haynes, Richie Richardson, Andy Roberts and Courtney Walsh. Michael Holding was originally in the group, but not for long.

Gibbs was happy for what Stanford's tournament brought to the region, and that the heroes of West Indies had finally been shown some appreciation after abysmal neglect through the years, though he grumbles that he is still owed money after Stanford went to jail. It was a massive show, as flashy as it was expensive, and it attracted new audiences to the game. This opened Gibbs' eyes to the viability of the format and must have been part of the decision to try to have Florida included as almost an extension of the West Indian territories to host international matches.

It is a personal source of pride for Gibbs that together with Lawrence Rowe, the former West Indies batsman from Jamaica, who also lives in Florida, they were able to see cricket come to the USA. It doesn't mean that he does not scoff at T20 sloggers.

"Dem fellas don't think man. You cyan't hit every ball! They disregard the bowler and only want to hit sixes and fours. There's not much thought going into the batting."

A master's fingers

A master's fingers © PA Photos/Getty Images

He's telling me this the following day, when we reconvene. The living and dining areas of his home, and the corridor too, are lined with trophies and balls and framed photographs, many with team signatures. A cricketer's life mission in bound up in these images, these sacred mementos. Gibbs is pointing them out to me. This is the ball he took the record-breaking wicket No. 308 with. This is the key to the city; the plaque from the Guyana Cricket Board. "I was cricketer of the year in 1962, no, not '62. What year was it? '71?"

It was 1972.

"I got a lot of trophies."

"You see how high my arm is?" He points to a photo of a classically outstretched Lance Gibbs, the long fingers curled proprietarily around the ball at the beginning of a high arc. He is just half an inch short of six feet, yet somehow I always thought he was taller - maybe it was the lean, lanky frame of his youth, which has filled out considerably now.

"I remember Berkeley Gaskin [the team manager when Gibbs made his Test debut, against Pakistan in 1958, and for other tours] telling me, 'Lance, your arm must touch your ear.' That means it is high up, and if you're spinning the ball and you put it down in a certain spot, you can get bounce. So the ball is not going to hit the middle of the bat, it's going to hit the edges. If I'm coaching a youngster, I don't want to see them come in so [he demonstrates a horizontal arm], like slower bowling. It's like pelting. Their arm is extended, but it is still like throwing. You got to go up here."

If he is proud of his accomplishments and adopts a lordly air sometimes (he often refers to himself in the third person), he has reason to be. Gibbs was the first spinner to take more than 300 wickets. He was the second Test bowler to do so. If he is impatient with what he sees as sloppy bowling, it is because in his 79 Test matches, he bowled 27,115 balls with very few wides or no-balls. The records also show that he took 18 Test five-fors and that he conceded runs at just 1.98 per over.

Gibbs did not play the famous tied Test in Australia in 1960-61, missing the first two matches, and he tells this story.

From on high: Gibbs bowls in the Melbourne Boxing Day Test of 1975

From on high: Gibbs bowls in the Melbourne Boxing Day Test of 1975 Patrick Eagar / © Getty Images

"I had a bad leg and I remember Sir Donald [Bradman] saying to Frank [Worrell]: offspinners don't do particularly well in Australia so it's no sense keeping Gibbs, you might as well send him home." He chuckles.

"When I heard that, man, every day (he claps his hands together sharply) I was having treatments and different things and got ready for the third Test."

I ask him if that is why he didn't play in the first two Tests.

"No, no, no, because of Ram [Sonny Ramadhin] and Val [Alf Valentine]. They were the senior spin bowlers. But Ramadhin he would go out and look at wickets and if the wicket didn't look as if it was going to turn, he used to complain a lot. Val wouldn't say much, but Ram was a moaner."

Gibbs took three wickets in four balls in Sydney and a hat-trick in Adelaide. He could do this, he said, because of Worrell's confidence in him. He said Worrell had predicted that he would be the success story of the Australia tour.

In the early '60s, Gibbs was at the height of his performances. In March 1962 at the Kensington Oval in Barbados, he had the astounding figures of 53.3-37-38-8 against India in the second innings. That, too, was a performance for which he gives credit to Worrell's leadership.

