Gary Sobers and Brian Lara, left-handed batting geniuses from the sunny Caribbean. Excerpts from Indra Vikram Singh’s book ‘Don’s Century’

Gary SobersJust 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 Trent Bridge 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.

Brian LaraWhen in the mood, Brian Lara was a genius, no less. Caribbean flair, and not any textbook principles, was the hallmark of his batting. High backlift, braced knees, a hop this way and that in the crease, flashing blade and terrific bat speed, and deft wrist-work on either side of the wicket were characteristics of his inimitable style. When he put his mind to it, he was amongst the very best ever, in the traditional form perhaps next only to Bradman.

As super success embraced him, Lara was quick to assume the airs of a megastar. Petulance, brushes with authority and stormy personal life began to cast a shadow over his career. For a long time it seemed that he might go the way of so many hugely talented sportsmen like George Best who frittered away their God-given gifts and ultimately destroyed themselves.

It is said that the pressure of expectations got the better of Lara. To his credit, he broke free of the stupor and applied his mind to his batting, returning as one of the greatest rungetters the game has seen. The difference between Lara and Tendulkar – hugely talented as both are in their unique ways – was that Tendulkar remained grounded, a dedicated player, committed team man, modest and content in the security of family life. He never allowed the unprecedented adulation to swamp him, nor did the burden of having to perform constantly stifle him. He sailed along, darling of millions, everyone’s very own endearing Sachin. If he had a flaw, as we have already discussed, it was that he would get carried away by his own brilliance and give his wicket away when there were many, many more runs for the taking.

That 277 at Sydney in 1992-93, Lara’s first Test hundred, when the West Indies were desperately defending their status as top dogs, was only advance notice of what was to follow. Lara emulated Bradman by holding the records for the highest scores in Tests as well as first-class cricket. Sir Garfield Sobers walked on to the Antigua Recreation Ground to embrace Lara as the new hero went past his Test record. In that 1993-94 series against England, Lara hit up 798 runs at an average of 99.75.

The world had still not stopped applauding Lara when he astounded everyone by piling up an unbeaten 501 for Warwickshire versus Durham at Birmingham. It was a new frontier – as a famous television series on space odysseys declared – where no man had gone before. In a matter of days he did what no batsman, not Grace nor Bradman, had done in 117 years. The English bowlers must have dreaded the sight of his punishing blade as he carved out 765 runs in the six-Test series on their soil in 1995 at an average of 85.

In between, Lara had not relished the slower wickets of India during the 1994-95 series. Not long after, when the euphoria of having scaled great highs so early in his career wore off, Lara began appearing listless and disinterested. It was akin to the feeling of unease that Bradman experienced in 1932, but Lara’s malaise was more severe. Bradman never allowed his performances to dip, Lara could not defy his slump.

He recovered, to the good fortune of cricket-lovers around the world. The first sign of a turnaround came in 1998-99. That season his stock had slumped to abysmal depths in South Africa as the West Indies were trounced 5-0 in the Test series. Then they were beaten by Australia in the first Test at home. There were shrill voices all around demanding that Lara be stripped of the captaincy. And then he struck. He scored a superb 213 to lead the West Indies to victory over Steve Waugh’s side at Kingston. In the very next Test at Bridgetown he carried his team to an exhilarating one-wicket triumph with a stupendous unbeaten 153. So gripping was the game that the Jamaican prime minister postponed meetings to watch the finale. The West Indies actually led the series 2-1 now, and Lara was again being hailed as a superhero everywhere. This was akin to Bradman’s stirring fightback in 1936-37, but not quite as decisive in the end. The Australians eventually levelled the series, but Lara had once again shown what he was really capable of.

The big turnaround eventually came in 2001-02 in the Emerald Island after a prolonged illness. He began with his 221 off the Sri Lankan bowling at Colombo in that landmark season. In three Tests, Lara scored 668 runs at an average of 114.66 with 3 hundreds. Though he suffered a serious arm injury as a result of a mid-pitch collision, he came back stronger than ever. Since that series, in the last six years till his retirement from Test cricket in 2006-07, he scored an average of a Test double century a year.

When Sri Lanka made a return visit to the Caribbean islands the next season, Lara slammed 209 at Gros Islet. After he regained the captaincy in 2003, and perhaps consumed by a burning desire to finish his career in a blaze of glory, Lara was unstoppable. He played two big knocks in the 2003-04 season. He first slammed 202 against South Africa at Johannesburg. During the course of that innings he hit the highest number of runs in an over in Test cricket. He smashed Robin Peterson for 4.6.6.4.4.4, a total of 28 runs.

