(‘Don’s Century’ is a book on the cricket career and life of Don Bradman, paying tribute to him in 2008, the year of his birth centenary. It is also a panorama of batting from the 1860s onward, featuring 35 of the greatest batsmen and discussing whether Don Bradman was indeed the greatest of them all).
Just as the memorable careers of the three Ws were drawing to a close, there appeared on the stage a cricketer blessed by nature like no other. Inarguably the most versatile and complete player, with class stamped all over, the left-handed genius Garfield Sobers was the only one apart from Bradman who would walk into everybody’s all-time dream team. To state the obvious, Sobers was a powerful strokeplayer, predecessor to Brian Lara in myriad ways, not the least in hitting up the record score and highest aggregate in Test cricket; bowler of greater variety than anyone in history – genuine speed, medium-pace swing, left-arm orthodox as well as chinaman; and a superb fielder, particularly close to the wicket in the slips or at backward short-leg. Like Bradman, the game is not likely to see another with his amazing skills.
The doyen himself, Sir Neville Cardus, described Sobers’ batting thus: “He makes a stroke with moments to spare. The sure sign of mastery, of genius of any order, is absence of strain, natural freedom of rhythm.” How aptly can this be applied to sportspersons of any discipline. Brian Johnston, legend in the commentary box, observed Sobers for years. He wrote in his book It’s Been a Piece of Cake: “…..like all the greats – he had a sound defensive technique, but in attack with a high backlift and perfect timing the power of his strokes had to be seen to be believed. His sizzling drives and crashing hooks were hammered to the boundary, leaving the fielders helpless to stop them.”
Sobers never wore a thigh pad, and except for early in his career had no use for a cap, batting or fielding. His rasping cuts were facilitated by a light bat weighing around 2 lb 4 oz. There was no less power in his shots than seen today by those wielding the chunky modern day bludgeons. That is one of the reasons why there are not many players today who can play genuine horizontal bat shots like the cut, pull and hook with authority. Sobers rarely went down the wicket to the spinners, either using his long reach to drive or playing right back.
For someone who was pitchforked into the Test arena as a 17-year-old left-arm spinner in 1953-54 after just two first-class appearances, it is quite amazing that Sobers went on to become one of the greatest batsmen in history. Four years after his debut, he recorded his first Test hundred against Pakistan at Kingston, an unbeaten 365, the top score at the highest level, surpassing Len Hutton’s mark of two decades earlier. He added 446 for the second wicket in the company of Conrad Hunte, just five runs short of the then all-time high for any wicket put up by Ponsford and Bradman in 1934. Sobers celebrated his achievement by hammering a century in each innings – 125 and 108 not out – in the Georgetown Test. He finished the series with 824 runs at an average of 137.33. The legend of Sobers had been launched.
In 1959-60 against England, Sobers hit up 709 runs at an average of 101.28, crashing 226 at Bridgetown, 147 at Kingston and 146 at Georgetown. He put on 399 for the fourth wicket with Worrell in the Georgetown Test. Though a natural successor to Worrell, Sobers was not as diligent a captain as Bradman. From 1966 to 1967-68, Sobers had a golden run with the bat, averaging over 100 in two successive series, and 90 in the third. During the 1966 tour of England, he scored 722 runs at an average of 103.14 in five Tests, took 20 wickets at 27.25 apiece and held 10 catches. England were again given a 3-1 hammering, and Sobers once more hit up three centuries – 161 at Old Trafford, 163 not out at Lord’s and 174 at Headingley. He then went to India in 1966-67, scoring half-centuries in all his five innings with a highest of 95, aggregating 342 runs and averaging 114. By now the West Indies were the best side in the world. In 1967-68 against England at home, Sobers knocked up 545 runs in five Tests at 90.83 per innings but his over-confident declaration in the fourth Test at Kingston – 215 to win in 165 minutes – handed the series to England, who won that game with three minutes to spare, and the crown slipped.
The irrepressible Sobers became the first batsman in first-class cricket to hit 6 sixes in an over for Nottinghamshire against Glamorgan, smashing a bewildered Malcolm Nash at St Helen’s Ground, Swansea in 1968. It was in the evening of his career that Sobers played what Sir Donald Bradman described as the best innings he had seen in Australia, comparing it to Stan McCabe’s superb 232 at TrentBridge in 1938. He slammed 254 for the Rest of the World against Australia at Melbourne in 1971-72 against a young and lightning fast Dennis Lillee. It was an amazing display of pyrotechnics, and when it reached its crescendo, rousing applause came from the spectators and fielders alike.
When a damaged knee ended his 20-year Test career, Sobers had become the highest rungetter in his 93 appearances with 8032 runs at an average of 57.78, having blazed 26 hundreds, second behind Bradman’s 29. He had captured 235 wickets at 34.03 each, and snapped up 109 catches. It would be fair to say that had he batted higher than the no. 6 that he often did as captain, and if the West Indies did not have bowlers of the calibre of Wesley Hall, Charlie Griffith and Lance Gibbs, Sobers would have had many more runs and wickets to his credit. Gary Sobers was a cricketer beyond compare. It was just a matter of time before knighthood was bestowed on him.
(Author Indra Vikram Singh can be contacted on email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Indra Vikram Singh on Twitter @IVRajpipla.)
Indra Vikram Singh’s latest books published by Sporting Links : A Maharaja’s Turf ISBN 978-81-901668-3-6, The Big Book of World Cup Cricket ISBN 978-81-901668-4-3, Don’s Century ISBN 978-81-901668-5-0, Crowning Glory ISBN 978-81-901668-6-7.
Distributed in India by : Variety Book Depot, AVG Bhawan, M-3, Middle Circle, Connaught Circus, New Delhi-110 001, India. Tel. + 91 11 23417175, 23412567.
Available in leading bookstores in India, and online on several websites.