First there is Sir Garry Sobers, and then there are all the other great allrounders in Test cricket. Sir Don Bradman unquestionably qualifies as the best batsman ever seen in Tests, but several pundits are willing to bet that in terms of all-round match-winning ability, none has surpassed - and perhaps no one ever will - the sublime Sobers.
Bradman himself called Sobers the "five-in-one cricketer", and with good reason: apart from being an outstanding batsman and fielder, Sobers the bowler was so versatile that he could bowl three different styles - left-arm seam and swing, slow left-arm orthodox, and left-arm wrist spin. Sobers' skills with the ball allowed West Indies to often play an extra batsman - in fact, it was almost as if they were playing with 12 members in the team.
Sobers' leading suit, though, was his ability with bat in hand. He finished with an average of almost 58, and even that doesn't do full justice to his skills. Throughout his career, Sobers never particularly bothered with trivialities like stats and numbers, which make his achievements even more remarkable. It's astonishing that even after scoring at a rate that most specialist batsmen couldn't keep pace with, Sobers still had enough talent to spare to go ahead and take 235 Test wickets at a bowling average of less than 35.
Unlike a Sachin Tendulkar, though, Sobers didn't immediately set the world on fire when he entered Test cricket. For the first three years or so he was fairly ordinary, with only one half-century to show in his first 15 innings. The first sign of his truly precocious talent came during the course of a resounding defeat at the hands of England at The Oval in the summer of 1957. In extremely difficult batting conditions, in which West Indies were bundled out for 89 and 86 in their two innings, Sobers scored 39 and 42. No other West Indian batsman touched 30 in either innings.
From 1958, Sobers' batting graph soared. In only his third Test of the year, against Pakistan in Kingston, he scored a monumental unbeaten 365. It was the record for the highest Test score, and stayed that way for the next 36 years, which is the longest any batsman has held this record. His career average shot up almost 15 runs after that one innings, and in his next Test it touched 50 for the first time, from where it never dipped below 50 again. In fact, from the beginning of 1959 to the end of his career in 1974, his average never went below 56.
And then, of course, were his knocks outside of Test cricket. One of his finest batting displays - one that the Don said was "the greatest exhibition of batting ever seen in Australia", came at the MCG in 1972, when Sobers, playing for World XI, destroyed an Australian attack that included a rampant Dennis Lillee on the way to 254. Lillee had taken 8 for 29 in the previous Test, and had dismissed Sobers first ball in the first innings in Melbourne, but in the second innings Lillee finished a distant second-best, as Sobers cut and drove him to distraction. A few years earlier, a much lesser bowler, Glamorgan's Malcolm Nash, had been at the receiving end when Sobers spanked him for six sixes in an over, the first time it had ever happened in first-class cricket.
As a bowler, Sobers' stats aren't as stunning, but he was more than handy with his ability to bowl various styles. His peak period as a bowler was understandably much shorter, but during the eight years between 1961 and 1968, he was quite a handful, averaging less than 28 and taking almost four wickets per Test.
In fact, his bowling career can be divided into three distinct parts: till 1960, he bowled quite sparingly, taking only 43 wickets in 34 matches, without a single five-for. Then came the best passage for him as a bowler, during which period he delivered two of his most incisive performances: at Headingley in 1966 he returned figures of 5 for 41 and 3 for 39 to help West Indies win by an innings; at the Gabba a couple of years later, his orthodox left-arm spin was good enough to give him a second-innings haul of 6 for 73 and bundle Australia out for 240 as they chased 366 for victory.
More than most other cricketers, Sobers was able to, on more than one occasion, deliver his excellence with bat and ball in the same series. Scoring 300 runs and taking 20 wickets in a series is no mean feat - it's only been achieved 15 times in the entire history of Test cricket - but Sobers managed it three times on his own, twice against England, and once against India. The Australian allrounder Keith Miller did it twice, but no one else has achieved it more than once. Ian Botham, Kapil Dev, Richard Hadlee and Shaun Pollock were among those who did it once each, while Imran Khan didn't even achieve it once.
Overall, Sobers' all-round numbers are outstanding - his batting average is nearly 24 more than his bowling average. In terms of this differential, only Jacques Kallis of South Africa has a slightly higher difference.
Excluding the first three years of his Test career, when Sobers was still finding his feet in international cricket, he averaged nearly 63 in 79 matches, which was easily the best during that period. England's Ken Barrington was the only other batsman whose average was close to 60. Even Sobers' overall career average of 57.78 is among the very best: with a cut-off of 3000 runs, only five batsmen have done better.
And in the eight years when Sobers was at the peak on his bowling powers, he was among the best in that aspect too: only three bowlers took more than 100 wickets at an averge lower than Sobers' 27.93. West Indies had a pretty useful attack during that period too: Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith took care of the fast-bowling duties, while Lance Gibbs was the number one spinner. Since Sobers obviously wasn't the leading fast bowler or spinner, he was more of a support act, and hence seldom got the opportunity to bowl fast with the wind or slow against it. Later in his career with West Indies' fast-bowling resources dwindling, Sobers bowled long spells with defensive fields, but he managed that too without his bowling stats suffering too much.
As a captain Sobers was a mixed bag. Of the nine series he led in, West Indies won three, but those were the first three series he captained. In 1966 in England, especially, Sobers was immense: in five Tests Sobers scored 722 runs, including three hundreds, at an average of 103.14, and took 20 wickets at 27.25. At Lord's in the second Test he played arguably his greatest innings: his unbeaten 163 helped turn around a first-innings deficit of 86 and helped West Indies recover from a precipitous 95 for 5 in the second innings. With David Holford, who made an unbeaten 105, Sobers added an undefeated 274 for the sixth wicket. He scored another century at Headingley and starred with both bat and ball in that game.
Thereafter, though, his captaincy stock fell, especially when his reckless declaration at Port of Spain leading to an England win in a Test in which they took only nine wickets.
Despite the pressures of captaincy, Sobers' batting standards remained high, with an average of almost 59 in the 39 Tests he led in. Among captains who've scored at least 3000 runs, only Don Bradman has a higher average.
Sobers was also one of the greatest match-winning batsmen in Test cricket: his average in wins was 77.42, which remains among the highest. Only the Don and Pakistan's Inzamam-ul-Haq have higher averages.
Some of Sobers' most memorable innings came against England. From 36 Tests against them, Sobers scored 3214 runs, which accounts for 40% of his total aggregate. He played eight full series against them, and averaged more than 75 in four of them. His poorest series against England was his last one, in which he managed only 100 runs from five innings, including scores of 0, 0 and 20 in his last three innings. Despite that, he finished with a 60-plus average against them, which is among the highest for any batsman who's scored more than 2000 runs versus England.
And unlike some of the current batsmen who are much greater batsmen in the first innings than the second, Sobers had no such problem. Even in the fourth innings of matches, Sobers managed an average of almost 47. Apart from that unbeaten 163 at Lord's mentioned earlier, one of his most meaningful second-innings contributions came against India in Kanpur in 1958. Both teams had been bowled out for 222 in their first innings, and in their second, West Indies were struggling at 83 for 4 when Sobers struck a magnificent 198 to lift them to 443, a target which turned out to be well beyond India in their second innings.
Sobers' overall second-innings average of 55.15 is the second-highest among batsmen with 2500 runs; only Jacques Kallis of South Africa has done better.