First published in The Bengal Post
The greatest all rounder in the game never played in the World Cup. Sir Garfield Sobers had quit the international scene by the time the Prudential World Cup came round in 1975, and Clive Lloyd led his men to a grand win, with Sobers’s old friend and teammate Rohan Kanhai playing a key role in the final.
Garry Sobers was perhaps the one cricketer guaranteed to lend excitement and enchantment to a tournament such as the World Cup. The quintessential all rounder, he could bowl in three different styles, and once hit six sixes in an over, besides possessing in his arsenal three shots to every delivery. Add his brilliant fielding anywhere and his infectiously positive attitude and you have the perfect ambassador for instant cricket.
We in Chennai first caught a glimpse of him when he toured India with Gerry Alexander’s men in 1958-59. At the Corporation Stadium, he created quite a flutter as he walked out jauntily with his collar upturned. Though he scored only 29 and 4 in the Test, he impressed one and all with his every action. His bosom pal Collie Smith proved to be the crowd’s favourite, with his ‘donkey drops’ and antics near the boundary line.
Not long afterwards, Collie Smith was to be killed in a car accident, with Sobers at the wheel—something that scarred Sobers for life and made sleep impossible for him during match nights. The more he tried to get his eight hours on the eve of a match, the more he tossed and turned, haunted by the memory of his friend and what might have been.
“I never went to bed before the small hours of the morning during Test matches, but it did not affect my cricket,” Sir Garry told a small gathering of cricket lovers and former cricketers around him at the Madras Cricket Club, Chepauk, late one evening some ten years ago. ‘Don’t you dare follow my example!’ he told a young player in the audience.
I was one of those privileged to be present that evening, as the great all rounder spun a web of cricket tales, real and apocryphal in about equal measure. One particularly diverting tale had it that the West Indies manager Berkeley Gaskin caught him returning to his Karachi hotel room at 5 a.m. and nodded approvingly believing that like him, Sobers was going for a morning constitutional.
Talk turned to his superb 95 and 74 not out in the 1967 Pongal match that brought Test cricket back to Chepauk, and Sobers agreed with us that, fooled by the length and additional bounce of a BS Chandrasekhar special, he had changed his shot in the last nanosecond to send the ball sailing over the sight screen in that game. This was reminiscent of a similar straight six in the Brisbane Test in 1961, when the bowler to suffer had been Richie Benaud, in the course of Sobers’s 132 in 125 minutes.
As the stories flowed thick and fast, Sobers remembered how one of his teammates was constantly barracked by the Brisbane crowd as he was patrolling the ropes. “You are the ugliest cricketer I ever saw, mate,” one spectator cried out. The fielder’s instant response was: “Wait till you see my brother back in Jamaica.”
The Chepauk Test match was the first time in a long while that India had come close to defeating West Indies, with a new Prasanna-Chandrasekhar-Bedi spin combination in place. Sobers famously drew the game with a fighting unbeaten 74 in the company of tailenders Hall and Griffith, after his team had been perilously close to defeat on the last day. Sobers’s fertile imagination was evidently at work as he related the behind-the-scenes happenings of that evening. Here’s his version of a conversation as soon as Wes Hall came in to bat.
Hall: ‘Skip, I promise I’ll stay with you till the end. I have one problem, though. This Chandrasekhar, I can’t read him.”
Sobers: “What's new, Wes? Seymour Nurse, he couldn’t read Chandrasekhar. Rohan Kanhai, he couldn’t read him. Basil Butcher, he couldn’t read no Chandrasekhar, either.”
Hall: “Come now skip, be serious. Show me when he bowl tha googly, and when tha leg break.”
The two batsmen quickly agreed Sobers would stand a foot behind the umpire at the non-striker’s end, and put his right hand out every time Chandra bowled a googly, and Hall would faithfully follow the signal. A healthy partnership developed and Hall was the toast of the team at teatime. Seymour Nurse was particularly impressed. “How did you do it maan, when all of us batsmen struggled?” he asked Hall. “Oh, that’s simple Seymour old maan,” Hall replied in his best conspiratorial manner. “You know I watch the ball in the air, maan. Poor Garry, he can’t tell tha googly from tha leg break sometimes. Coz poor chap, he tries to read Chandrasekhar’s hand.”
Unfortunately for Hall, Sobers was standing just behind him overhearing the conversation. The first ball after tea, Chandrasekhar bowls a googly, and Sobers has his right hand firmly in his pocket. Exit Wesley Hall.