March 30, 2014

Sobers supreme

Sixty years ago today, a 17-year-old Bajan cricketer made his debut for West Indies, and went on to touch with his genius all those who saw him play for the next two decades

Garry Sobers: "genius in all climes and conditions" © PA Photos

Sir Garry Sobers - the Right Excellent Sir Garfield St Aubrun Sobers, to accord him his full title as a knight of the realm and the only living national hero of his native Barbados - is not the type who makes a fuss over his achievements as, in the words of the 1965 calypso, "the greatest cricketer on Earth or Mars".

If he is inclined to play down his two coincidentally simultaneous anniversaries on Sunday, he is sure to have been reminded of their significance several times in the past few days. They mark the start and the end of his celebrated Test career.

March 30 is 60 years to the day since Sobers first appeared in a Test match for West Indies, against England in 1954 in Kingston's Sabina Park. It is precisely 40 since his last, also against England, in Port-of-Spain's Queen's Park Oval in 1974.

He took the field at Sabina as a boy of 17 from the working-class district of Bayland on the outskirts of Bridgetown, raised, along with five siblings, by a mother widowed by the loss of her seaman husband to a German torpedo during World War II; her second son had no formal coaching, just a love and an aptitude for any ball game.

He was a late, like-for-like replacement for left-arm spinner Alf Valentine, who was injured; he batted at No. 9. His selection was based primarily on his unquestionable talent, obvious in only two preceding first-class matches for Barbados, against the touring Indians the year before and the Englishmen earlier on their tour. He was so anonymous that Wisden Cricketers' Almanack listed him as H Sobers in the India scorecard.

"Not a soul was there when I walked into the dressing room, they were in the nets practising," Sobers recalls of the day he turned up in the Kingston Cricket Club pavilion for his debut Test. "You then looked around and saw the names on the team sheet - Weekes... Worrell... Walcott... Rae... Stollmeyer... Ramadhin... I said to myself: 'You've arrived, you've made it'."

"I used to swim a lot. I used to live at the beach. I used to play a lot of beach cricket. I played cricket every day"
Sobers' fitness routine

A return of 28.5-9-75-4 and scores of 14 not out and 26 as England won by nine wickets verified his temperament as much as his skill. By the time he strode on the Queen's Park Oval 20 years later, also against England, for his farewell match. after 92 Tests against all five of West Indies' opponents of the day, he had certainly "made it". It was a shame, but immaterial, that there was no grand finale; he was out for 0 and 20 and collected just three wickets in the match.

He had long since become a batsman supreme, departing as Test cricket's leading scorer, with 8032 runs, at an average of 57.78. His 26 centuries had been bettered only the insatiable Don Bradman's 29. His 235 wickets in three contrasting left-arm styles were second to Lance Gibbs among West Indians. His 109 catches, snared mostly with Venus-flytrap reflexes in the slips or round the corner off Gibbs, were eight short of Colin Cowdrey's tally.

He captained West Indies in 39 matches, the most until Clive Lloyd came along to carry his formidable teams for 74.

His name remained affixed to 365 not out against Pakistan in Kingston in 1958 as the highest Test innings for 36 years until Brian Lara, a similarly gifted West Indian left-hander Sobers had mentored since he appeared in the annual, long-running International Schools tournament in Barbados that carries Sobers' name, passed it in 1994.

They are statistics that explain Sobers' widely acknowledged status as the most complete all-round cricketer of his time, indeed all time. They do not tell the whole story of his remarkable endurance.

His first 85 Tests were in succession; no one had ever had such an unbroken sequence. He is adamant that he never left the field, not once, in any of them. In addition to West Indies and Barbados, he had three stints with South Australia (where he became the first player to complete the double of 1000 runs and 50 wickets in an Australian season), with English county Nottinghamshire for seven years, and with clubs in the Lancashire League. He captained Rest of the World teams against England and Australia.

At the height of Sobers' preeminence in the 1966 series in England, the renowned English writer Sir Neville Cardus contended that he was "even more famous than Bradman ever was, for he is accomplished in every form of the game and has exhibited his genius in all climes and conditions".

On the Saturday of the final Test of the memorable 1960-61 "tied Test" series, the temperature at the Melbourne Cricket Ground was as roasting as it was at the recent Australian Open tennis, where some players were felled by heat stroke. It didn't stop Sobers sending down 22 consecutive eight-ball overs on the day, mostly in his quicker style - and returning for another 19 on the Monday.

Such exhausting facts are even more astonishing given his legendary enjoyment of life, a capacity I marvelled at during several nights on tour in his company. He was never concerned that it would affect his game. It was his way of relaxation. Cooped up in his room, he said, would unnecessarily get him worried about the cricket. To each his own; his justification is in the record books.

And what about keeping as fit as he did? Certainly gym work and personal trainers were hardly known during his time.

"I used to swim a lot. I used to live at the beach. I used to play a lot of beach cricket. I played cricket every day," he said. "There was tennis and other sports [he represented Barbados at soccer and basketball even before he did at cricket]. I got myself fit because I knew how fit you had to be to be at your best for five days of a Test match and not leave the field."

As we marvel at the action, athleticism and all-round ability of the players in the current World T20 in Bangladesh, it is not difficult to imagine how Sobers' talent would have flourished in the abbreviated formats that came along after he had swapped the cricket field for the golf course, a place where he habitually indulges what has long been a passion. It is another sport that he has inevitably mastered.

Now 77, the passing years have generally treated him kindly. He has been technical consultant to the West Indies team and advisor to the team's sponsor. For the past three decades, his global fame has made him the ideal ambassador for Barbados tourism, the island's economic mainstay.

