March 7, 2010

An evening with Sir Garry

Ayaz Memon
The debate about the game's greatest batsman may be all the rage today. But is there any doubt as to who is the most skilled cricketer of all time?

I went to a reunion and felicitation of Ajit Wadekar's 1971 team last Thursday at Mumbai's Nehru Centre with mixed feelings. The presence of Sir Garfield Sobers as chief guest was a huge attraction, but only a day earlier a press conference at which he spoke seemed to have been afflicted by India's current rage: finding out who the greatest batsman in the game has been.

Sobers, provoked into the debate, had rated Gavaskar ahead of Tendulkar, primarily because he had played against Gavaskar and seen him excel in an era of uncovered wickets and little protective gear against some of the most fearsome bowlers. Sobers also said Tendulkar had met every expectation one could have of a batsman, but that had been lost in the din. Was this event going to be an extension of a debate that was rapidly becoming farcical?

Thankfully it wasn't. The evening had the right mix of nostalgia, pathos and cricket, even if it was a tad long-drawn. Most of the players were there (barring Sunil Gavaskar, G Viswanath and Govindraj, who were not for varying reasons), and to get the wives of Dilip Sardesai, Ashok Mankad, Eknath Solkar, ML Jaisimha and P Krishnamurthy - all deceased - to fill in for their husbands was a terrific thought; and to get Sobers to be chief guest was a brainwave. The presence of Sachin Tendulkar, MS Dhoni and Zaheer Khan lent the evening not just contemporary star value but also relevance.

This was brought out eloquently by Tendulkar, who while accepting a bat signed by the 1971 team, was to point out how he was beholden to the heroes of the past because each era serves as a fountainhead for the succeeding one. With so much star value and perspective on offer, it seemed somewhat amiss that the celebration of 40 years of arguably India's best phase in cricket was organised by private initiative, rather than by the BCCI.

But we'll let that pass. The evening was evocative and made more memorable by Sobers' presence. Few had expected him to come to India for this - and he clearly didn't expect so many people to come for an event for this nature. "I've never spoken in front of so many people," he told the large, appreciative audience. Later he was to repeat what he has said so often in the past: "I'd never played in front of such large crowds as in India. That was a unique experience."

For those who had seen him here in his playing days, Sobers was a unique experience too, and Thursday's event sent me hurtling back almost half a century. One of the earliest Test matches I can recall is between India and West Indies at the Brabourne Stadium in 1966, and though Rohan Kanhai was my hero then, it was Sobers who left a lasting impression. Two half-centuries, the second a blistering one to finish the match in time for an afternoon at the racecourse (as he was to confess later), five wickets and three catches were terrific to watch. But what made a greater impact on an 11-year-old's mind was an act of sportsmanship of the sort seen rarely then.

Like Mandela in his sunset years, Sobers also remains forthright and sharp of memory. Yet he also appears benignly tolerant of mortals and is filled with compassion and humour, often self-deprecatory

Budhi Kunderan, India's wicketkeeper, was declared caught in the leg trap - when still in single figures, if I remember correctly - and had started his walk back to the dressing room when Sobers signalled to the umpire that he had not taken the catch cleanly. There was a collective gasp, followed by applause, from the packed stadium. Kunderan went on to make a belligerent 79, but the hero of the day was the West Indies captain.

Between 1966 and Thursday last, I met Sir Garry twice, both times in South Africa. In 1991 he was invited to Johannesburg (along with Gavaskar, Richie Benaud and a handful of journalists) by Dr Ali Bacher, who wanted to impress on the world that racial integration in cricket was underway. Nelson Mandela had recently been released from jail and was shortly to begin the ANC's campaign for political power in the country. Getting a cricketing legend like Sobers was a coup, and he was pretty much the toast of the touring party. I remember him from then as a man of ready wit, not reluctant to use his tongue like a whiplash if necessary to drive home a point, in matters of cricket or otherwise.

