Almanac Cricket: Gary Sobers at 80

The pictures from the 60s and 70s show the man in his pomp: the athletic gait, the artistic timing and technique and the lithe, blithe attitude to batting and bowling, which stamped Sir Garry Sobers as the greatest all-rounder in history.

 

And, as the Caribbean maestro approaches his 80th birthday later this month, there is still the memory of when I met him in Edinburgh and we spent a merry day together.

 

The initial invitation from the Barbados tourist agency had asked if I was interested in a chat with “Garry”; if so, he could arrange the meeting as long as I was flexible.

 

Was I flexible? Of course I was. Why wouldn’t I be when presented with an opportunity to meet and talk to a genuine sporting hero?

 

This was a man who transcended any one pastime, the Pele, Muhammad Ali or Usain Bolt of his milieu. And there were no rafts of PR hoops to dodge through to get near him. He was courteous, congenial, avuncular.

 

As the day unfolded, it was a blissful tryst. Sobers even seemed happy – or maybe tolerant! – about us singing jazz songs together at the Holiday Inn Crowne Plaza in Edinburgh after we had talked about cricket for hours on one of his regular visits to Scotland in the late 1990s, as he explored a rich seam of golf courses.

 

Even then, a touch of arthritis was setting in. But his eyes lit up as he chatted about his passion for travel and meeting new friends and colleagues and recalled some of his most memorable experiences.

 

In which light, that meeting August 31, 1998 was one of the most joyous of my life. Garry was 62 at that stage. But he has achieved more than enough in his realm to be forever young.

 

We talked about subjects which interested both of us. There was little mention of the hapless Glamorgan bowler Malcolm Nash, who was struck for six successive sixes in an over by Sobers in 1968, apart from him mentioning sardonically he had met so many alleged family members of Nash that they “must be a huge clan”.

 

Nor did we yammer to an excessive extent about the precipitous decline of West Indian cricket beyond lamenting, in the great man’s words that: “[Brian] Lara’s a wonderful player. But he’s not a golfer – he can’t win Test matches on his own.”

 

Instead, we were captivated by a mesmerising performance from Muttiah Muralitharan, who was in the midst of performing miracles against England at The Oval. You might be unfamiliar with the background: the tourists were only given one Test, yet seized their opportunity when the spinner took nine for 65 – from more than 54 overs – as England collapsed in a heap on the last day of the game.

 

Sir Garry was impressed. Perhaps more pertinently, in Associate cricket terms, he was convinced there was no reason why the likes of Scotland, Ireland (and Afghanistan) couldn’t progress in the footsteps of Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe.

 

He told me: “Cricket isn’t a complicated game. It’s two sides of 11, and if you work hard enough and remember to do what works for you, anything is possible.

 

“I sometimes wonder why we don’t have more countries playing Tests. I go to all these different places and see cricket clubs and I wonder why we only have eight or nine teams.

 

“It’s not enough. We all know that. But what do we do about it?”

 

It’s still a pivotal question for the emerging nations and especially when you think how easily England have just beaten the underwhelming Sri Lankan class of 2016. And yet Sobers wasn’t complacent, even during that glorious meeting.

 

Yes, he might have been a one-man dynasty: masterful batsman, glorious pace bowler, sublime spinmeister and a fielder par extraordinaire. But he wasn’t wasting time on platitudes.

 

On the contrary, as he said: “Scotland should be doing better than they are. They love cricket or at least I think they do and you look at all the guys I know who have come here, from [Rohan] Kanhai to [Malcolm] Marshall and [Gordon] Greenidge and you wonder how much the Scots are learning?

 

“I know it’s difficult when your boys are only playing part time. But Sri Lanka were in the same place not so very long ago. Hopefully, other countries will come through. We need the game to get bigger.

 

“It was always one of the joys of playing for the West Indies that we would travel to new places and see how much joy the game brought to so many different people. But it seems to have slowed down a bit and that is a shame.”

 

Nearly two decades on, the same reservations apply. After we had finished chatting, Sir Garfield asked if I wanted to join him for a song.

 

As you might anticipate, he was a class act: a mixture of Bob Marley and Nat King Cole, which wasn’t as strange as it might sound.

 

Eventually, we persuaded the piano player to roll out his version of the Gershwin classic: “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” and we were both in our element.

 

I’m told that, the very next morning. Sobers was hitting immaculate irons on a Fife golf course. For my part, I was simply grateful to have met one of my true sporting icons.

 

And he’s still right about the number of Test teams, by the way!

 

You can’t run a truly global pursuit with fewer than a dozen members.

 

Comments

  1. Neil Drysdale says:

    Garry Sobers makes some good points which the ICC didn’t come any closer to addressing in Edinburgh last week. Cricket needs to expand, but trying to take it into the Olympics is NOT the answer and it does seem that three or four countries want to create a self-perpetuating clique.

  2. Warwick Nolan says:

    Local folklore is that in the 80s he strolled into the East Malvern Cricket Club one afternoon and asked if they needed another helper around the place. I believe that EMCC were able to find a space for his services.

    I believe that shaking hands with Garry Sobers is also a unique experience?

  3. Luke Reynolds says:

    Fantastic Neil, what a player G.Sobers obviously was. What a shame the Windies seem unable to produce players anywhere remotely near the standard of their superstars of the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s and early nineties.
    Of course he was spot on about the number of Test teams!

  4. Rulebook says:

    Brilliant Neil and so spot on re the number of test teams.MM interesting in that I will always think it was a farce he was allowed to bowl but he was the main reason that,Sri Lanka became compeditive a guilt edged sword.Cricket is way to impatient waiting for the fledging countries to improve.Sobers will always be a legend in SA cricket circles being a prime reason behind some Sheffield shield wins and I remember fondly his 256 ( think it was 256) in the rest of world tour in 72 at the g it was a incredible innings

  5. charlie brown says:

    Really enjoyable read thanks Neil.
    It has spurred me to watch some grainy vision of Sobers’ 254 in ’71/72. Truly remarkable batting. No such things as boundary ropes in those days. Sobers just smashed O’Keefe 10 rows back over straight hit.

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