Sometimes you’ll look at stats & descriptions, such as Left handed bat, Left-arm fast-medium, Slow left-arm orthodox, Slow left-arm chinaman, Outstanding fielder and then read words written by people who were fortunate enough to see him perform and yet think that they’re always at least one adjective short.
The Independent carries a rare interview with unarguably the greatest all rounder of all. Its got some wonderful stories and a lot of “it-wasn’t-so-when-we-were-on-the-go” stuff.
I’m pasting it all here – just in case the link goes bust – or whatever is the correct technical term for that.
When I heard that Sir Garfield Sobers was coming to my nearest county cricket club, Worcestershire, to be guest of honour at a dinner in aid of the Lord’s Taverners, I contacted the organiser, the former Worcestershire and England player Neal Radford, and asked whether I might bag an interview with the great man before the event.
After all, to interview Sobers is unarguably to interview the world’s greatest living cricketer; in 1999, when a panel of 100 experts appointed by Wisden voted for the five cricketers of the 20th century, all 100 picked Sir Don Bradman and all but 10 picked Sobers, begging only the question: what kind of experts were those 10? The next most popular pick was Sir Jack Hobbs, with 30 votes.
Radford was encouraging; he thought he could get me 45 minutes with Sir Garry, no problem, and hinted that there might even be a round of golf in it for me. This was a thrilling enough prospect on its own. Sobers used to be a scratch golfer. He also played football, basketball and table tennis for Barbados, not to mention, gloriously enough, dominoes.
But one only has to consider cricket to get a measure of the man’s extraordinary versatility: in 93 Test matches between 1953 and 1974 he scored 8,032 runs, averaging 57.78. As for his 235 Test wickets, which cost 34.03 runs each, he got them bowling both slow left-arm orthodox and left-arm fast-medium, as well as, just when his repertoire was beginning to look a bit limited, a devastating chinaman. Nor did he have any peers in the art of close-catching.
Oh, and his 365 not out against Pakistan in 1958, which stood for 36 years as the record individual Test score, remains the highest maiden Test century of all time. We’ll say no more about his six sixes in an over, because he sometimes thinks that it is the only achievement he’s known for. Whatever, the word “legend” is bandied around pretty indiscriminately in sport, but it fits Sobers like the glove that wouldn’t have fitted him had he been left with the six fingers on each hand with which he was born: from birth he seemed marked out for distinction.
And so to Blackwell Golf Club, near Bromsgrove, on the day of the dinner. Radford had subtly withdrawn the suggestion that I might get 18 holes with Sir Garfield, which wasn’t at all unreasonable; there were sponsors to satisfy. More worryingly, the 45 minutes, no probs, had contracted to “15 minutes or so”, and by the time I got there, to “five minutes, if you’re lucky”. Radford introduced me to Basher Hussan, a former Nottinghamshire team-mate of Sobers (whom he still calls “captain”), and his companion and driver whenever he is in England. Basher conveyed the bad news that Sobers had that morning turned down an interview with Radio Five Live; he simply doesn’t enjoy talking to the media.
The great man arrived in the bar, to be greeted by the president and secretary of Blackwell GC. While they issued warm greetings, very nearly genuflecting, I couldn’t help wondering how many Afro-Caribbean or Asian members there are at Blackwell, which is, shall we say, a rather traditional golf club. However, their reverence did not seem out of place. Sobers is sporting royalty, and has an appropriately regal aura.
At first he was as dismissive of me as he had been of Five Live. No, no interviews. I persevered. Wheedled, might be a better word. OK, maybe just a few questions. But nothing personal or controversial. I duly started with the most innocuous opening delivery he has probably ever received. So many people garnered so much pleasure from watching him play (flattery invariably extends an interview, I have found), but who are the players he has most enjoyed watching?
“I don’t enjoy watching other people play, but there are some players I admire. I always admired Ted Dexter and Ian Chappell, and of my own players, Rohan Kanhai. Ted played with his bat; so did Tom Graveney. In the early days of my career a lot of English players I played against played with their bat-pad. Tom and Ted put bat to ball. And bowlers? I didn’t play a lot against Dennis Lillee, but I liked Fred Trueman very much. Those kind of guys were much harder to bat against on wickets where the ball moved sideways all the time. Today, when the ball moves, the batsmen are all at sea.
“It is a very different game now. In England, all the grass has gone from the wickets. In 1957 I went to Lord’s and sat up on the balcony for 15 minutes, staring. Everton Weekes came to me. He said, ‘Son, what are you looking for?’ I said, ‘Sir, I’m looking for the wicket’. He said, ‘You won’t see it until they put the stumps down’. I was used to wickets you could see your face reflected in. Now the green tops have gone.
