February 27, 2014

They broke the mould after Sir Garry

Even today - and not just to those of a certain vintage - Garry Sobers remains above every other claimant to the title of cricket's greatest allrounder

Sobers: did someone say versatile? © Getty Images

No batsman entered a cricket ground with greater nonchalance or elegance, not even fellow West Indian Vivian Richards, whose majestic gait had a gum-chewing, swaggering arrogance about it. If Richards overawed rivals, inducing visions of the imminent decimation of their attacks, I imagined even as a young spectator that Garfield St Aubrun Sobers had a slightly different kind of impact on his opponents - more like inducing a sense of resignation, even reluctant admiration, for so often did he walk into a challenging situation and turn the game on its head almost effortlessly. Not only did his batting leave fielders gasping for breath in admiration, it sometimes elicited spontaneous applause even from the bowler whose deliveries he dismissed from his presence. And he was himself the first to applaud a worthy opponent.

Sobers made a quiet debut on March 30, 1954 in the six-day fifth Test at Sabina Park, Kingston, Jamaica, against the touring MCC, when he made 14 not out and 26 batting at No. 9, and took 4 for 75 in the first innings of a match England won by nine wickets.

Omitted for the first Test versus the touring Australians in the next season, he did nothing dramatic in the next four Tests, until the final Test, in which he scored an unbeaten 35 not out and 64 as a middle-order batsman. His 43-run cameo as stand-in opening batsman in the fourth Test, in his home country, Barbados, had convinced at least two Australian allrounders of his enormous potential - one of them Keith Miller, whom Sobers hit for three boundaries in his first over. Richie Benaud, who like many of his contemporaries considered Sobers the greatest allrounder in cricket, waxed lyrical about the innings. He swore that the 18-year-old left-hander's fierce square cuts and slashes outside the off stump off Ray Lindwall and Miller had him scurrying to the pavilion to fetch the cricketer's "receptacle for cuff links" - a rare instance of a fielder in the slips needing abdominal protection.

The first time I saw Sobers in action, in the fourth Test of the 1958-59 season at the Nehru Stadium, Madras, a huge reputation preceded him, after his world-record 365 not out (followed by a century in each innings in the very next Test) against Pakistan the preceding season, and tons of runs (25 & 142 not out, 4 and 198, and 106 not out) in the first three Tests of the India-West Indies series.

I had already devoured every word written about him and followed his versatile exploits as a batsman who played at almost every position from 1 to 9, medium-fast to fast bowler, orthodox left-arm spinner, chinaman specialist, and brilliant fielder and catcher. Sobers disappointed an eager Madras crowd with the bat, after promising much with his confident entry, shirt-collar up, after the openers Conrad Hunte and Holt were dismissed and he joined Rohan Kanhai with the scoreboard reading 152 for 2.

Sobers was deceived when on 29 by Vinoo Mankad, last-minute appointee to the captaincy and crafty veteran left-arm spinner, who was playing in his last Test as it turned out. Sobers failed again in the second innings, this time falling to legspinner Chandu Borde after making a mere 9. As a consolation, he gave us glimpses of his spin bowling talent with 4 for 26 and 2 for 39; West Indies coasted to a massive victory. His slip catching too was spectacular. What I vividly remember from that game was that despite the lack of runs, the Sobers persona wove a magnetic spell over me (and my friends) nonetheless.

EW Swanton once said of Neville Cardus that the great man was talking through his eminent hat when he claimed Wilfred Rhodes was a greater allrounder than Garfield Sobers

On his next visit to Madras, when Test cricket returned to Chepauk, Sobers, this time captain of West Indies, more than whetted his fans' appetite, with two outstanding innings of 95 and 74 not out. As he had done after misreading a googly from Benaud in the famous tied Test in Brisbane in December 1960, he changed his shot at the last nanosecond to a similar delivery from BS Chandrasekhar to straight-drive him for six. On the earlier occasion, the ball had sped to the boundary for four, almost decapitating the bowler in its path. Sobers' second innings defiance - in the company of Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith - of India's brand-new spin trio of Bedi-Prasanna-Chandrasekhar to draw the Test is now part of the lore surrounding him.

