Happy Birthday, Sir Garry

Like many other BARBADIANS, Sir Garry Sobers was of the Jean Jacques Rousseau naturalist school — innately endowed with genius in every sport tried.

Sobers by name he may be. But it is a complete misnomer. For, I seriously doubt whether there has been a single sober humdrum moment in Sir Garfield St. Auburn Sobers' 70 years — an anniversary which he celebrated on July 28th. Few cricketers have been as gifted, as versatile and as entertaining as he was. Merely to see him emerge from the pavilion, on those celebrated wonky knees, and walk to the wicket with that rolling gait worthy of his merchant seaman father, presaged approaching batting excitement or bowling and fielding fireworks.

Like many other Barbadians, Sobers was of the Jean Jacques Rousseau naturalist school — innately endowed with genius in every sport tried. By the time he reached his 16th year, he had represented his island home at cricket against the touring Indian team. One year later he played against Hutton's England side in Kingston, deputising for left-arm spinner, Alf Valentine and batting — mirabile visu — at number nine! Rapid promotion in the batting order took him to the number three slot in the space of four years — from which position he broke Hutton's former world record of 364 with a stunning 365 not out against Pakistan.

Throughout his 28,315-run, 1043-wicket career, records flowed off his bat and through his fingers. He averaged more than 50 with the bat in Tests: a rare feat. Adopting and captaining the English county of Nottinghamshire, he exacted maximum tribute from one six-ball over from Glamorgan's slow left-arm bowler, Malcolm Nash. Playing at the MCG for the World XI against Australia in 1971/72 — a surrogate series for a cancelled South African rubber — he reduced the home attack, including Lillee in his pomp, to sheer impotence with a majestic knock of 254.

To his dying day, Sir Donald Bradman avowed that Sobers' innings on that bright January day was the finest he had ever witnessed. Sobers drove Lillee off the backfoot as though he were a slow bowler. One shot in particular I recall — straight hit which Lillee tried to stop with his foot. Had he succeeded both his foot and his Test career would have been amputated!

Garry Sobers gave a new meaning to the term all-rounder, both within and outside his specialist field of cricket. He trod the broad highway of versatility blazed by men like England's Charles Fry and Australian Vic Richardson. Fry represented England at soccer, won a Cup Final medal playing for Southampton AFC and held the Olympic long jump record for 21 years! Vic Richardson was Australian skipper when Bradman was unavailable — and the grandfather of future Aussie captains Ian and Greg Chappell. He was a formidable sportsman in his own right, playing baseball for Australia, golf for his state and being competent in lacrosse, basketball and swimming. Sobers was not out of place in such elite company and represented Barbados in soccer, basketball and golf, which he made more difficult by playing it exclusively with irons! His greatness, however, shone through on the cricket field, where he re-shaped, revolutionised — one might say re-invented — the role of the all-rounder, rolling into one player of an eleven the five competences of a number six batsman, close-to the wicket fielding, pace-bowling and finger and wrist spin. In addition he raised the bar on the standards demanded of Test all-rounders.

It was said that the advent and popularising of the limited-over game created multi-faceted players: batsmen skilled in their own discipline who could also bowl a bit; bowlers who could bowl dot-balls and score the useful 30 with the bat; and players endowed with fielding athleticism. Mistakenly these criteria were thought to produce competent all-rounders. Personally I believe that the one-day game bred a host of "bits and pieces" cricketers: men who batted and bowled a bit, fielded well but never reached international standards in either of their two major disciplines.

The evolution and achievements of star all-rounders such as Wilfred Rhodes, Jack Crawford, Jack Gregory, Learie Constantine — and latterly, Vinoo Mankad, Imran Khan, Ian Botham, Kapil Dev, Richard Hadlee, Mike Procter, Mushtaq Mohammad and Malcolm Marshall — gave new meaning as to what constituted the quintessential international all-rounder. This was once described to me by England's Trevor Bailey, himself a competent all-round performer, as: "a player who can win and hold a place in a Test team as both a batsman and bowler alone" — presuming that he was not a fielding tragic like Monty Panesar!

There have been all-rounders whose single gifts have approached, sometimes equalled, but never at least in one person, surpassed, those of Sobers. The name of England's match-winner Ian Botham immediately springs to mind; but his bowling lacked the differing styles of a Sobers: a reservation which also applied to Garry's fellow-countryman, the elegant Sir Frank Worrell.

Other all-rounders such as Australian Alan ("the Claw") Davidson, outshone Sobers in the field and equalled him with the new ball, but lacked his class with the bat. None of the Aussies: Richie Benaud, Ron Archer and the Chappell brothers, possessed the distinctive flair with either bat or ball which made Sobers "Great." And whilst the Englishmen Basil D'Oliveira and "The Boil" Trevor Bailey, were endowed with the stubbornness which served their country well in times of crisis, they could in no way be described as dynamic.

This leaves Keith "Nugget" Miller as the only cricketer left in my experience, capable of rivalling the variegated talents of Garry Sobers. An inspiring and vibrant force, Miller could change the momentum of a game in the short space of half a dozen overs: something which even Sobers could not always guarantee. Miller could intersperse an over of express deliveries and bouncers with a couple of perfect "wrong 'uns" or off-spinners; his batting was straight, forceful, and never unenterprising; his catching was like that of a conjurer: and his nimble brain was forever embellishing a match with the unexpected tactic. But because Sir Garry has just had a birthday, I am going to award him the birthday present of: `Primus inter Pares' "The First Amongst Equals".

Happy Birthday, Sir Garry!