When Wisden Cricketers' Almanack invited 100 experts around the world to vote for their five top players of the 20th century, a few grumbled that two names were shoo-ins: Don Bradman and Sir Garfield Sobers. Because if Bradman is the greatest batsman of all time, Sobers remains peerless as an all-rounder: 8,032 Test runs at an average of nearly 58, a total of 235 wickets taken with a mixture of left-arm seam bowling plus two types of spin - orthodox and wrist - and a close-catching ability second to few if any. The only wonder was that 10 members of the Wisden panel failed to nominate him.
Where do you start? With his maiden Test century at Kingston against Pakistan in 1957-58 which turned into an undefeated 365 and stood as a world record for 36 years? With the six sixes he hit in an over off Malcolm Nash for Nottinghamshire against Glamorgan at Swansea in 1968? With his knighthood for his services to the game in 1975? Or to the remarkable stat that the 10 batsmen with - at the time of writing - higher Test averages than Sobers took only half as many wickets (124) between them as he did by himself? The options seem endless.
To call Sobers Mr Adaptable might sound like damnation with faint praise, but here was a master of all trades and a jack of none. His versatility with the ball in particular led opponents to complain that any team containing Sobers was made up of 13 men. Yet for all that it was his batting which allowed his God-given talents to shine most brightly. He was not merely a left-handed stylist and an incorrigible cavalier, but he made big scores too: 11 of his 26 Test hundreds were innings of 150 or more. He could also defend. At Lord's in 1966 he batted for 5½ hours, most of them with his cousin David Holford, to save the Test. Nothing felt beyond him.
It might not have been a Test match, but with Sobers nearing the end of his career against a backdrop of personal problems, a young Dennis Lillee desperate to prove himself and Bradman among the spectators, the game between Australia and the Rest of the World at Melbourne in January 1972 contained pressures enough. After falling to Lillee for a first-innings duck, the 35-year-old Sobers responded with a scintillating 254 in the second. Said Bradman: "Having seen all the players of the last 50 years, I believe that Sobers' was the greatest exhibition of batting seen in Australia. I have seen nothing equal to it in this country."
Hard to believe, but his bowling in the early days lacked bite, and after 30 Tests he had picked up just 31 wickets at an average of nearly 50. As for gaffes, few in Trinidad ever quite forgave him for setting England 215 to win in 2¾ hours. West Indies lost that game by seven wickets and with three minutes to spare, before going on to lose the series 1-0. Sobers later said that "team-mates who denied all knowledge of the decision were strangers to the truth". If his overall captaincy record (nine wins and 10 defeats in 39 Tests) was ordinary, then it probably said as much about the talent at his disposal at the time as it did about his leadership skills.
As post-war cricket's second great all-rounder after Keith Miller and a precursor to the 1980s quartet of Ian Botham, Richard Hadlee, Imran Khan and Kapil Dev. Never were his allround skills better displayed than during the series between England and the Rest of the World in 1970, when he scored 588 runs at 73 and took 21 wickets, more than anyone on either side. Today, his name is synonymous with a brand of devil-may-care adventure that few have ever been able to match.
A long-running feud with Sir Clyde Walcott meant that Sobers's expertise was not used by West Indies until he was appointed as technical consultant to the coach Bennett King in 2004. Until then he was a pundit and an unofficial roving ambassador for the sport, but in 2004 he was honoured by the ICC who decided to name their new annual Player of the Year Trophy after him. The first winner was Rahul Dravid.
Lawrence Booth is a cricket writer for the Guardian. His second book, Arm-Ball to Zooter: A Sideways Look at the Language of Cricket, is on sale now.