The great allrounder graciously played down his achievements including his Chepauk exploits when he entertained a group of lucky dinner guests at the Madras Cricket Club more than a decade ago with an array of stories real and apocryphal. (One particular anecdote, though hilarious, turned out to be completely fictitious. In it Wes Hall allegedly scored a few runs in a Test in India, helped by non-striker Sobers' hand signals that helped him tell Chandrasekhar's googlies from his legbreaks - only to be dismissed first ball after tea, with his captain deliberately misleading him, after overhearing Hall's boast to Seymour Nurse that he read the ball in the air, unlike Sobers, who failed to do so.) Yet for all his modesty, Sobers confessed he never feared a bowler in his entire career, not even Chandrasekhar, disappointing the Chandra fans in his audience.

To illustrate this point, he recalled how puzzled he had been when Sir Donald Bradman affectionately ruffled his hair as he sat awaiting his turn in the Brisbane Test with his hands cupping his chin, and said, "Don't worry, son, you'll sort him out," referring to Richie Benaud who had dismissed him for nought in a tour game. Though the press had gone to town calling him Benaud's bunny, Sobers approached the Test with great sangfroid, as his 132 in 174 minutes was to prove.

Sir Don was, of course, a great admirer of Sobers. He called his 254 for Rest of the World versus Australia in Melbourne in 1971 the best innings ever seen in Australia. Bradman* said, "With his long grip of the bat, his high backlift and free swing, Gary Sobers consistently hits the ball harder than anyone I can remember. This helps to make him such an exciting player to watch because the emphasis is on power and aggression rather than technique - the latter being the servant, not the master."

Captaincy was the one aspect of Sobers' cricket that came in for adverse comment, because he tended to go for broke even at the risk of losing matches. To me, it was all part of the brand of cricket he played and believed in. He was an adventurous and positive captain who believed in declarations that gave his side - and therefore the opponents as well - a sporting chance to win. When one such declaration led to a famous England victory in Port of Spain in 1967-68, Colin Cowdrey and his men making 215 in 165 minutes, the critics trounced Sobers for his captaincy. Characteristically, he has never expressed regret for his decision.

EW Swanton once said of Neville Cardus that the great man was talking through his eminent hat when he claimed Wilfred Rhodes was a greater allrounder than Garfield Sobers. My response to similar comparisons between Sobers and the likes of Jacques Kallis or Imran Khan will be identical, with no disrespect intended to those other great allrounders.

*05:01:30 GMT: This quote was wrongly attributed to Trevor Bailey initially

V Ramnarayan is an author, translator and teacher. He bowled offspin for Hyderabad and South Zone in the 1970s

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Channan on March 2, 2014, 17:43 GMT

    C'mon Nampally, so Sobers batted a few times high up when it was convenient. Give me a break. He consistently batted at #6. That he batted a few times at other positions does not change the facts. Go %wise and you will get what I am saying. I played against Sobers. I know how good he was. In fact, he was beyond good. I am not trying to be critical, I am trying to be factual. I am trying to be fair to other batsmen. Notice, I did not say all rounder. What position would you say Chanderpaul bats. Isn't it #5. But according to you Chanders bats at all positions, right? right. You believe that Sobers was the best in every aspect of the game of cricket. I respect your opinion. Let's leave it at that. As far as batting goes, in the WI alone, I place Sir Richards and Lara ahead of him. But that is my opinion.

  • Ashok on March 2, 2014, 1:12 GMT

    @Jimmyvida: You wrote " As good as he was I never compare number 6 batsman with those coming in 1-4.- --I know he is great, but were he batting at #3 or #4,would he have survived" (?). Sir, I would request you to check your stats. Sobers batted at #3 in India in 1959 tour & got 2 Centuries at that position in Tests. Again Sobers batted at #4 position at Brisbane & at Sydney + scored 132 & 168 during 1959 - 60 Test series. Not only did he "survive" at #3 & #4 but but beat the daylight out of the Bowlers! FYI, Sobers batted at all positions from opening to #11 at various stages of his career. WI had a batting powerhouse with guys like Kanhai, Butcher, Collie Smith. Solomon, Alexander, Worrell in the middle order. Each of these batsmen was superb. Don't forget that Sobers lifetime Test average is second only to Bradman. Great achievement for a self taught son of a single Mother who lived in a very poor neighbourhood in an Era when being "Black" & poor was a huge handicap!

  • Channan on March 1, 2014, 18:47 GMT

    Here we go again. As good as he was I never compare a number six batsman with those coming in 1-4. I have seen Sobers, I know he is great, but were he batting at #3 or #4, would he have survived. He is the best #6 batsman of all time. Even Chanderpaul bats at #5. If he were considered the best batsman in the WI team, he would have opened the batting, especially when batting first. I played for my club, batted at #10 and never got out. Am I the greatest or what?

