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