There are many who love the incredible sport of cricket, but only a few cricket loves back. Sir Garfield Sobers, widely-regarded as the greatest all-rounder the game ever produced, is certainly one of them. You are considered good when you make lots of runs or take lots of wickets. You are called a great when you either score or clinch wickets with a certain amount of consistency. But you become something extraordinary when you do both over a period of time that’s as gigantic as your achievements. That Sir Garry Sobers did both with workhorse-like proficiency and single-minded determination made him a subject of immense respect and a symbol of envy.
And to have done so for twenty consecutive years made Sir Garry Sobers just as timeless an icon as an example of longevity. So much so that even after over four and a half decades of his retirement, his name sits firmly on top of any list of cricketing all rounders who produced magic combining superior craft with tireless skill.
Better yet, it’s Sir Garfield Sobers’ achievements against which one gauges the true worth of a cricketer before commencing to call one an all-rounder.
One wonders, just how might it feel to have become the barometer of measuring one’s cricketing skills and greatness, in a sport where many journeys far too often get cut short before one can even become good?
Arriving in any team for the very first time can be a nervous moment for any cricketer, regardless of one possessing any amount of skill. For Garry Sobers though, the arrival, circa 1954, was about as daunting an experience as witnessing Mount Matterhorn from the bare naked eye.
It’s almost as if one were to place a raisin in front of a dinosaur.
The dressing room in which Sir Sobers stepped in for the first time, having not yet turned eighteen, boasted of Sir Frank Worrell, Sir Everton Weekes, Sir Clyde Walcott, and Sonny Ramadhin.
But it would be the same dressing room that would soon get to admire a ‘kid’ who one just didn’t ever have to teach anything. As Sir Worrell himself put it, “Garry self taught himself everything.”
Having been discovered playing street cricket with his mates back in Barbados, Sir Sobers’ greatness truly stemmed from the fact that instead of shivering with the challenge of playing alongside the 3 great Ws of the game, he latched on to the challenge, growing in confidence and never skipping practice.
Not someone who’d evade the desire to contribute from an early stage, which was evident in the maiden 1954 Test against England, where despite batting from number 9, Sir Garry Sobers responded brilliantly to his debut challenge by scoring an unbeaten 26 in the second innings, having made fourteen earlier.
Today, you lavish praise on a cricketer who performs selflessly for the benefit of his team.
Think Rahul Dravid. But long before ‘selflessness’ actually became an envy-inspiring virtue, standing alone in an era of wild celebrations and big records, Sir Garry Sobers became one of the first torch-bearers of this timeless quality.
Having begun as a slow left-arm orthodox spinner, according to the requirement of the team and by his captain Sir Worrell’s words, he honed quickly the art of left-arm wrist spin, before completely changing his craft to left-arm medium pace to suit different conditions and further evolve in the game.
That he jumped from one arduous challenge to another with ceaseless finesse and superior control made him a one a of a kind performer.
Someone who’d end up blasting 8,000 Test runs from just 93 appearances for his West Indies, from which he’d fire 26 centuries, 30 fifties, collecting 235 wickets appearing as a magical puzzler whom few could pick and many would laud.
Yet, one of the things that makes Sir Sobers remarkable and one of a kind is how true he remained to the words, rather verdict offered by his captain Sir Frank Worrell, who’d once famously remarked, “There’s no end to his infinite potential!”
For someone who failed to score a century in the first four years of Test cricket, going ton-less from 1954-57 (consecutively), Sir Sobers transformed into a belligerent plunderer of runs come the year 1958, a year where he’d fire six Test centuries.
Still 22, he struck a maiden Test hundred, a 365, having played just sixteen prior Tests.
What was both incredible and jaw dropping about Sir Sobers’ highest-individual Test score was that despite staying on the crease for 614 minutes, the left-hander emerged unbeaten.
Those who watched the proceedings dazed and confuse about the force of nature in Sabina Park, also the venue of his Test debut (four years earlier), were a trinity of greats- Hanif Mohammad, Wazir Mohammad and Fazal Mahmood.
To this day, it’s a world record for the highest score made by any batsman scoring a hundred on Test debut.
The 365 was a record that stood the tests of time for thirty-six long years, when Brian Charles Lara, another left-hander broke it, going ten better, in the West Indies.
Though instead of feeling any iota of displeasure or sadness that a mega Test record had been broken, the first person to walk down the St. John’s, Antigua-pitch was Sir Garry Sobers himself. Scenes of Sobers and Lara embracing one another, circa 1994, are about as heartening as indicative of a momentous occasion in the firmament of West Indian cricket, signalling the passing of baton of greatness from one legend onto another.
But way before 1994, where one saw the gentleman Sir Sobers, there was also the not so gentle tackler of bowlers, one who appeared akin to a force sworn to destruct with a nearly carnal desire to obliterate bowling attacks.
In 1972, at Melbourne, Sir Sobers scored a 254 for a World XI against Australia XI, an inning Sir Don Bradman himself described as the greatest played on Australian soil.
Having been subjected to a hostile spell of one bouncer too many by Dennis Lillee, then several years his junior, Sir Sobers answered back in the second innings, scoring a whirlwind double ton, with the likes of Sir Gavaskar, Tony Greig, Sir Graeme Pollock, Sir Bishan Singh Bedi watching in pure admiration as Sobers’ teammates.
Prior to becoming the darling of Australia, an opponent against whom he’d plunder 1,500 of his 8,000 Test runs (4 centuries), Sir Sobers had already delivered chin music to Sir Lillee whilst bowling raw medium pace, turning the great Australian pink in midst of a gruelling duel.
Yet, among the many things one admires about Sir Sobers is the astounding accumulation of runs he managed versus a tall order of opponents.
The bigger the challenge he was confronted with, the greater his response. Whilst he scored 1,500 plus runs versus Australia (just 19 Tests), he raised the bar against England, against whom he plundered 3,000 plus Test runs of his 8,032 career score (36 Tests).
A batting average of 43 vs Australia rose to 60.6 versus England.
That’s when his challengers hurled everything at him in a bid to contain the Sobers storm, including mavericks and legends,of the class and repute of Ray Lindwall, Richie Benaud, Keith Miller, Jim Laker, Fred Trueman, and the likes.
Yet, Sobers continued undeterred, presenting dexterity without being subjugated, showing quintessential West Indian resilience that once carved a different niche for the very team that today searches for it desperately so.
Saying all of the above, what one must respect about one of Cricket’s giants is the fact that despite having achieved a great deal, Sir Sobers never stooped low; never got into any controversy, never resorted to ungentlemanly tactics, never disrespected the game that gave him his meaning and world cricket- an outstanding stamp of greatness in all round skills.
Bat on, live long, Sir Sobers! Enjoy your 85th!
Special Mention: Mr. Vernon Springer for his kind inputs.