Opinions may differ as to which cricketer is entitled to the distinction of being named the finest all-rounder the game has produced but there can be no question that Garry Sobers, the West Indies left-hander, comes high in the list.
He stands within two wickets of a unique double, 4,000 runs and 100 wickets in Test Cricket, and except for missed catches in the final Test against England at The Oval last August he would have already achieved that objective.
The rise of Sobers has been phenomenal. When he began his Test career ten years ago he gained his place solely on his merit as a left-arm slow bowler. Next he developed his batting and soon opened the innings against Australia. Then he tried his hand at fast bowling and became deadly with the new ball.
Later he realised that the hard pitches in India were better suited to disguised spin in the shape of the chinaman and googly which he successfully exploits so that now at the age of twenty-seven he can claim to be the most complete and best all-rounder in present day cricket. And, of course, like all really great cricketers he is a magnificent fielder in any position and particularly in the slips where he brings off amazing catches.
So far, Sobers has appeared in 47 Tests, scored 4,098 runs at an average of 58.54 and taken 98 wickets at 35.02 runs each. Among his 14 Test hundreds is the individual record, 365 not out in ten hours eight minutes against Pakistan at Sabina Park, Kingston in 1957-58. When Sir Leonard Hutton made 364 -- the highest against Australia -- at The Oval in 1938 he was at the crease for thirteen hours, twenty minutes.
Garfield St. Aubrun Sobers was born on July 18, 1936,in the tiny island of Barbados which has produced so many gifted cricketers. He took naturally to the game at about the age of ten at the Bay Street School in the parish of St. Michael's. He began unambitiously as an orthodox left-arm slow bowler and at no time did he receive any coaching.
He watched the best players in the island and on leaving school at fourteen he played for the Police club in the Barbados Cricket Association. He soon attracted attention and appeared in trial games.
He was only sixteen when Barbados chose him to play against India in January 1953. For one so young his full bowling figures in that match are worth repeating: 22--5--50--4 and 67--35--92--3; clear evidence of immaculate length and direction.
Fourteen months later when Sobers was still only seventeen, he received his first invitation to play for West Indies. It was against England in the fifth Test at Sabina Park. His chance came because A.L. Valentine had broken down. Although West Indies were beaten for the first time at Sabina Park, Sobers emerged creditably. In an England innings of 414 (L. Hutton 205), he achieved the best bowling with four wickets for 75 runs.
By this time the youthful Sobers had determined to improve his batting. He had learned a good deal by bowling to class batsmen and he made every effort to acquire sounder technique and at the same time to produce some shots of his own.
Little did he expect that he was destined shortly to open the batting for West Indies. It happened when Australia visited the Caribbean in the early months of 1955. Never in any type of cricket had Sobers gone in first, but J.B. Stollmeyer, the captain, could not play and after Australia had amassed a total of 668 runs, Sobers had to face the fire of Lindwall and Miller.
An audacious youth, he smacked 43 in fifteen minutes. As a run-getter he has never looked back. He concentrated more on batting and for a time his bowling declined.
In order to prepare some of their younger players for stern struggles in the near future the West Indies Board of Control were pleased to accept an invitation to send a side to New Zealand in February and March, 1956. Some of the stars were left behind and Sobers was among those who took part in their first overseas tour.
Different conditions presented new problems and Sobers experienced a lean time; he scored no more than 81 runs in the four Tests and took only two wickets.
So we come to the West Indies tour of England in 1957. Now showing signs of maturity, Sobers attained the best aggregate in the first-class matches with 1,644 runs, including a grand innings of 219 against Nottinghamshire.
Although his highest score in the five Tests was only 66, he averaged 32.00, and in view of the failure of the four recognised openers, he went in first against England at Trent Bridge and Headingley. He had modest bowling figures for the whole tour -- 37 wickets at 31.67 apiece.
The value of that tour was soon shown on his return home. So far he had not hit a Test century but the first time he did reach three figures he broke the record with that scintillating 365 not out against Pakistan at Kingston.
His partnership of 446 with C.C. Hunte (260) stands as a West Indies second wicket record. In the very next Test at Georgetown he made 125 and 109 not out, finishing the series with an average of 137.33, another West Indies record. Altogether Sobers scored 1,007 runs and averaged 143.55 from the Pakistan bowlers and became the first West Indies player to attain a four-figure aggregate in their comparatively short home season.
The next stage in Sober's development as the complete all-rounder was a direct outcome of his 1957 tour of England. He changed his status by becoming a professional for Radcliffe in the Central Lancashire League. He stayed five seasons, living the whole time with the same family who came to regard him as one of their own. League cricket caused him to appreciate more the value of fast bowling and so in 1958, his first summer in Lancashire, he became a quicky.
The following winter found Sobers in India and Pakistan and there on the hard pitches he indulged in yet another bowling experiment by trying left-handed googlies and chinamen. He had seen Denis Compton, Tribe and Wardle exploit these variations and he realised the value of such bowling given the right conditions of powerful sunshine and a firm surface.
He continued to enjoy tremendous success with the bat excelling with the cover drive and hook. Scoring 25 and 142 not out, 4 and 198, and 106 not out in successive innings in the first three Tests in India he claimed six centuries in his last six Tests.
Next he enhanced his reputation at the expense of the England bowlers in the West Indies in 1959-60. He began with 154 for Barbados and put on 306 for the third wicket with S.M. Nurse (213), the Island winning by ten wickets with three minutes to spare.
A few days later came the first Test on the same ground at Bridgetown. Only eighteen wickets fell in six days and again Sobers was in his element, hitting 226. In a remarkable stand with F.M. Worrell (197), the pair were together from 4.50 p.m. on Friday until 11.40 a.m. on Tuesday, a total of nine and a half hours and they added 399. It was the highest partnership for any West Indies wicket against England and the best fourth wicket stand by any country against England.
Sobers also hit 147 at Kingston and 145 at Georgetown, his full aggregate for the five Tests amounting to 709, average 101.28.
Paying his first visit to Australia in 1960-61, Sobers promptly made his mark in the historic first Test at Brisbane -- the tie -- by hitting yet another century, 132; he also made 168 against Australia at Sydney where he scored his last 72 runs after tea, when the new ball was taken, in seventy minutes.
South Australia recognised his brilliance by enlisting his services and for the last three seasons he has assisted them in the Sheffield Shield. In 1962-63, he set up an Australian record by being the first cricketer in that country to score 1,000 runs and take 50 wickets in the same season.
Sobers is essentially a cricketer for the big occasion. The tougher the struggle the more he enjoys it. He admires the keen competition in Australia in all grades where the game is played the hard way and one continually meets good players. He considers that playing against New South Wales is equivalent to taking on Australia in a Test Match.
He must have gained special satisfaction in February 1962 when he displayed his all-round qualities against New South Wales at Adelaide by scoring 251 in the second innings and finally seeing his side to victory when he switched from swing to spin and took six wickets for 72 runs.
The full story of the part Sobers played in England last summer in helping West Indies to carry off the Wisden trophy is told in the section of this Almanack devoted to the tour. He was the key man in the series and he should continue to delight cricket crowds in various parts of the world for many years to come.