Today the cricket world celebrates the 85th birthday of arguably the greatest cricketer ever, Sir Garfield Aubrun Sobers. His arrival on the cricket field was the equivalent of a prophet arriving, as though God had sent him to play cricket. None took all-round cricketing genius to such superlative heights. Sobers simply transcended or explored realms noone ever touched in the game, virtually giving the game a new dimension. It is hard to find an adjective in the dictionary to do justice to his exploits on a cricket field, which were simply mythical. Sobers redefined cricketing art, in the manner of Beethoven in music or Michelangelo as a sculptor. If any figure reached immortality in the game, Sobers would be the first one to come to my mind.
Jacques Kallis may have superseded Sobers in terms of statistical figures,Imran Khan may have been more charismatic ,or Ian Botham more of a match-winner in his peak. However in my view as a cricketing all-rounder Sobers sits on a pedestal of his very own with no one morally in his league. Statistical figures do not do justice to his prowess in every department. No bowler ever could bowl, fast, fast. Medium, spin, googly and china man. There were faster bowlers or bowlers who turned a ball more, but none possessed such a variety in their armoury as Sobers. He gave you a sensation of as scientist experimenting when engaged in bowling. Few batsmen ever possessed such a wide range of strokes or ever hit a cricket ball harder. At his best Gary could be as explosive as an inferno with the bat, but never at the cost of technical skill or grace. He resembled a boxer, surgeon and a poet blended into one. On his day Sobers took batting domination to realms rarely transcended. A Sobers square drive, square cut or a hook shot could be preserved in a museum. Few were ever as magnetic off the backfoot.Few batsmen blended imperious power, immaculate technique and creativity in the degree of Sobers. Sobers also pulled of some of the most stunning catches ever on a cricket field. which took athleticism to its ultimate glory.
Few great cricketers uplifted the spirit of sportsmanship or gave the game it’s due respect of being a gentleman’s one as Sobers. I can never forget his sporting declaration at Port of Spain in 1967-68 when he gave England a target of 232 to chase, which they successfully did. Sobers maintained that he did it for the spirit of the game-something inconceivable in the modern generation. It is befitting that Sobers last test innings was played in a losing cause, with England being the victors by margin of 25 runs. It proved that to Sobers cricket was not all about winning.
My best memories of Sobers are his 132 in the tied test at Brisbane in 1960-61, His 113 at Kingston v England in 1967-68.his 254 at Melbourne in 1971-72, his 174 at Leeds in 1966 and his 365 not out v Pakistan at Kingston in 1957-58.
I personally place his 113 at Kingston in 1968 against England at his best because on a broken wicket he literally ressurected West Indies from the grave, to come within distance of famous victory. Gary gave vibrations of a surgeon operating, on a broken wicket, tackling great bowlers like John Snow. When scoring 254 at Melbourne Sobers took batting skill to sublimical proportions or domination to mythical realms. The likes of Dennis Lillee were smashed around in the manner of a boxer delivering a knockout punch. One got vibes of a bomber raiding an airbase. When scoring 132 in the tied test in 1961 at Brisbane Sobers bissected the field in challenging conditions, in the manner of a surgical operation of an army. Rarely has art of stroke making been taken to such mythical regions. In his 174 at Leeds in famous 204 run partnership with cousin David Holford, Sobers arguably surpassed any batting performance by an overseas player in overcast conditions. When breaking the world record score to score an unbeaten 365 against Pakistan at Kingston, Sobers resembled a great marathon runner, in a cocoon of concentration or Hillary climbing Everest.
I would also give worthy mention of his 226 against England in 1959-60, his 171 at Kensington Oval against India in 1970-71 and his unbeaten 150 in his final test in England in 1973.
It must be noted that Sobers averaged over 90 on the turning track s of the sub-continent, encountering bowlers of the likes of Subhash Gupte and Bishen Bedi.He amassed runs in India in the manner of an emperor plundering territory after territory. The only country where he was unsuccessful was in New Zealand.
In terms of all-round performances in his career his most defining were his scoring 722 runs at an average of over 103 and taking 20 wickets in a 4 test series in England in 1966 and scoring 583 runs ,averaging 73 and capturing 21 wickets playing for Rest of the World in 1970 in Britain. It is hard to do justice to the sheer cricketing energy Sobers exuded in every department, who resembled a scientist exploring undiscovered regions. He was simply an epitome of consistency in every department .With the ball he delivered the most crushing blows. He dismissed batsmen pulling of the most stupendous catches .With the bat he exhibited the most dazzling strokeplay, putting even great bowlers in the state of a trance. Every opponent who played in those games swear they have never seen anything that ever sat on the same pedestal. Sobers simply dominated proceedings, in the manner of an invincible emperor. It is worth recalling the words of John Snow, Geoff Boycott or many others. Sunil Gavaskar rates him the greatest cricketer of them all.
I can never forget the manner Sobers mesmerized even a batsman with a water tight technique like Boycott with his inswing,crashing through his gate. Nor the manner Gary could make great bowlers like Fred Trueman, John Snow, Dennis Lillee or Derek Underwood look pedestal on his day.
