Sunday, July 28, 2013

Gary Sobers 77

I was about 8 years old. I watched nearly all the cricket they showed on Doordarshan. It was late in the afternoon, and I had just watched Kapil Dev hit the bowling to all parts of the ground with Ravi Chaturvedi describing the ball-by-ball action. It suddenly dawned on me that Kapil could bat and bowl well. Up until then, I knew that in cricket there were batsmen, bowlers, wicket keepers and all rounders. Grown ups would ask, as grown ups do, what type of cricketer I wanted to be. I always said "all-rounder". An all rounder got to do everything. But that day I realized for the first time, that all rounders had to be good at batting and bowling.

That evening, I asked my father if Kapil was the best player of all time. It seemed logical to me. Gavaskar could bat, others could bowl, but Kapil could do both. My father paused, and replied in one word "Sobers.... ". I had never heard the name before. I had not yet discovered my father's cricket books. The second thing he said, in Marathi, was "Sobers used to draw dust out of English outfields". I later discovered that my father's cricket in his days as a club cricketer was a Slazenger Special. He bought it because it was the bat Sobers used. He still has it. I later read Mahiyar Morawalla's hagiography of Sobers (it was titled King of Kings: The Story of Sir Garfield Sobers). Morawalla wrote of "the mellow ringing sound of Gary's Slazenger Special".

From that day onwards, Sobers, who retired many years before I was born, was my first and only cricketing hero. I read everything I could find about him. My father's collection of cricket books had a number of autobiographies. I would eagerly look for opinions about Sobers in these. I was never disappointed.

I didn't understand the bit about "draw dust out of English outfields" immediately. It was, as many of you must have guessed, a reference to the power of Sobers' drives. Sobers loomed large in cricket books. His numbers were impressive. 8032 Test runs in 93 Tests, at an average of nearly 58. 109 Test catches and 235 Test wickets at 34. That average didn't seem impressive to me. But then I read that Sobers could bowl fast, finger spin and wrist spin. He could also catch impossible balls in the slips.

Gary Sobers was something of a prodigy. He made his debut as a 17 year old against England at Sabina Park in early 1954. England were led by Len Hutton in that series, West Indies by Jeff Stollmeyer. Trevor Bailey, who would become Sobers' first Test wicket, bowled West Indies out cheaply in the 1st innings taking 7/34. Hutton then made 205 out of England's 414 all out. The match was drawn thanks to a Clyde Walcott century in the 3rd innings. Sobers made 14 and 26 batting at 9, and took 4 wickets.

The Australians toured in 1955.  They were a strong side. The batting led by Neil Harvey, the bowling by Lindwall, Miller and Richie Benaud. At Barbados, Australians made 668 and West Indies began their reply late on the 2nd day. Sobers had batted at 6 in the first two Tests. Now he was asked to open - a tricky session against the hostility of Lindwall and Miller. He made 43 with 10 fours in about 20 minutes. The Australians knew that a star had arrived. That Barbados Test would become famous for Denis Atkinson and Clairmonte de Pieza's world record 7th wicket stand of 347 after West Indies had been reduced to 6/147 in that 1st innings.

Sobers did not make a Test hundred for nearly 3 years after his debut. His first came in his 18th Test and it was a world record 365 not out against Pakistan at Sabina Park in early 1958. 13 centuries came in his next 28 Tests. These included 132 in the tied Test at Brisbane in late 1960, a 198 against Subash Gupte at Kanpur in the 2nd innings after the great leg spinner had bowled West Indies out of 222 in the first, taking a career best 9/102, and a 226 against Fred Trueman at Barbados.

The 1960s was Sobers' decade. He was at the heart of the strongest Test team of that era. Whatever fires Lloyd's men may have lit in Babylon, Frank Worrell, the first black West Indian captain, built the first world champion West Indies Test team. As a batsman, Sobers was probably better than Viv Richards. From 1962 to 1968, West Indies were undefeated in a Test series. They beat India, England (twice) and Australia. Wes Hall and Charlie Gilchrist formed a fierce new ball pair, supported by Sobers (pace and spin) and Lance Gibbs. Rohan Kanhai, Conrad Hunte, Seymour Nurse and Sobers formed the heart of the batting. In 1966, Sobers beat England single handedly in England, making 722 runs and taking 20 wickets in 5 Tests. From the start of the 1960s to early 1969, in 43 Tests Sobers made 4343 runs at 65.8 and took 144 wickets a 32. Alistair Cook has played nearly a 100 Tests in less than 8 years to put this in some perspective.

In March 1968, Sobers, by then established as the greatest players of his age, and captain of the West Indies, made a sporting declaration against Colin Cowdrey's England at the Queen's Part Oval in Port of Spain, Trinidad in an effort the break a stalemate in the 4th Test of a series. West Indies lost by 7 wickets. Sobers was burned in effigy. Earlier in that series he had played one of the most miraculous Test innings of all time. On an underprepared pitch, England batted first and while the going was good, made 376 in 170 overs. The pitch began to crack and John Snow bowled West Indies out for 143. West Indies followed on, and while they did better, they were soon 204/5. The crowd rioted. Sobers had been dropped by Basil d'Oliviera on 7. After the riot stopped, he batted for 6 hours on an impossible pitch and made 113. His partner in a crucial century stand was David Holford. England had been promised an extra sixth day to finish the match to compensate for the time lost due to the riot. They survived by the skin of their teeth ending at 68/8 at the end of play. Sobers had followed his 6 hour century by bowling 17 overs, taking 3/33. In the match after the loss due to the sporting declaration, he combined with Rohan Kanhai in a stand of 250. England were eventually set 308 to win in the final innings. They survived by the skin of their teeth. Alan Knott and last man Jeff Jones (father of Simon) played out the last few overs. West Indies lost their first series in 7 years.

It would prove to be the end of the great West Indian side of the 1960s. Before the end of the decade, Wes Hall and Seymour Nurse retired. Sobers got caught on the wrong side of apartheid politics when he played a double wicket tournament in Rhodesia. He was not invited to play for West Indies when Ian Chappell's Australians toured in 1972-73. Australia won, but Chappell thought it was a hollow win, beating West Indies without Sobers. Sobers would tour England again in 1973 and make 150 at Lord's after being out at a pub very late the night before. He was not out 31 overnight and felt terrible the next morning but batted anyways. He couldn't bear it after he reached his century and asked the Umpire if he could retire hurt. He retired at 6/528 on 132. When Bernard Julien was out for 121 with the score of 7/604, the commentator John Arlott was heard observing "Oh dear, West Indies six hundred and four for seven and here comes Sobers!"

Sobers had the ability, like Lara did, to make big centuries. 11 of his 26 Test hundreds were worth 150 or more. 17 were worth 130 or more. This is all the more remarkable because in the majority of his Test innings, Sobers batted at 5 or 6 in the order. When he retired from Test Cricket, he had made more Test runs than any Test player, and more Test centuries than any player other than Bradman. He made 86 first class centuries, over 28000 first class runs, and took 1043 first class wickets.

Take Jacques Kallis and give him the additional ability to (1) bowl spin and (2) bat like Brian Lara. You are close to Sobers.

Gary Sobers is 77 years old today. 41 years ago, he played an innings which Don Bradman called the greatest exhibition of batting ever in Australia. I leave you with this video courtesy Rob Moody's collection.

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