Matthew Hayden had taken away Lara’s Test record that season. The Prince of Trinidad, though, was not ready to be dethroned. And so Hayden had the pleasure, and privilege, of being Test cricket’s top-scorer for only a few months.  Lara returned to the same venue and against the very opponents of a decade earlier and reclaimed his coveted record. Again he went to a territory no Test cricketer had treaded before, reaching 400 before he returned unconquered. He had emulated Bradman by hitting up two scores of 300-plus in Test cricket. India’s Virender Sehwag joined the club at Chennai in 2007-08. But while Bradman was never able to reset the Test record, Lara, incredibly, got it back. That there was a gap of a decade between the two high watermarks, makes his achievements even more laudable.

PROGRESSION OF RECORD INDIVIDUAL SCORES IN TEST CRICKET

165 not out  Charles Bannerman   Australia v England        Melbourne, 1876-77

211               Bill Murdoch              Australia v England        The Oval, London, 1884

287               Reginald Foster          England v Australia       Sydney, 1903-04

325               Andy Sandham          England v West Indies   Kingston, 1929-30

334               Don Bradman            Australia v England        Leeds, 1930

336 not out  Wally Hammond       England v New Zealand   Auckland, 1932-33

364               Len Hutton                 England v Australia        The Oval, London, 1938

365 not out Gary Sobers                West Indies v Pakistan    Kingston, 1957-58

375               Brian Lara                  West Indies v England     St. John’s, 1993-94

380               Matthew Hayden      Australia v Zimbabwe        Perth, 2003-04

400 not out  Brian Lara                  West Indies v England      St. John’s, 2003-04

Then in Adelaide in 2005-06, as if to rub it into the Aussies, Lara overtook Allan Border’s record Test aggregate, celebrating his achievement by bringing up another double century, hitting up 226. In a final hurrah, Lara crashed 216 against Pakistan at Multan in 2006-07, his last season. He blazed to what was the tenth-quickest hundred in Test cricket, off a mere 77 deliveries, blasting 26 runs – 4.0.6.6.6.4 – off a Danish Kaneria over. Lara has nine scores of 200 or more in Test cricket, second only to Bradman, who had twelve.

He walked away from the Test arena with 11,953 runs in his kitty at an average of 52.88 with 34 centuries in 131 matches. He did many things that Bradman did not manage – the Test record twice, 500 in first-class cricket, 400 in a Test innings, and the highest aggregate. Was Lara better than Tendulkar? This depends on which aspects of the game you cherish more. For nonchalantly churning out huge scores, Lara was in the top bracket; for performing steadily and mastering all types of bowling and conditions in both forms of the game, Tendulkar has few peers.

PROGRESSION OF RECORD AGGREGATES IN TEST CRICKET

(Above 1000 runs)

Runs       Tests       HS        Ave     100s       Year

Arthur Shrewsbury (England)        1,277           23      164      35.47          3       1893

Clem Hill (Australia)                       3,412           49      191      39.21          7       1912

Jack Hobbs (England))                  5,410           61      211      56.94        15       1930

Wally Hammond (England)            7,249           85      336*     58.45        22       1947

Colin Cowdrey (England)               7,624         114      182      44.06        22        1971-75

Gary Sobers (West Indies)             8,032           93      365*    57.78        26       1974

Geoff Boycott (England)                 8,114         108      246*    47.72        22       1982

Sunil Gavaskar (India)                  10,122         125      236*    51.12        34       1987

Allan Border (Australia)                11,174         156      205      50.56        27       1994

Brian Lara (West Indies)              11,953         131      400*     52.88        34       2006

Sachin Tendulkar (India)              15,921         200     248*      53.78        51       2013

Lara joined Tendulkar as the only batsmen then to score 10,000 runs in Tests as well as One-day Internationals. Dravid, Ponting and Jacques Kallis joined the club later. In 299 One-dayers Lara accumulated 10,405 runs at an average of 40.48 and strike-rate of 79.51, with 19 hundreds. In the World Cup he scored two brilliant match-winning hundreds against South Africa, in the 1996 quarter-final, and the opening encounter in 2003. He has the third-highest aggregate of 1225 runs in the showpiece event – behind Tendulkar and Ponting – at an average of 42.24 and strike-rate of 86.26. The fastest fifty of the competition stood to his name, off 23 balls against Canada at Centurion in 2003, until bettered in 2007.

For all his dazzling strokeplay, one often did not hear the thump of the ball against Lara’s bat. That was the result of his inimitable wristwork. He would guide the ball to untenanted areas of the field all round the wicket. What was utterly fascinating was that he did this on the rise to the slow bowlers as well, allowing the ball to turn, and then flicking it wherever he fancied. To work away a quick bowler is easy. To have done it to a spinner – and on the rise – is what made Lara extraordinary.

(Author Indra Vikram Singh can be contacted on email singh_iv@hotmail.com).

Don's Century cover (front)Don’s Century

ISBN 978-81-901668-5-0

Published by Sporting Links, 2011

Distributed in India by Variety Book Depot, Connaught Place, New Delhi – 110 001, Phones + 91 11 23417175 and 23412567.

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