“I would not enjoy playing in England now; it’s like everywhere else. And they don’t have wet wickets any more. Or a back-foot rule. Now they have a front-foot rule. You can only bowl so many bouncers an over, only have two men behind square. The bowlers are the ones who’ve suffered. I don’t like making comparisons between players of different eras, but if Bradman played today he’d be far better. Today, people are bowling from 22 yards. In those days they bowled from 20 yards with four leg slips, six bouncers an over, beamers were not called no-balls, on wet wickets. And when you lost time you didn’t make it up. Now they make it up, so batsmen have more chance of making runs.”
I asked Sobers about the pitiful current state of West Indian cricket, upon which he began to expound before deciding that he had said far too much and brought our exchange to an end. At that evening’s dinner at New Road, however, in front of a rather larger audience of 280, he was much more revealing.
“People have been asking me this question for a long time now,” he said. “And yes, West Indies cricket is not at its best. That’s the least I can say. But the idea that youngsters are playing basketball and baseball … you know, Richie Benaud started that rumour some time ago and I’d like to stand up and put it to rest.
“People make a mistake saying there is not a lot of cricket being played in the West Indies today. In fact, there is more than ever before. When I was a boy growing up, you either played for Barbados or you played for West Indies. Today we have an Under-13s, who recently came to England and won the tournament. We also have Under-15s, Under 18s, an A team, so where do we get all these cricketers from without playing cricket? It’s a myth. And if you look at the American basketball scene, can you name me two West Indian players?
“Baseball, we know nothing about baseball. Soccer, yes. Over the last 15 years lots of soccer players have come to play in England. If someone said to me that soccer is the reason for West Indian cricket falling so low I might think about it. But the real problem, ladies and gentlemen, and it is a problem for sport around the world, is television.
“I have two boys, both very good cricketers with all the attributes, but they never wanted to play because I was their father. You know, a great friend of mine played a long time ago for Worcester. He was called Ron Headley but nobody really knew his name, because whenever he was introduced it was as [the great West Indian batsman] George Headley’s son. My kids wanted their own identity, and I understand that. But they also wanted to watch TV.
“When they got home from school they would not go outside and play, they would sit in front of a video. That’s your real culprit. Kids do not organise games of cricket by themselves, playing outside morning, noon and night. Today, if it is not organised, nobody leaves home. They wait for you to pick them up, take them to the ground, give them the best cricket attire. The natural flow of the game has gone.”
Sobers gestured towards Tom Graveney, who was sitting in the audience. “I recall the days when Tom, myself, Sir Everton, played for nothing. The pride and honour of playing for your country was more important than what you put in your pocket. Today, that has gone. We have talent in the West Indies, but no pride. A team that has done nothing for the last 15 years, every time they sit down at the table, their representatives ask for more money. If you had executives working in your company who weren’t producing, you’d fire them. But these fellows don’t get fired; they ask for more money. And if they don’t get it, they strike.
“You know, I came to England [with the West Indies] in 1957. I had my 21st birthday here. We played 37 games that season. We played each county twice, the Scarborough festival, the Hastings festival, the MCC game, and it was like heaven. I got £5 a week. Today they play three one-day games in eight days and say they’re tired. They’re tired of making money, that’s what they’re tired of. I used to believe that practice makes perfect. If you don’t practise, you can’t achieve perfection, and then people wonder why the first ball goes to third slip…”
This crack, which I assumed to be at the expense of Steve Harmison (whose opening ball in last winter’s Ashes in fairness ended up in the hands of second slip), inspired a huge round of applause. But Sobers didn’t confine his eloquence to unfavourable comparisons between then and now; he also told some beguiling stories, in particular one about his last Test match at Lord’s, in 1973. Sobers was 31 not out at the end of the first day’s play. Clive Lloyd then asked him if he fancied going for a curry at the home of some Guyanese friends. He went, had a good time, and then progressed to the Q Club, a London nightclub owned by Jamaicans, where he met a pretty girl he’d already encountered in Birmingham, and danced with her until 4.30am. She then gave him the slip, so he went with another West Indian friend to Clarendon Court near Lord’s, for “a reminisce”.
“We drank until about 9 o’clock, then I got a cold shower, walked up to Lord’s, got my pads on and walked out as the umpires called play. I took guard, but all I could see as Bob Willis ran up was arms and legs. The first five balls I missed, and I could hear Rohan Kanhai and everyone else up in the pavilion laughing. Anyhow, the sixth ball hit the bat, and I got to about 70, but then my stomach started giving me problems. I got my hundred, then walked over to [umpire] Charlie Elliott. I said, ‘Charlie, I have to go’. He said, ‘Go, what for? I haven’t seen you get any injury.’ I said, ‘Charlie, I’ve held this in for 50 minutes, I can’t hold it any longer. Put down whatever you like. I gone…'”
He retired on 150 not out, and in the pavilion settled his stomach with glasses of port and brandy. One wonders whether the story of Andrew Flintoff’s pedalo adventure will one day provoke such delighted laughter in a posh marquee. Either way, Sobers brought the tent down with his surprisingly fine impression of John Arlott, commentating for Test Match Special after the scurry for the sanctuary of the pavilion: “West Indies 550 for 5, and Sobers yet to come…”