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West Indies

Gary is the greatest

Sir Garfield St Aubrun Sobers

Most people would say that Gary Sobers is the greatest cricketer there has ever been. Blessed with so much natural talent, gifted beyond imagination, a natural genius he allied that to concentration, determination and great stamina which allowed him to play long innings and make big scores. If you’re picking any side he’s got to be number one because he can win you the game with his batting or bowling.

The image I shall always have of him in my mind is of his walk to the wicket, tall and lithe with that easy loping stride, like a panther stalking its prey. He gave the impression he was looking forward to the battle ahead, though a smile was never far away, and there was the expectation that something was going to happen.

He was born with five fingers on each hand and had the extra one removed in boyhood. Maybe it was God’s way of telling us that here was someone excptional but you’d never have known it from his start in Test cricket at the age of 17 against England in Kingston, Jamaica, in the fifth Test of 1954. He was picked as a left arm orthodox spinner, bowled 30 overs and had four for 75. Batting at number nine he had 14 not out and 26. In 1954-55 when Australia were in the Caribbean he played in four Tests and had three wickets for 213 runs and made 231 in six innings with the bat, going in mainly at six or seven although he did open once. On the tour to New Zealand in 1955-56 he managed 81 runs in five innings and took two wickets for 53 and in England in 1957 where he batted up and down the order averaged 32 in ten innings and took five wickets for 355 runs. That’s 672 runs in 22 innings spread over 14 Tests with an average of 30.54. By no stretch of the imagination can you think that this kid is anything more than ordinary even if you’re his mum or his best friend. Batting like that wouldn’t get you picked and as for the left arm spin, you’d think, yeah, I wouldn’t mind having some of that.

But suddenly the whole thing changes. It’s 1957-58, he’s 21 and Pakistan are in the West Indies. He makes three half centuries in the first two Tests in Barbados and Trinidad and then, in the third at Kingston, Jamaica, he breaks the world record with 365 not out made in 10hrs 14min. It’s extraordinary, you just couldn’t see it coming. Now he’s on a roll with a century in each innings of the fourth Test in Guyana, 125 opening and 109 not out from number three and on to India in 1958-59 with 142 not out in the first Test in Bombay, 198 not out at Kanpur in the second and 106 not out in Calcutta in the third; total 557 runs at 92.83. He might have got more but they stuck him down the order to give the others a chance!

When England went to the West Indies in 1959-60 he had 226 in the first Test in Barbados, 147 in Jamaica in the third and 145 in Guyana in the fourth: 709 runs at 101.28. In three series he’s gone from someone you’d struggle to call ordinary to a paragon.

If his left arm spin was nothing special his left arm swing bowling could be devastating and there was something freakish about the way he started in this mode. In 1961-62 he had the first of two seasons with South Australia and because there isn’t much for run-of-the-mill spinners out there he picked up the ball and found he could swing it. Just like that! It came so easily to him that he took 50 wickets and scored 1,000 runs in an Australian season twice and that takes some doing in their Shield cricket.

It was also in Australia that he played a masterly innings, compiling 254 for the Rest of the World at Melbourne in the third game of a five match series which was arranged to replace the cancelled South African tour in 1971-72. Sir Donald Bradman, a man not given to dishing out praise lightly, called it one the best innings he had ever seen.

I came across him in 1966 when he had a blistering summer in England with the bat making 722 runs at 103.14 with 161 at Old Trafford, 163 not out at Lord’s when they were in trouble and 174 at Leeds. He nearly did me for a pair at Trent Bridge getting me leg before with a real big, late swinger second ball in the first innings and in the second only the thinnest of inside edges to a similar delivery saved me from a queen pair. Starting as a left arm orthodox spinner he had no guile or flight and tended to be flat through the air. I’m not surprised at that because if you throw it up anywhere in the West Indies except Trinidad they’re going to hit it miles. They think spinners are a free hit. He could also bowl chinamen and googlies which were OK if you didn’t read him or he was bowling at tailenders. If you could separate his figures I’d love to know what proportion of his 235 wickets came from swing and seam as opposed to the spinners and at what cost. The quick stuff came to him relatively late in his cricket life, almost by chance but I can say he’s the greatest swing bowler I ever faced.

He’ll always be remembered for his graceful batting with that high back lift and the flourish at the end of the shot but like all truly great players he could cut it when the going was rough.

When England played the second Test in Jamaica on the 1967-68 tour there were huge cracks in the pitch, so big you could put your hand down them up to the wrist. We were well on top and had them following on 233 behind.

When Basil Butcher was out caught down the leg side in mid afternoon on the fourth day we were in the driving seat. The locals didn’t like it and suddenly all hell was let loose. There were hundreds of bottles and cans thrown, the riot police went into action and there was so much tear gas about we had to bathe our faces in the dressing room sinks. Gary, out first ball in the first innings, had been dropped second ball by Basil D’Oliveira at slip off John Snow  and went on to complete a tremendous hundred on the fifth day on this awful pitch which by now had craters in it and then declared with the West Indies 158 in front. We’d agreed to make up the 75 minutes lost because of the riot on the last day and didn’t we live to regret that when we ended up 19 for 4 with yours truly and Colin Cowdrey both out to Sobers for nought. The one that did for me pitched outside the leg stump, hit a huge crack and struck the wicket about about six inches up. It was a pretty hairy hour and a quarter next morning and there was so much pressure out in the middle with every fielder round the bat as we struggled to survive that when Fred Titmus pushed one out on the off side, Doug Sang Hue, the umpire, who’d moved over to point picked it up and threw it back to Lance Gibbs, he was so caught up in the drama. Fred  was furious and said so!

Gary was the supreme batsman, remembered also for hitting six sixes in an over off Malcolm Nash bowling slow left armers, not his usual medium pacers, for Nottinghamshire against Glamorgan at Swansea. But along with Viv Richards he’s the best I’ve ever seen. That match in Jamaica proved that if you could get him out once cheaply, it was never enough, you had to do it twice.

Extract taken from The Best X1 by Geoffrey Boycott, by kind permission of Penguin Books www.penguinbooks.com <http://www.penguinbooks.com/>   The book is also on sale at The Shop