In my view Gary Sobers wins my vote as the greatest cricketer ever, even above Donald Bradman.Bradman no doubt has incomparable statistics averaging around 100, but statistics do not always tell the true story. In my analysis Bradman as a pure batsman by a very slander margin would not equal the worth of Sobers to a team as an all-rounder.Sobers turned more games than Bradman, and also encountered more challenging opposition and conditions. I disagree with cricket experts like Christopher Martin Jenkins or Geoff Armstrong, who place Sobers in 3rd place amongst all-time greats,behind Bradman nad W.G.Grace.They forget that morally Sobers was an all-time great fast bowler and all-rounder ,who re-defined cricketing art like noone else. To me Sobers is a more unanimous choice for an all-time test cricket XI than even Don Bradman.
Sobers scored 8032runs at an average of 57.78 with 26 centuries and captured 235 wickets at 34.03. in 93 tests and160 innings. He also took 109 catches. Adding unofficial International games Sobers averaged 58.6 with the bat and too over 260 scalps. His statistics are misleading with the ball, as in his peak era he captured around 4 wickets per test at around 26, when strike rates were much lower than the modern age, from the 1970’s.From 1961 to 1968 Sobers averaged around 27 with the ball and over 63 with the bat. In 1st class cricket Sobers scored 86 centuries and scored 28314 runs, in addition to taking 1027 scalps at an average of 27.74.
As an all-rounder at their best perhaps Keith Miller and Ian Botham gave Sobers the greatest run for his money. In terms of overall impact after his retirement Tendulkar,Viv Richards, Imran and Warne came closest to Sobers in terms of overall impact. Kallis has scored more runs and captured more scalps, but in terms of impact or ‘x’ factor is not in the league of Sobers. I must mention that Sobers captured the double of 2000 runs and 300 wickets in 75 tests, not anywhere as fast a time as Botham who took 22 tests less, but we must remember Sobers played in a completely different era, with far lower strike rates. Often Gary was denied role of being the main strike bowler.
As a pure batsman Sobers is a strong candidate for the 2nd best after Bradman and the best left-hander ever. Ian Chappell feels Sobers was as much ahead of other all-rounders as Bradman was with the bat. It is notable that Tendulkar in the modern age or Shane Warne reached similar levels of charisma, with Tendulkar possibly even surpassing it.Still in no way did they lift cricketing skill to the same scale or pedestal. Sobers was in the Tendulkar or Lara class as a batsman, and more versatile than Warne as a bowler. Many great batsmen like the Chappell brothers rank Sobers as the best batsmen they ever saw. As a pure batsman in test cricket I would class Sobers amongst the top 5 of all, just a whisker below Brian Lara. It is notable that Gary averaged around 77 in tests won, which is remarkable. Amongst left arm pace bowlers Sobers would just be a notch below Alan Davidson and Wasim Akram.Sobers in his day could have been selected in a World XI purely as a batsman or a bowler.
It is hard to gauge what the effect of so many billion dollars coming into the game and advent of shorter forms of the game, would have had on Sobers had he played in the modern era. I would have backed him to be an outstanding ODI and T-20 Cricketer. I have no doubt that even in the later eras or modern era he would have been more head and shoulders ahead of any allrounder or cricketer, be it Imran, Viv Richards, Tendulkar, Lara ,Warne or Kohli.
Still Gary Sobers was human and not without flaws. He hardly attacked the cricketers who went to play in Rhodesia in the 1970’s, who literally had no respect for the against -apartheid movement. He hardly spoke up against racism or apartheid in Pretoria and had great praise for Kerry Packer World series cricket. Sobers never was a spokesman for the Black or anti-apartheid movement and was reprimanded for adopting a lenial attitude towards them. Arguably Sobers was not the best of captains tactically and in terms of motivation like Frank Worrell, Ian Chappell, Clive Lloyd or Imran Khan.
Gary ranks Sunil Gavasakar as the best batsman of his time, followed by Rohan Kanhai and Ted Dexter. He ranks Dennis Lillee,Wes Hall and Fred Trueman as the best pace bowlers while Subhash Gupte,the best ever spinner. Notable that he ranks Gupte above Warne and Gavaskar above Tendulkar. In his view Frank Worrell and Ian Chappell were the best skippers of his time. He also has firm conviction that the great South African cricketers like Barry Richards were over rated ,having not proved themselves at the International Level. Ironical that Sobers rates the 1966 team West Indies team that toured England, as better than Clive Lloyd’s team of 1980-85 and best Australian teams.. Surprisingly Sobers ranks Keith Miller ahead of Ian Botham, as an all-rounder. I also disagree with his not placing batsmen like Greg Chappell and Peter May in the very top bracket or even pace bowler Glen McGrath.
I recommend everyone to read Brian Scovells’s book on Gary Sobers and his later autobiography in 2003. .There are few more aesthetic vibrations than reading Sobers’s own reminiscences ,which resurrect the glory of game ,which is today turned into a million dollar business.
Harsh Thakor is a freelance journalist.Toured India,particularly Punjab .Written on Mass movements ,,Massline,Maoism on blogs like Democracy and Class Struggle and frontierweekly .An avid cricket lover too who has posted writings on blogs like Pakpassion Indian Cricket Fans and Sulekha.com