One hundred and forty five years have gone by since Test cricket began in Melbourne in 1877. During this period many illustrious players have graced the scene and etched their names in the annals of international cricket through memorable performances. In the normal course, performances of good and even exceptional players are remembered only in the years when they are actively engaged with the game. But the contributions of certain cricketers have been so immense that their name and fame transcend generations and they get remembered for all times. One such all time great who strode the cricket field like a colossus during his playing days was Sir Garfield St Aubrun Sobers, who celebrated his 86th birthday during the week that went by.
Sobers was unique right from birth in that he was born with six fingers in each hand. He lost his father, who was in a ship sunk by a German submarine, during World War ll. Sobers showed his prowess in cricket from an young age, which won him an offer to play for the Police side of Barbados while still in his school. His performances for the Police team led to his being called for the selection trials for the Barbados state side the very next year. Though selected as the 12th man, Sobers made his debut in first-class cricket for his state against the touring Indian side in January, 1953, while he was only 16. He was chosen as a left-arm spinner and he fared well, with match figures of 7/142.
It took only one more year for Sobers to graduate to Test cricket. England, under Len Hutton, toured West Indies in 1954 for a closely fought series comprising five Tests. Alf Valentine, the senior left-arm spinner, took ill prior to the last Test and Sobers was called in as a last-minute replacement. Sobers did reasonably well on his debut, picking up 4/75 in England’s first innings. Since the visitors were set a target of only 72, which they achieved losing just one wicket, there was not much work for the newcomer in the second innings. Sobers batted at No. 9 in both innings, scoring 14 and 26.
The next three years saw Sobers trying to establish himself in Test cricket. It was soon realised, both by the West Indians and by the opponents, that he possessed extraordinary skills with the bat. However, a big score that would help to showcase his abilities did not materialise. There were good starts and some scintillating strokeplay but all he managed was a a couple of half-centuries. The team management even tried him as an opener but a three figure knock eluded him in Tests. It was only when Pakistan toured the West Indies in 1958 that Sobers could finally break the jinx and come into his own as a batsman in international cricket.
The first two Tests of this series saw Sobers scoring half-centuries on all three occasions that he went out to bat. It was in the third Test played at Kingston that he could find the elusive three figure mark, four years after making his Test debut. But Sobers did not stop with a mere century. He continued to bat on and on and converted this ton into a triple century, as he ground the Pakistani bowling to dust. He was involved in a 466-run second-wicket stand with Conrad Hunte, who himself struck a polished 260, and took the West Indies to a mammoth total of 790. Sobers batted for 614 minutes and struck 38 boundaries as he batted his way to a host of new records, including the one for highest individual score in Test cricket. His unbeaten 365 remained the tallest score in tests till Brian Lara overtook this in 1994.
The next decade and the half saw Sobers reach great heights as a batsman. Centuries and double hundreds flowed off his bat as he displayed his batting skills and appetite for tall scores in all parts of the world. No bowler could claim to have troubled him as possessed all the necessary weapons in his repertoire to tackle all types of bowling in different conditions. He was equally at home while playing spin bowlers in turning tracks in India as he was while facing fast bowlers on hard, bouncy pitches in Australia. He also had the distinct ability to raise his game by a notch or two in critical games, which is the hallmark of a true champion. His 132 in the first innings of the first Test at Brisbane against Australia, which saw the first ever tie in the history of the game, is one such knock, which was described as one of the best seen Down Under.
Success with the bat did not lead to Sobers ignoring his bowling. He started bowling with the new ball also and his sharp seam and swing bowling fetched him good results. This also gave Frank Worrell, his skipper the luxury of playing an extra batsman as Sobers took on the work of both opening the bowling and returning later to bowl the slow stuff as well. In fact he could bowl just about everything with a cricket ball- fast, medium pace with seam up, left-arm orthodox spin and chinaman However, it must be mentioned that he was not a match-winner with the ball, in the mould of Ian Botham or Kapil Dev. His tally of 235 wickets in almost 3,500 overs from 93 Tests with six five-wicket hauls in an innings tells the story of a hardworking bowler who could bowl long spells, keep the batsmen under a tight leash, while picking up the odd scalp or two. He was also an excellent fielder close to the bat, blessed with a safe pair of hands and unparalleled sense of anticipation.
Sobers was appointed West Indies captain in 1964 after Worrell announced his retirement. His initial years as captain were successful, with the side winning a series against Australia for the first time ever. This was followed by victories against England and India on their home turf. However, his fortunes started changing from 1968 onwards when the West Indies lost a home series to England 0-1, with the defeat happening on account of a sporting declaration made by Sobers on the last day to force a result. The visitors were set a target of 215 in almost 55 overs, which they achieved losing only three wickets. Sobers was lambasted by the press for his declaration. This was followed by defeats at the hands of Australia, England and India, with the last taking place at home in 1971. He was replaced the helm by Rohan Kanhai when Australia toured the West Indies in 1973. Though he did not play during that series, he played under Kanhai when England toured the West Indies in 1974. He announced his retirement from international cricket at the end of the series.
A tally of 8,032 runs from 160 innings at an average of 57.78, with 26 centuries, places Sobers among the list of all-time great batsmen to have adorned the game. However, it was not merely the tally of runs, but the manner in which he scored them that made Sobers unique. He had all the shots in the coaching manual and he could use them at will against all opposition, which was why Barry Richards called him the only 360 degree player in the game. One instance narrated by John Benaud, former Aussie batsman who played against Sobers during the Australia vs Rest of the World series in 1971, will confirm this. Sobers was facing Bob Massie who could swing the ball both ways; he prepared to leave a ball thinking it was moving away when he suddenly saw that it was coming in. With a quick feint Sobers readjusted his feet and clipped the ball to the mid wicket boundary, even as he muttered “well bowled”! Such was the genius of the man that he could even afford to appreciate the bowler while readjusting his stroke and send the ball thudding to the fence!
Sobers played as a professional for South Australia in Sheffield Shield championship for three seasons from 1962-63 and achieved the double of 1,000 runs and 100 wickets during his stint there. He signed up for Nottinghamshire in 1967 when English counties were allowed to have one foreign player as a professional in their playing eleven. It was while playing for this side that he hit six sixes in an over bowled by Malcolm Nash of Glamorgan in the county championship match at Swansea in 1968. He also led the Rest of the World side during the series against Australia in 1971. The highlight of this series was a brilliant innings of 254 played by Sobers at Melbourne when he tore the Aussie attack led by Dennis Lillee to smithereens, with a display of audacious strokeplay that sent the bowlers running for cover.
Finally, Sobers was such a gifted athlete that he was good enough to represent his country in basketball and tennis had he not decided to focus on cricket. In his later years he took to golf. He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth ll in 1975 and his country honoured him with the title “National Hero of Barbados”. He was also the recipient of almost all awards and appellations instituted in cricket.
But more important is the place that Sobers, the person, occupies in the minds of followers of the game. He is universally loved not only for his cricketing excellence but also for being a through gentleman. He was positive, played the game in the right spirit and seldom questioned the decisions of umpires. He also possessed a large heart that saw him help teammates, youngsters and even opponents. In short, he brought immense joy to the followers of the game all over the world.
Greetings to Sir Garry Sobers as he enters his 87th year. Wishing him many more years of happy and relaxed existence on this planet.
(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a senior bureaucrat)