In 2003, during the World Cup, Sobers was again in South Africa. I bumped into him on a few occasions, and he hardly looked his ebullient self. The attention then was pretty much on the current stars, but that was not why he appeared a little grumpy. He was, I learnt, in some pain from wobbly knees. A more enduring memory of 2003 is of Bacher talking of Mandela and Sobers, his two heroes, in the same breath several times.

Perhaps this is subliminal, but somehow I saw a touch of Mandela in Sobers on Thursday. Tall and lissome as the venerated South African leader, Sobers has a similar similar feline grace in his gait, despite the unmistakable hobbling that decades-long arthritis can cause. There is a natural athleticism in both, which age cannot wither. Sobers' curly hair, like Mandela's, is still intact, though now almost white. Both have a charismatic presence.

But it is in demeanour that the resemblance becomes more pertinent. Like Mandela in his sunset years, Sobers also remains forthright and sharp of memory. Yet he also appears benignly tolerant of mortals and is filled with compassion and humour, often self-deprecatory, of the sort that can come from somebody who has not only traversed the rigour of living long but also understood the game of life with all its vicissitudes.

Much of this was evident during the felicitation of "Wadekar's Warriors". Sobers not only seemed to remember almost every minute of the 1971 series in minute detail, he also regaled the audience with sharply defined anecdotes, all laced with humour and generosity, about the Indian players. It was evident that Wadekar, Chandu Borde, Bapu Nadkarni, Bishan Bedi, Srinivas Venkataraghavan, Erapalli Prasanna, Farrokh Engineer, Salim Durani, Abbas Ali Baig, Syed Kirmani, Rusi Jeejeebhoy, all hero-worshipped him. But Sobers calibrated the tenor of the proceedings to shift the spotlight on to the Indians wherever possible.

It was in the insights that interspersed the banter and bonhomie of the evening that Sobers' mighty understanding of cricket came through clearly, and found an eager audience, not just in the hundreds of fans, but also Tendulkar, Dhoni and Zaheer. Sobers spoke delectably, and with authority, on the virtues of slow bowling, of how variations in flight to deceive batsmen are important, which was what, he said, made both Prasanna and Bedi, for example, great.

On batsmanship, he said a sound defence was crucial, for the attacking strokes become a natural extension of defence. On technique, as conventionally understood, he was sceptical; what works for a batsman is the best technique for him, he said. He was clear, however, that playing with the bat rather than the pad was crucial, not just for safeguarding your wicket but also for entertaining the spectators.

Sobers spoke of how his approach to batting - and, by extension, cricket - had been shaped by Sir Frank Worrell on the 1961 tour of Australia. "If it's a half-volley, I want it hit for four, not pushed defensively," Worrell told them on the eve of the series. Cammie Smith, Sobers recounted, hit his first ball, a half-volley, straight to the only fielder at cover and came back smiling into the dressing room - to no admonishment from his skipper.

Sobers also explained why he rarely stepped out to bowlers despite being an attacking batsman. "I never had to," he said. "I used my height to reach the length of the ball, or the width of the crease in going right back if necessary if the length was too short. As a kid, when I got stumped I would be punished. I decided then that the turf between the crease and the stumps belongs to me, I won't give it away."

That didn't stop Sobers from becoming the first batsman to hit six sixes in an over - off the hapless Malcolm Nash in 1968 - at least for one of which he stepped out to smite the ball over the fence. "I never played for records," said Sobers, "but after hitting five, I sure as hell wanted to hit the sixth ball for six." That sensational over gave Sobers a place in history. "But while the record was mine, Nash made all the money," he joked. "Nash told me that without him, the record would have been impossible."

Several clips played that evening - including his century in the Tied Test, his 254 against a rampaging Dennis Lillee in 1972, his six sixes, his bowling in three different speeds and styles, and his sharp catching - showcased his outstanding all-round talent.

While the debate about who has been the greatest batsman of all time gathers steam, discussion on who has been the most skilled cricketer of all time is misplaced. Has there been anyone like Sir Garfield Sobers?