The hilarity heard from the boxes at Kensington Oval, where he and several of his old mates gathered for West Indies' three T20 matches against England last month suggested a kindling of happy memories.

The memories will also feature on Sunday for those of us lucky enough to have experienced the Sobers magic during our lifetime.

March 31, 09:18: The photograph, which was a flipped image, has been replaced.

Tony Cozier has written about and commentated on cricket in the Caribbean for 50 years

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on April 2, 2014, 12:30 GMT

    Chris Campling: I wouldn't say Sobers was "better" than Graeme Pollock, but I wouldn't say he was in any way inferior either. For me the two greatest left hamders of all time (with apologies to Brian Lara). Sobers was probably more attacking than Pollock as a batsman, and almost as good as Peter Pollock as a bowler. Some cricketer!

  • Ashok on April 2, 2014, 1:10 GMT

    60 years of debut of Sir Gary deserves a standing ovation. I watched Sobers in test matches in India in 1961 series,in England when I was a Research student & also in his captaincy years with Nottingham. Never have I seen a Cricketer as complete & talented as Sobers. Starting from his graceful lilting walk like Calypso music in motion to his stiff Collar, he looked every inch a Champion. His 3 in 1 bowling on itself would have won him a Test place. His batting was majestic, stylish with 360 deg. arc & so powerful that an Oz fielder at deep extra cover tried to stop his cover drive from Sobers but failed. He was wringing his hands in pain on the fence! Sobers hit an OZ pace man, McKieff bowling with second new Ball in a test for a six "off the back foot" over the sight screen 85M away! I was listening on the Radio in India. Jack Fingleton rated his 168 at Sydney Test(1960) as the greatest innings in living memory! Congrats Sir Gary,the Greatest Cricketer Ever to walk on cricket field!

  • arjun on April 1, 2014, 18:03 GMT

    @Rowayton "zxaar - interesting use of statistics, although you do realise your conclusion is completely unsupported by the stats you have provided, don't you? By the way, if Tendulkar had taken 235 wickets in his first 96 tests, then we could rate him as highly as Sobers." ----------------- Which stat was wrong, care to point out. Also it will be easier for you to check out that being better batsman does not involve taking wickets. It is bowlers job, if you do not understand this much, I will advise check some tutorial on cricket. Also by same token Kallis sobers etc have not stumped batsman so Sangkkra must be greatest ever batsman.

  • Dummy4 on April 1, 2014, 8:07 GMT

    i never saw sobers bat, but i did see pollock a lot, and if sobers was better then he must have been spectacular. watching graeme pollock bat made me fall in love with cricket when i was a kid

  • David on April 1, 2014, 5:43 GMT

    John Yelton, I think you are basically right, although Sobers did bowl some spin after 66 - he won a test in Brisbane in 68/9 bowling spin. I think his shoulder problem was more with bowling wrist spin, he could still bowl finger spin, although my impression was that he did not rate his own finger spin bowling that highly.

    zxaar - interesting use of statistics, although you do realise your conclusion is completely unsupported by the stats you have provided, don't you? By the way, if Tendulkar had taken 235 wickets in his first 96 tests, then we could rate him as highly as Sobers.

  • B on April 1, 2014, 1:09 GMT

    With today's protective gear, plus sub-par teams such as Zimbabwe, Bangladesh, India (overseas), etc. Sobers would have averaged well over 75. Except Bradman, there is broad daylight between Sobers and the next batsman, whether it be Hammond, Tendulkar, Ponting or Lara. I equate Kallis with Barrington and Hobbs - good batting average but a dour stonewaller. I have watched Sobers play - other than Clive Lloyd who could hit harder, nobody came close to Sobers for this batting or fielding prowess. In bowling, he could outdo Bedi in left-arm spin, switch to medium pace and then to genuine pace matching Hall or Griffith. He had 3 setbacks in his later years - the 67-68 MCC tour of the Caribbean, the tour of South Africa later that invited rebuke and the loss to India in 71, though he did exceedingly well as a batsman. We were all hoping he would come out of retirement to play in the first World Cup - Kanhai played but Sobers chose to stay away!

  • Dummy4 on April 1, 2014, 0:40 GMT

    It is interesting how most players compare Sobers in the batting department, but he was a super bowler with pace and two types of spin. He also was such a brilliant fieldsman few or none can compare with. Hands down he is the greatest cricketer who ever lived.

  • Guy on March 31, 2014, 20:57 GMT

    My main thought on the Sobers vs Kallis debate, stats-wise, is that Sobers bowled a lot more than Kallis. In other words, the Windies relied more on his bowling than the Proteas did Kallis. The simple numbers: Kallis bowled 121 deliveries per match (or around 20 overs), and Sobers nearly twice as many - 232 per match (or almost 39 6 ball overs). This explains in part Sobers' high strike rate - he had to toil on unresponsive surfaces much more than Kallis. Generally Kallis would 'chip in' while Donald, Pollock, Steyn etc did most of the damage.

  • Dummy4 on March 31, 2014, 20:54 GMT

    I was privileged to watch Sobers bat at my first live "international" match, the England v Rest of the World "test" at Lord's in 1970. Sobers won that match for the RoW by taking 6-20 odd on day one as England were bowled out for 110 (I missed this, sadly), then scoring 183 in scintillating style, batting with the likes of Graeme Pollock (arguably the two greatest ever left handed batsmen together). That feat is still on the Lord's honours board, and I know of no other cricketer who has got his name on the Lord's board for both batting and bowling in the same match (I know Botham did it in the Jubilee match against India). Anyone?