Chasing the ball Sobers pasted
The cricketing origin of Grahame Lloyd's newly published book, Howzat? The Six Sixes Ball Mystery, is almost incidental. This is about what former Wisden editor Matthew Engel describes in the foreword as "human nature"; it is even more about Lloyd's resilience and tenacity, and his refusal to take "no" or "no comment" for an answer.
Lloyd is driven by a single quest: to discover the whereabouts of the ball that was famously struck for six sixes in an over by Garry Sobers in Swansea in 1968.
At one point Lloyd is accused by Malcolm Girling, the chief executive of Bonhams auctioneers, of "having an agenda". Although it is a below-the-belt accusation, the charge is not groundless. Lloyd may have been seeking the truth about the impostor of a ball that was sold at Christie's in 2006 for a world record £26,400 (without Lloyd's intervention the farce would almost certainly have been repeated at Bonhams last year), but as a resourceful journalist/broadcaster he also wanted to showcase that truth in TV and radio documentaries and in an exposé for the 2013 Wisden. The documentaries foundered in the face of budget constraints, and in Wisden's case, in the absence of a firm conclusion.
The weakness of Howzat? - the repetition and mountain of irrelevant detail - is also a kind of strength. Having decided on page 73 that this is a full-blown sequel, rather than the concluding chapters to a revised version of his 2008 book about Sobers' six sixes, Lloyd presents every cough and splutter of his near-18-month investigation.
I certainly did not expect to discover that I was the central figure for four pages midway through the book. This was largely on the strength of one hour-long telephone conversation with Lloyd (we had never spoken before) in which I admitted my own interest in the story. He implored me to down tools and his exasperation was understandable when he discovered that I had sent a detailed email to Bonhams.
It is highly unlikely that the Surridge ball pummelled into submission by Sobers will ever be discovered, and if the catalogue of events outlined here can be taken at face value, it went missing not long after arriving back at Trent Bridge in 1968.
I was convinced, looking at all the available evidence a year ago, that some grand conspiracy would be hinted at, if not proved. Lloyd probably harboured the same dark thoughts and, deep into his investigations, he sent out a round-robin letter to all the central figures in the drama, saying: "I have uncovered evidence which strongly suggests that a fraudulent act took place."
Sobers, in his post-playing role, insists that he is a "perfectly innocent bystander", wanting only to help the ball's seller, the ailing Jose Miller. In the course of a long interview Lloyd warms to Miller and accepts, unreservedly, her version of events. Both she and Sobers insist that they were looking to the other for absolute confirmation that the ball was the real thing. Miller says that she is willing to return her proceeds from the sale, approximately £15,000 after deductions and a commission to Sobers' agent at the time, the former Nottinghamshire player Basher Hassan.
In legal terms, the case is dismissed. Lloyd reflects towards the end of the book: "It seemed to be a story of blissful ignorance and innocence; naivety and even stupidity, of incompetence, perhaps even negligence; and of less-than-diligent research, probably opportunism - but not of fraud."
Christie's, in the shape of their shoddily compiled and poorly researched lot notes, are the closest thing to a bad guy in the whole business. There is a recurring futility in Lloyd's efforts to single out a culprit - Christie's may be collectively responsible but they are individually untouchable - and he does not strengthen his already secure argument by trying to put the author of the lot notes in the dock.
Lloyd is strung along mercilessly by the dispute resolution department at Christie's before, with his deadline for the book all but exhausted, they fly in the face of the facts for the final time. They stand by the ball's "good provenance", hide behind the signed certificate and conclude: "Christie's has not found evidence of knowledge of any wrongdoing that helps to shed any light on the subsequent controversy identified by Mr Lloyd."
Facts, fictions and theories
- In 1968, Garfield Sobers, playing for Nottinghamshire against Glamorgan at the St Helen's ground in Swansea, made history by hitting Malcolm Nash for six sixes in an over. The ball was found by a schoolboy outside the ground, presented to Sobers and then taken back to Nottinghamshire's headquarters at Trent Bridge.
- Sobers said he gave the signed ball to John Gough, secretary of the county's supporters' association. He, in turn, handed it on to his successor, Jose Miller, when he retired in 1975. She kept the ball in her make-up drawer for 30 years before deciding to auction it in 2006. She suffered from a chronic oesophageal condition and needed funds to build a "clean" room at her home. Sobers agreed to sign a certificate of authentication, confirming the ball's good provenance.
- Even prior to the 2006 sale, Peter Walker, who had played for Glamorgan in the 1968 game, before going on to become a respected broadcaster, said he had made dissenting representations to Christie's. The auctioned ball was manufactured by Duke and Son; Glamorgan used only Surridge balls at the time.
- The misleading auction notes were critical to Lloyd's subsequent quest for justice. They claimed that three balls had been used in the over (BBC Wales footage suggested strongly that the same ball was used throughout and Nash confirmed this) and: "No records of the ball suppliers exist from the match, however Duke & Son were supplying balls to Glamorgan County Cricket Club during this period." This was not the case.
- Although the bidding was handled by antiquarian bookseller Bernard Shapero, Grahame Lloyd assiduously discovered that the ball was actually bought by an Indian art impresario, Neville Tuli, on behalf of his firm Osian Connoisseurs. Bizarrely, Tuli never took possession of the ball. Money ran out and with it Osian's ability to pay the import duty. The ball, and an antique bat, which Tuli had bought at the same sale, remained in England for 18 months before being flown to India. They remained in limbo until November 2009, three years after the sale, when they were bought for less than £1000 through an online auction of unclaimed goods at Delhi airport.
- The ball's new owner, businessman Ashish Singhal, contacted Bonhams auction house with a view to re-auctioning the ball early last year. Oblivious to five years of mounting disquiet about its origins, Bonhams simply cited the provenance of the Christie's sale. They resisted Lloyd's original overtures before finally accepting that there was "compelling and conclusive evidence" for the sale to be aborted.
Howzat? The Six Sixes Ball Mystery
232 pages, £14.99