Herschelle Gibbs is undoubtedly one of the most talented cricketers of the modern era, having been aptly decribed by sports columnist Telford Vice as having "essayed enough incendiary innings to fill a fat volume and, in the field, cut down many a batsman with all the electric grace of an enraged poet." His precocious shot making and fielding acrobatics have enthralled fans for over 20 years, and he chats with MUDL Magazine at Cape Town's upmarket Five Flies Restaurant to share his thoughts on cricket, partying and new horizons.
MUDL: As a school boy you were talented enough to be spoilt for choice when it came to deciding which sport to pursue. What made you choose cricket?
Herchelle: The decision was kind of made for me. Back in the late 80s when I started playing first class cricket at 16, you could get away with playing a summer and a winter sport. So I carried on doing that until 1994 when I tore my cruciate ligament playing rugby. After the operation Dr Spike Erasmus suggested that the best thing to do long term was to stick to cricket. So there it was, decision made.
M: And football? When did that fall away?
H: The older you get, the later your high school rugby games get, so by the age of 16 I could no longer play a morning rugby match and then take part in soccer afterwards. So football had to stop, and looking back, it's my only tiny sporting regret that I didn't take it further because it was my favourite sport as a youngster and, I believe, the sport I was best at. But it's not something I dwell on. I've enjoyed a long cricket career and, almost 25 years later, I'm still going, so I have no complaints.
M: You've played with and against some of the all-time cricketing greats, one of which being Desmond Haynes who you've said played a big part in your career. Tell us about that.
H: Dezzy was a player that I observed closely. I liked to watch how he went about playing. I don't usually like to think too much – I'm a very instinctive player, and this tends to take the thought process out of the equation – but I liked to watch Dezzy practice and play, observe his shot selection and how he improvised, particularly in the one day format, and it was in this way that he had a big impact on me. I'm not the kind of guy who will discuss though processes or a particular bowler with another player because I'm too instinctive. Some batsmen like Hashim Amla or Jacques Kallis will studying why they played a particular shot that got them out but I'm not like that.
M: If you had to bat for your life, who is the last bowler you'd like to face?
H: [Laughs] Probably Shoaib Akhtar! And I think a lot of batters around the world would agree because he literally put the fear of God into you. Even top order batters whose job it is to face the quick stuff will tell you that it's never comfortable facing a ball coming at you at almost 160km/h. For me, he really got my adrenalin going, and I knew that if I wasn't completely focussed for every ball, I could get seriously hurt. And when he charged in, his heels hitting against his arse, he was going full tilt; he never did anything in half measures.
M: Tell us about your experience at the World Cups.
H: When it comes to the 1999 tournament, people always like to remind me about 'the' catch but in that particular game against the Aussies I got a hundred; in fact I was the only South African to get a hundred at that tournament. As someone who is a big lover of sport, especially soccer, I always wanted to take part in a World Cup and win it. And that desire has been with me in every big game, including the World Cups, when it mattered the most. Those are the games in which I wanted to stand out above everyone else because that's when the stage is set to shine. Fear of failure is what often stands in people's way – I've told the Proteas this many times – and I've seen that the cricketers that are the most mentally strong are the ones that can overcome that fear. With me, I would embrace the occasion and go out to express myself rather than restrict myself, and my World Cup record is one I'm very proud of and something I'll cherish above everything else. People often ask me why the Proteas struggle under pressure at tournaments, and I answer that it has to be fear of failure.
M: I've heard you were a handy bowler at school. Did you ever consider developing that dimension to your game in much the same way JP Duminy has done with his part time spin?
H: No. Many people don't understand the pressures that come with opening the batting for your country and the mentality that is required. Not to say that there is no pressure batting down the order, but the mental strain at the top is huge because often all the odds are stacked against you. If your team is first to bat, no one know what the wicket , the ball or the bowler is going to do, but that is something I will always miss about Test cricket; I loved having first crack at the cherry!
M: That famous delivery of Shane Warne's that bowled you was unbelievable. Talk us through what went through your brain, because that was unplayable!
H: Ja, he said himself that it was the second best wicket he ever took after the Gatting dismissal. He was so dangerous because he got so much drift, and if you found yourself on the wrong side of the ball you were stuffed. And the length was so good that I ended up playing a nothing shot, but I still never thought it would bowl me. When I heard Gilly [Gilchrist] go up I thought, no fucking way...
M: Was that the best ball you faced?
H: The best, hands down.
M: Your long career has given you a unique perspective on the development of SA cricket over the last 20 years. Do you feel its future is healthy or has something important (such as the ability of player to relate to fans) has been lost as it's become more professional?
H: T20 cricket has had a huge impact on the sport, and people forget that it's been around for 10 years already. Now there are loads of competitions around the world and there are opportunities for the new breed of pro cricketer to make a good living but it has added a lot to our workload. As far as relating to people, I don't think it's something that can be taught. I'm a free spirited individual and I've always been myself in any environment. I think coming into first class cricket as a 16 year old, I had to learn how to adjust and be comfortable around players a lot older than I was, and this helped me stay grounded. I don't sit back and wait for people to approach me; I make a point of walking up to anyone and talking to them. If people want an autograph or photo taken with me I'm only too happy to do it for them, but I do find it funny that, at almost 40, I still get these requests.
