This Lance won’t be too hard on West Indies spinners

By Lance Whittaker April 24, 2020
Lance Gibbs (left) and Rahkeem Cornwall Lance Gibbs (left) and Rahkeem Cornwall

West Indies cricket’s greatest spinner Lance Gibbs is under fire in Antigua and Barbuda this week because of comments he made on Tuesday’s Mason & Guest radio programme on Voice of Barbados.

Fans in Antigua & Barbuda and the Leeward Islands are infuriated by sharp views Gibbs proffered about off-spinning allrounder Rahkeem Cornwall while evaluating the quality of spinners in Caribbean cricket.

With 309 wickets in a 79-match career, Gibbs has almost twice the number of wickets in Test cricket as the next most successful spinner in West Indies history, Sonny Ramadhin at 158. Alf Valentine (139), Devendra Bishoo (117) and part-time spinner Carl Hooper (114) are the only other spin bowlers surpassing the 100-mark in our Test cricket history. Ramadhin and Valentine preceded Gibbs – with a few years of overlap – but Hooper and Bishoo came after, long after.

So Gibbs speaks from a position of strength and achievement when he bemoans the dearth of spin-bowling success coming out of the West Indies for decades since his departure in the mid-1970s.

Social media is now flooded with comments lashing out at the 85-year-old icon because Cornwall did not escape his criticism in the few minutes he used in the radio interview to submit his views on the quality of West Indies spin bowlers.

Antigua and Barbuda’s cricket fraternity has understandably been prickly whenever the name Rahkeem Cornwall is mentioned in the context of West Indies selection. They had become bitter and resentful because his several years of steady, at times compelling performances, went unrewarded until his Test debut against touring India last summer.

To be fair to Gibbs, he did not deliberately target Cornwall in his criticism of spinners but merely reacted to prompting from Andrew Mason and co-host Dr Andrew Forde.

Responding to questions probing whether any new-generation off-break bowlers had impressed him, his response was a sharp “No! … They’re not spinning the ball, like who? call a name (laughs),” Gibbs said.

Asked explicitly to comment on Cornwall’s ability, Gibbs knocked the player’s technique. “How could you take two steps and bowl? Where is your rhythm, where is that rhythm?” he asked.

So Gibbs obviously has an issue with Cornwall’s bowling technique and while I disagree with some of his assessment, his overarching view on the issue, I concluded, was that “they” are not spinning the ball. He grouped a cluster of this generation of bowlers and proceeded to address Cornwall because it was the name put to him by his interviewers.

So blasting Guyanese Gibbs over these Cornwall comments, accusing him of regional insularity and the other venomous outbursts, gets us nowhere. Gibbs has an opinion on the state of West Indies spin bowling that existed before Cornwall started playing cricket.

Before I tackle the spin icon’s “two steps and bowl” observation, I must say an evaluation that Cornwall does not spin the ball is grossly incorrect. The big man consistently produces significant turn with his deliveries, the reason why he has been the leading off-spinner in recent years in the Regional 4-day tournament and why he was man-of-the-match for the West Indies in their one-off Test against Bangladesh last November with a 10-wicket haul. He posted magnificent figures of 7-57 and 3-46 in that Lucknow Test.

Because the vast majority of Cornwall’s cricket has been played domestically, I am not sure how much of him the Florida-based Gibbs has seen.

The burly Cornwall had been cited by the previous Courtney Browne-led selection panel as a player with talent but at 300+ pounds needed to work on his body conditioning. He underwent work with a specialist and there has been some improvement in his weight management.

In his delivery, Cornwall uses approximately five steps before he releases, not two as Gibbs says, but at his weight and size he really is an unorthodox and unique specimen in international cricket.

Gibbs is also on record in the post-1995 years -- when the mighty West Indies were unseated as the world’s best – urging regional selectors, coaches and captains to give spinners opportunities to develop when it was evident the fast-bowling prowess had tapered.

Spinners have had a tough time flourishing in a West Indies cricket culture, propelled in the 1970s to world dominance by a battery of bullet-quick pacers. With that legacy, the selection approach has, for decades, persisted with a fast-bowling bias even when the material did not support it and unfortunately for the spinners, non-performance on their part often swiftly resulted in the axe.

Recent history is replete with some substandard fast bowlers getting more opportunities at the highest level than slow bowlers, who, I think, were often better spin bowlers than they were fast bowlers.

Year after year, spinners have dominated the bowling statistics in West Indies first-class cricket. In the last three domestic seasons, Cornwall and left-arm spinner Veerasammy Permaul (twice) have led the bowling statistics. Only once in the past decade -- dominated by Nikita Miller -- did a non-spinner top the bowling statistics, that was 2013-14 through medium pacer Kenroy Peters. Before that, try 13 years ago in 2007 for another pacer topping the Regional first-class bowling statistics, Jermaine Lawson.

If spinners have been so poor, how do you explain this stark supremacy in regional cricket?

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