"He would instill you with the confidence you've got, and be able to make you get wickets." Dilip Sardesai and Vijay Manjrekar had taken India to 158 for 2. "I had bowled thirty-something overs and I hadn't gotten a wicket. Coming down the steps, I was feeling a 'lil down in the dumps, and he said, 'Young man, it's your turn again,' and he tossed the ball to me. And I bowled 15 overs, 14 maidens and got eight wickets for six runs."

Walking out with Garry Sobers in a tour match in England in 1969

Walking out with Garry Sobers in a tour match in England in 1969 © PA Photos/Getty Images

It was the kind of inspired bowling that was rarely seen in his time, or ours, and if for Gibbs these memories keep him feeling on top of the world, then who could begrudge that?

He has a lot of stories, some about appalling behaviour by famous cricketers, some amusing.

"I remember my first tour was to Antigua and the senior fellas, their knowledge of the game, you want to learn from them." He went knocking at the door of two of the players who were rooming together. He was greeted by a sight he has not forgotten.

"Young man, what you've seen in here, do not disclose," he was told.

"They sleeping naked!" He guffaws.

"Naked! I say, 'What the hell is this? I ain't coming back!'" He laughs mischievously.

As he wafts down the zigzag lane of memories, odd fragments poke their heads out; the connections are sometimes lost on me, but I imagine that as he takes his journey, he knows all the intersections. This one is about the nature of West Indian supporters, at Kensington Oval in Barbados.

"They had a woman outside named Maude. She used to sell things like guineps and fruits on a tray. I think we were playing for the West Indies, and she see me coming out of the gate. This woman come running behind me with she tray. 'You, Gibbs, you! When you come here to play Barbados, we going cut your tail', and she running behind me. 'But when you playing for the West Indies, you are my boy!' I say, 'Yeah?' And I just go back inside the ground." He sucks his teeth. "They ain't easy!"

The author with her subject, in Gibbs' Miami home

The author with her subject, in Gibbs' Miami home © Dempster Veira

He tells stories lightly but occasionally a glimmer of hurt emerges, like when he recounts how some of his team-mates threw his belongings out of a hotel-room window onto the grass below, or when he says that he was not popular because he was not a carousing man. I tell him he should write a book. He says the only books that sell are the ones with controversy and he doesn't like that, though he has told me many tales that would still raise hackles.

I ask him if he felt cricket had been good to him.

"Oh yeah, oh yeah, oh yeah. I became like a professional cricketer. I would get up early in the morning, go running; I run for seven miles. I would be the first at the nets and the last to leave. At the DCC, at Queenstown in Georgetown, I would get the fellas from the school next door to throw the ball back to me. I put a spot, a white spot, outside off stump, like if I am bowling to a right-hander, and at the end of the practice session, it would get dark. So I was a dedicated type of individual, you know."

He pauses for a moment, lost in thought and then abruptly he says, "You know how long we married? Fifty-something years." He laughs. "Yeah. I married in 1963. My best man was Clyde Walcott because he was in Guyana at the time."

His wife, Joy, is having her mid-afternoon nap. He tells me she will wake up at 5pm. I ask him if he has afternoon naps, and he looks derisively at me. "No!" He goes to bed around 7.30pm, and she will wake up at one o'clock in the morning and he will hear her doing all sorts of things. He sucks his teeth. It is a contented sound of complaint.

Gibbs has recently retired from Laparkan, a freight-carrier company, so he is only now adjusting to the demands of leisure time. I ask if he is at home a lot. He says now, yes, and just as abruptly, "I got trophies from shipping too."

Lance Gibbs turned 84 on September 29, and has outlived many of his contemporaries. Though his gait is slow, he does not shuffle about; there is more of a clomping sound to his footfalls, as if he still has the high leg-lift of his bowling days. Although he grumbles heartily about chuckers and sloggers and dummies in the game and laments the state of Test cricket, he is generous and jovial. He'd told me that he doesn't follow the current crop of cricketers in the West Indies, but it is clear that he pays more attention than he allows.

Now that he is retired, does he get bored?

"Nah," he says. "They got cricket on all day."

Vaneisa Baksh is a writer and editor based in Trinidad. She is working on a biography of Sir Frank Worrell