  • Barrie on March 1, 2014, 7:36 GMT

    Just to put the record straight, EW Swanton said Neville Cardus was talking through his venerable (not eminent) hat, in "Sort of a Cricket Person." Very nice book. Good day to you all.

  • Harsh on March 1, 2014, 5:06 GMT

    Readers would do well to read all the books of 100 best cricketers of all time written by John Woodcock,Cristopher Martin Jenkins and Geoff Armstrong.They elaborately explain why Gary Sobers stands on such a deep pedestal and was literally a three in one cricketer and inspite of Kallis's monumental figures Sobers was still morally a street ahead.Considering consistency I would rate Kallis 2nd to Sobers who was a great a batsmen in a crisis and in his peak capable of even opening the bowling Significantly Kallis captured 5 wickets and scored a century twice.

    In ranking cricketers Imran,Viv and Tendulkar would fight each other in a photo-finish but the ultimate contenders would be W.G.Grace.Sobers and Bradman.I would choose Gary who was more valuable to a team than even Bradman.

  • Harsh on March 1, 2014, 4:58 GMT


    From 1981-88 Imran overshadowed every great all-rounder averaging around 17.6 with the ball and 39.6 with the bat.However it was after 1989 that he became a really top class batsman when he averaged 63 runs.Ofcourse he did earlier have occasional streaks of brilliance like in India in 1986-87 but was not as flamboyant in winning or turning games with the bat like Ian Botham or earlier Gary Sobers.I give credit to Imran for overshadowing Botham in England in 1982 and 1987 but still think that till 1988 Imran was principally a great fast bowler and competent batsmen.

    Overall as a cricketer because of his greatness as a leader in uniting a bunch of talented individuals into world beaters I would rank Imran above Kallis and Botham as a cricketer.However.I re-iterate my stand that no West Indian batsmen was as complete as Sobers who posessed every component of a perfect batsman and could surpass the great Viv in a crisis or on bad wickets and was more consistent than Lara.

  • Dummy4 on March 1, 2014, 4:57 GMT

    Sir Garry Sobers was amazing and as well as batting and bowling he could bowl spin and pace as well as field anywhere, including the slips, and was an attacking captain before his time. The best overall cricketer the world has seen. His record speaks for itself statistically as well as the lovely anecdotes shared in these columns re his 254 etc.

    I think Jacques Kallis pushes him close in many areas but Sobers still remains the complete cricketing package. The fact that I mention Kallis alongside him, is not to demean Kallis achievements, quite the contrary, but to place him very near Sobers in most respects.

  • Harsh on March 1, 2014, 4:47 GMT

    @sorcerer Imran Khan undoubtedly was with Viv Richards the best match-winning cricketer of his era,the and the best captain and all-rounder in his peak time from the mid 1980's.However the ultimate criteria is how a great all-rounder has performed with both bat and ball in test matches and series .In that light Imran has not equalled Botham's 1980 Jubilee test performance or that in the 1981 Ashes where he literally ressurected England from the grave single-handedly.Nor did Imran surpass Gary Sobers in his prime era from 1960-68 when he average above 62 with the bat and was the third best bowler in the world when averaging around 27.5 at a strike rate of around 76.2 when strike rates were much lower.Has Imran morally equalled Gary's all-round efforts in 1970 in England or in 1966?Infact in his peak era from 1977-82 Botham was the closest to Sobers averaging over 37 with the bat and 23 with the ball.Overall Imran ranks joint third with Botham .

  • Bennett on March 1, 2014, 3:56 GMT

    Sobers was to cricket what Ali was to boxing and Pele was to soccer - they were contemporaries spoken of in the same breath. (A good pic can be found of Ali and Sobers in the dressing room). Notwithstanding numbers, as all extraordinary athletes transcend mere math - they were swashbucklers and personalities who brought color and charisma to their game. One always got the feeling that Sobers sometimes drifted, not always extricating every ounce of effort like an Imran. But then again, had he done so, we would not have had the smiling calypso cricketer that garnered so much attraction from the sport and beyond.

  • Dummy4 on March 1, 2014, 3:21 GMT

    Rowayton, Benaud was a real good but not great leggie, and his strike rate was 77.