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Sobers: "Do you really think I was so good?”

Published 10 June 2013
Sobers: "Do you really think I was so good?”
Cricket’s latest controversy took me back in time to when I first learnt that players could also be betting men. A nostalgia story in the media recounted how Sir Garfield Sobers, who apparently loved a flutter every now and then on horse racing, had finished the first Test at the Brabourne Stadium against India on the 1966-67 tour in desperate urgency to reach the Mahalaxmi Race Course in time for the afternoon’s fixtures.

I was gripped by disbelief initially at learning this. Do sportspersons bet? Are cricketers supposed to wager, even if on horse-racing? Shouldn’t they be imbued with Herculean resolve in choosing virtue over temptation for the greater glory?

In India certainly, there was an aura about cricket and cricketers in the 1960s and 70s, which made them seem as paragons of virtue, and certainly above reproach if not superhuman. It is only much later that we realized they were as human, as full of foibles as you, me, every one.

The ethos (and hypocrisy) of the Victorian Age embalmed cricket with a catholicity that actually was never intrinsic to the sport. Cricketers were expected to show saint-like moral rectitude, but history reveals that the game has always accommodated charlatans, bounders, cheats – and of course those who genuinely liked a bet or two without contaminating the game.

To the Test match under question I have strong connection. I was barely 11 and this was only the second Test I had watched. The experience had been life-altering. I had been fascinated by the magic of five-day cricket from the first Test I saw – India beating Australia in 1964 at the same venue – and by the time I finished seeing the second, I had been hooked; not the least because of Sobers.

My favourite cricketer in those days was the swashbuckling Rohan Kanhai, but his place was usurped quickly by Sobers who matched the home favourite Nawab of Pataudi for charisma and seemed matchless where cricketing ability was concerned. He could bat, bowl, field brilliantly – and some more.

The lasting impression I carry of that match still is Sobers recalling Budhi Kunderan, gesturing that he had taken the catch on the half-volley close-in which the umpire had failed to see. Heck, whoever did this? And especially, as one was to learn later, when he wanted to finish the match early!

Sobers was to show he was extraordinary in a multi-dimensal way. In the second innings half century (he had one in the first too) I would now venture that he rose to great heights because he had put money at stake on finishing the game early. I remember that innings vividly even today – the crackling drives, the stunning cuts, the imperious hooks and pulls. There was lissome, feline grace every movement on the field, and a panache that left bowlers and fielders stupefied. There was both a finesse and brutality about it that I haven’t seen in any batsman since except in Brian Lara in top form.

By the time the match ended, I was obsessing about getting Sobers’s autograph. My friends and I fairly galloped from the East Stands of the CCI towards the main clubhouse to meet the hero. In those days, there were no presentation ceremonies so there was no time to be gained. But then, neither was the sport shrouded with the massive security concerns that exist today.

By the time Sobers emerged from the dressing room, bathed and dressed for the races, we were ready. Alas, none of had a pen to take the autograph, he was in a tearing hurry and a handshake is all we got. But it was enough to forge a lifetime’s relationship with the sport and it’s most magnificent practitioner.

Over the next 6-7 years, my interest, appreciation and knowledge of cricket grew through Sobers’s exploits – good, bad or indifferent. Because of him I got introduced to the writings of CLR James, the Marxist-ideologue-cum-cricket-lover, and through James to the not just the fascinating brand of cricket played by those from the Caribbean, but also why and how sport, especially for those subjugated, is an expression of identity of race and/or nationality.

The West Indies in the mid and late1960s were represented by bunch of scintillating players: Hunte, Bynoe/Carew, Kanhai, Butcher, Nurse, Sobers, Lloyd, Holford, Murray, Hall, Griffith, Gibbs. With a slightly greater degree of professional discipline, I dare say this team would have upstaged those led by Clive Lloyd and Viv Richards between 1976 and 1991 when the West Indies ruled the cricket world.

Barring a solid opening partner for Hunte, Sobers’s team (a legacy he actually inherited from Sir Frank Worrell) exceeds the Caribbean teams of the 1970s and 80s in balance, depth and all round talent: an array of brilliant strokeplayers to follow the technically supreme Hunte, two genuinely quick bowlers, a superb off-spinner. And then Sobers of course, the like of whom wasn’t around anywhere.

He had started his Test career as a 17-year-old left-arm spinner who could bat a bit in 1953. Promoted in the order after a couple of years, he hit his first Test century when 21. In fact, this was three centuries rolled into one, as it were: 365 not out against Pakistan, and Len Hutton’s world record score had fallen.

