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?

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • shafeen on March 10, 2010, 17:32 GMT

    @Neutralfan - I'm perfectly aware of Sobers history - thanks. If he was a GREAT spinner, people would talk about it the way they do about Chandra, Laker, Tayfield etc. There are accounts from various sources on his pace bowling quality, and it reads well, but almost none whatsoever on his spin bowling.Don't you think thats strange? can you imagine no one mentioning Lillee's pace bowling because its assumed he was great at it?? He didn't turn the ball much, in either style, and I IMAGINE that the wrist spin could be not the most accurate. Not turning the ball much suggests to me that he wasn't particularly penetrative. He preferred wrist spin to orthodox spin until his shoulder went on him. And yes, he was first selected as a finger spinner - but if his batting hadn't become what it did, theres no saying if he would simply disappeared from the scene (he was no Lance Gibbs by all acounts). was he like a giles or bevan? I'd like to hear accounts of his spin bowling.

  • Leonard on March 9, 2010, 16:14 GMT

    What "debate" about who is the greatest bastman ever ? Obviously Don Bradman is in a world totally of his own-and I hate Australians !!!!! (I mean in a sporting sense)

    If you meant the debate about who is the greatest Indian batsman ever -OK -sunny or Sachin - although I personally think Sehwag is more dangerous for the opposition than both of them.

  • clement on March 9, 2010, 14:59 GMT

    Ayaz thanks for givig a truly wonderful article rather uncharacteristic from cricinfo who more often opt for guys who write with the colourof money instead of ink.Without any doubt Sobers is the best cricketer that the world has ever produced. Gone were the days when no fear was seen in the eyes of the batsman against genuine fast bowlers .

  • Narayan on March 9, 2010, 14:18 GMT

    It seems when greatness is being considered there is strong bias towards batting. If one considers greateness on the basis how well they do with respect to their peers at the time Sidney Barnes should be considered as great as Bradman. Sidney Barnes was head and shoulders above his peers by about the same margin as Bradman was in batting. May be qualification of 200 wickets ignores him. 192 wickets and 200 wickets doesn't make much difference in confidence limit on statistical significance which is generally proportional to square root of sample size. In my opinion Sydney Barnes is up there with Bradman and Sobers.

  • Zsam on March 9, 2010, 8:51 GMT

    I find it all a marketing gimmick by BCCI to start a debate about greatest cricketer and try to elevate Sachin over the top. The intent seems to generate greater interest through provocative statements by paid - directly/indirectly columnists.I mean how can you even compare a one-day knock with 20 over power play and use that as a launch pad to sporting deification. This knock was good no doubt, but was it harder than those knocks of the 90s and 80s that had lesser props like poweerplays for batsmen.It is appaling to stretch the comparison to Bradman, who also played for 20 years, without protective gear and established peerless records. Even the test by intimidation during Bodyline saw him produce a still respectable average of 56, that is where Tendulkar hovers at with all the protective paraphernalia. One has 12 double and 2 triple centuries, while the other has 3 or perhaps 4 with no triple, and yet the cricketing historians are blindly calling him THE GREATEST.

  • Michael on March 9, 2010, 6:13 GMT

    Wow, a lot of people producing crazy stats in their arguments (like bringing up figures like total runs, or # of one day centuries, fairly meaningless stats in the context.) Here is a stat for you. Sobers has a one day average of 0, therefore I conclude that he is a worse batsman than Chris Martin, who has an average of 1.6

  • George on March 9, 2010, 0:34 GMT

    cricfan78, guess what, you are wrong again. I am a West Indian NOT an Austrailan.

  • Deryck on March 9, 2010, 0:14 GMT

    I am a West Indian , Trinidadian to be exact and whenever i see Sir Garry i am in awe , the mans' aura, humility and greatness is manifested in his demeanor and i am always near to tears , so much in awe i am . Sir Garry, Sir Viv, Lara, Sachin , i am all the better for having lived to see these great players who were obviously born to do what they did , , Bedi , Quadir, Warne , Murali, Lillee , Thommo, Holding, Roberts , Marshall, Waquar, Wasim Ackram, Imran , Kapil, these are who have enriched my pleasure as a fan , so i will never debate who is the greatest because they were all Great in their own right it profits no one to place one over the other , the individuals played for the love of the game and we as Cricket supporters should just sit back , reminisce and look forward to the next great one to grace the greens . Thanks to all the greats , well done !

  • Billy on March 8, 2010, 23:59 GMT

    Jacques Kallis has been a great player of South Africa, but his failures against Australia (relative to his career averages) in both bat and ball count against him. What we can draw from that then is that he lacks a killer instinct against the main rival of his era. Tendulkar, Lara and players like Laxman have such an instinct, and perform well against the Australians.

  • George on March 8, 2010, 23:58 GMT

    At the end of the day, Brian Lara did not break Sobers runs record once or even twice, HE DID IT 3 TIMES !! SOBERS WHO?

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