M: Speaking of playing with cricketers that were older than you, what was it like as a teenager coming into a team of men that, shall we say, enjoyed a party?
H: [Wry grin] Look hey, I took to it like a fish to water! [laughs] I had that kind of personality and approach to life; I was very much a team man, so if the team was on it, I'd go with it. But you must remember that in those days cricket was a part time thing, so on any away trip the boys would smash it; they wouldn't think twice! And I miss those days because you could see the gees and the how much they enjoyed playing together. The late Hilton Ackerman, my coach during my Western Province B days, used to say that "you gotta stick together like shit to a blanket" and he was the best mentor a cricketer could have.
M: You still have a lot of fans, particularly at Newlands, and it's not uncommon to see people wearing your double zero jersey.
H: I must say it's nice to be remembered as a player and to see people associating a particular jersey to me...
M: What was the thought behind the number double zero?
H: Well after the Hansie saga I thought to myself, once I finish my ban that I would start fresh. So in 2000 I numbered my jersey "00" and changed the number each year.
M: Although our one day set up is struggling a bit, our Test team is thriving. Why is there such a gap?
H: In Test cricket it's all about experience. The guys have been together for a long time, they know their roles, and even the fringe players are seasoned first class cricketers. But just because our Test team is strong doesn't mean we're automatically going to do well in the shorter version. It's a different game, and our one day set up is still in a rebuilding phase.
M: Are there youngsters coming up through the ranks who will be able to fill some pretty big shoes when the likes of Jacques Kallis and Dale Steyn retire?
H: I don't know. I don't think our domestic cricket is particularly strong at the moment; you don't see guys making double hundreds or doing things that make you sit up and take note. But that said, we do having some of the most testing conditions to bat in here in South Africa, and because of the amount of cricket being played these days, the wickets are deteriorating quicker, making it harder to make runs.
M: Would agree that cricket is a batsman's game?
H: Well who wants to come to a game and watch a team get rolled over? People want to see runs being scored, and if that doesn't happen they ask what was wrong with the wicket. So yes, it's definitely a batter's game.
M: What are your views on Vern Philander not playing one day cricket? A lot of people are calling for his selection, especially for English conditions where the ball moves around a bit.
H: I think the reason is that he's not quick enough. I do think it would have been interesting to see how he handled the English conditions on the last tour, but he's not being selected because 128km/h is nowhere near quick enough.
M: Tell us about your book, To the Point. It certainly raised a few eyebrows!
H: There were a lot of different emotional reactions, and Steve Smith and I never for one minute expected the reactions we got! The people that know me will tell you that they don't mind me opening up. They know I talk about things that are dear to me and I don't mind sharing it, and I wanted to include everything that made headlines throughout my career, whether it be for the right or wrong reasons. On field issues, off field issues, they're all in there.
M: Were any of the people mentioned in the book upset with you?
H: No, not really. There were only two senior players that were pissed off, Jacques and Graeme. The rest weren't too concerned.
M: Looking back over your career with all your ups and downs, what are your thoughts?
H: I look back and laugh because... that was me. I've always believed that you have one life and one career, and I was never going to be restricted from being the person that I wanted to be and living the life that I wanted to live. I would never tell anyone else how to live their life.
M: Are you still partying up a storm?
H: I'm still young at heart [laughs] but I don't go as hard and fast as I used to. I'm in a different space now and I'm lot happier with life.
M: Back in the day you must have seen some interesting night life around the world when touring. Can you tell us about any place or event that sticks in your mind?
H: Trinidad is awesome... there is a lot of temptation there; they have some of the most beautiful women I've seen. Barbados is a party destination with something going on 24/7, and Mumbai has also got many places where you can let loose, as well as in other Indian cities like Bangalore and New Delhi. Then there is obviously the UK... I can't even remember half the places!
M: Have you got any business interests outside of cricket?
H: Ja I've made a bit of money in the property game and I would still like to play pro cricket for another year or two, but I've recently got involved in another little venture that I'm very excited about. It's a network marketing business selling Verve Energy Drink. The company that makes it is called Vemma and it's based in Arizona, USA. It has been around for 12 years and is already a billion dollar company, distributing in 59 countries, and although the product is one of the best, healthiest drink you will find, it's the business model that is so exciting. Unlike other brands, they do not sink money into advertising, events etc; all their marketing is online. They don't give free product away, there are no reps and they don't even stock it in retailers. The way it works is you can buy a case from an existing brand partner for R705, and you are immediately set up with your own website from which you can sell the brand. Each sale that happens under you earns you commission, so if you sign up 10 people who each sign up 10 more... that's a lot of commission! So for R705 a month you get your online selling platform plus a case of Verve, and the idea is that you give some of them away to people to try. If they like it and they are keen for a great business opportunity, they sign up. And to anyone that's worried about the company's credibility, it sponsors 9 NBA teams in the States, and Michael Jordan is one of their brand partners.
M: Sounds exciting.
H: There are students making thousands and thousands of dollars a month. For a small investment they essentially buy a business and, with a little effort, have the chance to take charge of their future. It's very exciting.