Worcestershire’s match against Oxford UCCE last week served every purpose required of it. However, those purposes did not include one side or the other winning the game. Meaningful practice on a true pitch was far more important, particularly for Brett D’Oliveira’s team, whose competitive season is due to begin at Grace Road in barely a week’s time. Thus, when Ben Gibbon’s full-length in-swinger trapped opener Jamie Harrison leg before wicket for seven in the UCCE’s second innings the event hardly prompted many ructions. Only the game’s geeks noted that Gibbon has dismissed the same batsman in identical fashion in the corresponding over of the students’ first innings.
But you can bet a bob or two that 21-year-old Gibbon will remember it. His two spells in a game during which no Pears pace bowler was permitted more than twenty overs were 15-2-47-2 and 5-2-15-1. They were decent returns on a good wicket, particularly so for a young man in the first summer of a two-year contract. Ben Gibbon, you see, wants to be a professional cricketer and this is his chance to achieve his goal.
Much earlier that day Gibbon had sat in front of the wonderful old pavilion in The Parks and reflected on how his opportunity had come about.
“The first I knew of Worcestershire’s involvement was last summer, when I was playing for Cheshire and the umpire later messaged me and asked if I’d like him to get in touch with a couple of the Worcestershire coaches. I replied “Yes, please” and Kadeer Ali then messaged me, asking me to play in a game at Stourport. I signed a deal that day and it’s my first contract. I’m living in Worcester with Taylor Cornall and Mitch Stanley.”
Worcestershire’s renowned ability to develop players from outside the county’s borders has generally been confined to Shropshire but Gibbon is a Cestrian, who first played for Tattenhall before moving to Oulton Park, where he played Cheshire County League cricket, most of it in the Premier Division, for four seasons. There were also matches for Cheshire and seven games in three formats for Lancashire’s second team. But it’s probably fair to say that it was unclear in which direction his career was going until that shrewd umpire put in a call to the Pears coaches. That ensured that Gibbon’s development would be guided by Alan Richardson and that he would get to know the road from Worcester to Malvern very well indeed.
“I’ve loved the winter training at Malvern but it’s been pretty full on,” he said. “It was mainly fitness training before Christmas but then the fitness and cricket came together in the New Year. I’ve done a lot of my bowling work with Richo but I think my batting’s also come on a lot since I’ve been at Worcestershire. I take my pride in my wicket and I don’t like to give it away. There’s still a lot of work to be done but I think it’s coming on and in this day and age you need to offer more than just one discipline.”
Nevertheless, the competition for first-team places in Brett D’Oliveira’s team is just as fierce as it is a hundred or so miles north at Old Trafford. Anyone reading this article will be able to trot out the names of the other seamers on the staff at New Road and their presence only reinforces the unfashionable truth that professional county cricket is very hard indeed. All Gibbon can do is reproduce his skills as consistently as possible. (Indeed when I was writing this piece I was reminded of Elliot Wilson’s advice to one of Gibbon’s young colleagues that his best ball was good enough but he just had to reproduce it more frequently. Think Glenn McGrath. Think Joe Leach. Think six balls pitching in the same place each over. Then do it again. The variations need only be slight.)
“Richo hasn’t said I need to add anything,” said Gibbon. “The main threat I offer is the ability to swing the ball back in and I’ve been doing a lot of work on that. I’ve been working on my consistency: pushing it across, pushing it across and then bringing it back in.”
As for role models Gibbon has started at the very top: “I grew up watching Jimmy Anderson because the way he can swing it is unbelievable to be honest.”
True enough, of course, yet I suspect Anderson would tell Gibbon that there is no substitute for hard work and practice. The skills of which the Lancastrian is an undoubted master were honed during long winter nets with people like Mike Watkinson. Twenty years ago not many people outside Lancashire knew who Jimmy was. And Gibbon’s aim of following the example set by Anderson is shared by a number of cricketers attached to one of the 18 counties.
“The ambition is to be a professional,” he said simply. “This year I’d like to break into the first team as far as I can. I want to bowl well in these pre-season games and then we’ll see where we are.”