Sobers 60 years on

From Tony Cozier

Tony Cozier
Tony Cozier

SIR Garry Sobers  – the Right Excellent Sir Garfield St. Aubyn Sobers to accord him his full title as a knight of the realm and the only living national hero of his native Barbados – is not the type who makes a fuss over his achievements as, in the words of the 1965 calypso, “the greatest cricketer on Earth or Mars”.

If he is inclined to play down his two coincidentally simultaneous anniversaries tomorrow, he is sure to have been reminded of their significance several times in the past few days. They mark the start and the end of his celebrated Test career.

March 30 is 60 years to the day since Sobers first appeared in a Test match for West Indies, against England in 1954 at Kingston’s Sabina Park. It is precisely 40 since his last, also against England, at Port-of-Spain’s Queen’s Park Oval in 1974.

He took the field at Sabina as a boy of 17 from the working-class district of Bayland on the outskirts of Bridgetown, raised, along with five siblings, by a mother widowed by the loss of her seaman husband to a German torpedo during World War II; her second son had no formal coaching, just a love and an aptitude for any ball game.

He was a late, like-for-like replacement for left-arm spinner Alf Valentine, who was injured; he batted at No.9.  His selection was based primarily on his unquestionable talent, obvious in his only two preceding first-class matches for Barbados, against the touring Indians the year before and the Englishmen earlier on their tour. He was so anonymous Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack listed him as H.Sobers in the India scorecard.

 Sir Garfield Sobers
Sir Garfield Sobers

“Not a soul was there when I walked into the dressing room, they were in the nets practicing,” Sobers recalls of the day he turned up in the Kingston Cricket Club pavilion for his debut Test. “You then looked around and saw the names on the team sheet – Weekes (pause), Worrell (pause), Walcott (pause), Rae (pause), Stollmeyer (pause), Ramadhin (pause). I said to myself ‘you’ve arrived, you’ve made it’.”

A return of 28.5-9-75-4 and scores of 14 not out and 26 as England won by nine wickets verified his temperament as much as his skill.

By the time he strode on the Queen’s Park Oval 20 years later, also against England, for his farewell after 93 Tests against all five West Indies’ opponents of the day, he had certainly ‘made it’.

It was a shame, but immaterial, that there was no grand finale; he was out for 0 and 20 and collected just three wickets in the match.

He had long since become a batsman supreme, departing as Test cricket’s leading scorer with 8,032 runs, at an average of 57.78. His 26 centuries had been bettered only by the insatiable Don Bradman’s 29. His 235 wickets in three contrasting left-arm styles were second to Lance Gibbs among West Indians. His 110 catches, snared mostly with Venus fly-trap reflexes in the slips or round the corner off Gibbs, were seven short of Colin Cowdrey’s tally.

He captained West Indies in 39 matches, the most until Clive Lloyd came along to carry his formidable teams for 79.

His name remained affixed to 365 not out against Pakistan in Kingston in 1958 as the highest Test innings for 36 years until Brian Lara, a similarly gifted West Indian left-hander Sobers had mentored since he appeared in the annual, long-running International Schools tournament in Barbados that carries his name, passed it in 1994.

They are statistics that explain Sobers’ widely acknowledged status as the most complete all-round cricketer of his time, indeed all time.

They do not tell the whole story of his remarkable endurance.

His first 85 Tests were in succession; no one had ever had such an unbroken sequence. He is adamant that he never left the field, not once, in any of them.

In addition to West Indies and Barbados, he had three stints with South Australia, where he became the first player to complete the double of 1,000 runs and 50 wickets in an Australia season, with English county Nottinghamshire for seven years and with clubs in the Lancashire League. He captained Rest of the World teams against England and Australia.

At the height of Sobers’ preeminence in the 1966 series in England, the renowned English writer, Sir Neville Cardus, contended that he was “even more famous than Bradman ever was for he is accomplished in every form of the game and has exhibited his genius in all climes and conditions”.

On the Saturday of the final Test of the memorable 1960-61 “tied Test” series, the temperature at the Melbourne Cricket Ground was as roasting as it was at the recent Australian Open tennis where some players were stricken with heat stroke. It didn’t stop Sobers sending down 22 consecutive eight-ball overs on the day, mostly in his quicker style – and returning for 19 more on the Monday.

Such exhausting facts are even more astonishing given his legendary enjoyment of life, a capacity I marveled at during several nights on tour in his company. He was never concerned that it would affect his game. It was his way of relaxation.  Cooped up in his room, he said, would unnecessarily get him worried about the cricket. To each his own; his justification is in the record books.

And what about keeping as fit as he did? Certainly gym work and personal trainers were hardly known during his time.

“I used to swim a lot. I used to live at the beach. I used to play a lot of beach cricket. I played cricket every day,” he said. “There was tennis and other sports (he represented Barbados at soccer and basketball even before he did cricket).”

“I got myself fit because I knew how fit you had to be to be at your best for five days of a Test match and not leave the field.”

As we marvel at the action, athleticism and all-round ability of the players in the current World T20 in Bangladesh, it is not difficult to imagine how Sobers’ talent would have flourished in the abbreviated formats that came along after he had swapped the cricket field for the golf course, a place where he habitually indulges what has long been a passion. It is another sport that he inevitably mastered.

Now 77, the passing years have generally treated him kindly. He has been technical consultant to the West Indies team and adviser to the team’s sponsor. For the past three decades, his global fame has made him the ideal ambassador for Barbados tourism, the island’s economic mainstay.

The hilarity heard from the boxes at Kensington Oval where he and several of his old mates gathered for the three T20 matches against England last month suggested the rekindling of happy memories.

They will also feature tomorrow for those of us lucky enough to have experienced the Sobers’ magic during our lifetime.

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