By the time the West Indies had their first black captain in Frank Worrell in 1960-61, Sobers was scoring runs and taking wickets with a success rate that boggled the critics. Worrell – inspired by the writings of James – wanted to prove a point or two about race and cricketing ability to the world: in Sobers he found the epitome of brilliance for a black, West Indies cricketer.

If it was astonishing that any batsman could hit six sixes in an over in a first-class game (against Malcolm Nash of Glamorgan in 1968), it was hardly a surprise that Sobers would be the first to do this. In English county, Australia’s Sheffield Shield, domestic cricket in the Caribbean and Test matches, Sobers was easily the biggest draw in the game in this period with his supreme athleticism and dazzling skills.

By the time he retired in 1973, he had most cricket records notched up against his name. But I got to know more about Sobers’s virtuosity after he had retired, through some of those who had played against him. Ajit Wadekar, who led India to an unexpected victory over the West Indies in 1970-71 and with whom I’ve spent several memorable evenings discussing cricket and cricketers, says Sobers was unique.

"I couldn't ever take my eyes off him," says Wadekar, "such was his talent and so positive was his approach. He could turn a match in a few overs, with bat or ball, and do it with so much grace that even as an opponent you had no choice but to applaud."

Sunil Gavaskar, who made his sensational debut in the 1970-71 series and benefited from some unexpectedly shoddy catching by Sobers in the slips, has a brief but succinct description for him after playing and/or watching international cricket non-stop for more than four decades. "Sir Gary the best, no question."

Trevor Bailey, who wrote his biography perhaps captures the essence of the player and man best: "Gary Sobers was unsurpassed as an all-rounder, he always played cricket the way the Gods intended - absolutely straight, absolutely hard, but never with malice." It’s a point of view that finds an echo in such discerning critics like Richie Benaud and Ian Chappell too.

It was almost a quarter of a century since I had seen him play at the CCI in 1966-67 when I got Sobers’s autograph. He was one of several great players – Benaud and Gavaskar being others, though Imran Khan dropped out at the last minute – invited by Dr Ali Bacher to see the unification of all races in South African cricket in 1991, what with the African National Congress under Nelson Mandela coming to power.

Sobers came across as an easy going man, wearing his celebrity status lightly.  In Benaud and Gavaskar he found old friends and admirers and dropped his guard without fear. Though a little troubled by arthritis and having acquired a slight hobble, he was still an avid golfer.

In the years since, I’ve met Sir Gary a few times, the last of these in 2011 when Ajit Wadekar had brought him down for a few days to commemorate the 1970-71 India-West Indies tour as well as grace the World Cup being played in India then.

This was a more mellow Sir Gary, now well into his 70s and willing to share accolades with others, as well as a few old memories. At one evening during that trip, I asked him if indeed he had finished the Bombay Test of 1966-67 before 2 pm so that he could go and bet on horses at Mahalaxmi. He let out a howl of laughter. "Do you really think I was so good?"

So how good was just Garfield Sobers?
Through its history cricket has seen scores of players of outstanding ability, some maestros (little and huge), a few demigods - and the Don, of course.

In my opinion, Sir Donald Bradman is the only cricketer defined comprehensively by a statistic. His Test average of 99.94 leaves no scope for further description – or any debate – that he was the greatest batsman the game has seen, before, during and since his playing days.

And yet, I would venture there has never been anybody quite like another cricketing knight, Sir Garfield Sobers. Unlike in Bradman’s case, pure statistics flop in establishing the true merit of any other player. They have to be assessed differently: as personal witness to performances, opinion of team-mates and adversaries, verdict of critics of credibility: and all of this must still not run foul of statistics!

Not that figures and facts of Sobers’s career are insignificant. Indeed, they paint a glorious picture even if they fall very short of the absolutism that Bradman achieves. With 8032 runs at 57.98 in 93 Tests, he comes in number10 for batsmen with the highest average in the history of the game. Knock off those batsmen who have played less than 30 Tests and Sobers climbs to number 6.

Add to this 235 Tests wickets and 109 catches and his prowess as an all-rounder gets substance. True, there have been other outstanding all-rounders – Ian Botham, Kapil Dev, Imran Khan, Richard Hadlee, Dudley Nourse, Keith Miller, Eddie Barlow and the modern master Jacques Kallis – but nobody matches Sobers’s versatility. Apart from prolific run-getting Sobers could bowl genuinely fast, medium pace swing or orthodox left-arm spin with a well-disguised chinaman.

Such diverse skills, all executed with dazzling brilliance, without concern for averages or personal glory, give him unapproachable heft. And as the game has evolved, with different formats like ODIs and lately T20 emerging, one player who will be picked first ahead of anybody else, it is him.
Sir Garfield Sobers was, simply put, the best.