A stylish but powerful batsman, a bowler with a repertoire stretching from beguiling spin — two kinds — to sheer pace and a lithe, impassable fielder in any position, Sir Garfield 'Garry' Sobers was not only the greatest all-rounder ever or one who could do everything on the cricket field except umpire but an accomplished sportsman beyond cricket. There was however a tragic reason behind his prowess.
It also showcases his moral strength — and is inspiring for any sportsman.
Sobers, who turns 81 on Friday and is feeble but still alert and articulate, debuted in test cricket in 1954— in only his third first class appearance. Staying back in Britain after the 1957-58 tour to play country cricket on advice of mentor and close friend Sir Frank Worrell, he was next year involved in a major car accident in which his West Indian colleague, O' Neill Morgan 'Collie' Smith of Jamaica, was killed.
Sobers, who was driving, says in his candid autobiography "Twenty Years at the Top" (1988, 2003) that he was severely traumatised and "began drinking more" to the point that alcohol failed to have any effect on him. "Sometimes I would drink from one day to the next without even sleeping.." he recalls.
What pulled him back from this self-destructive path was a sobering thought.
"After a while, I realised that the West Indies had lost Collie who could have been a great cricketer and I would be letting my country down if I disappeared into the mists of an alcoholic haze. It suddenly struck me forcibly that I no longer had to play for Garfield Sobers.
"I had to do two men's jobs— Collie's and mine. The decision helped me put my life back together and I willingly took the burden on my shoulders. I started to bat and bowl for Collie and for myself, and that probably improved my cricket to the level I reached during my career!"
It certainly helped. Sobers played 93 tests for the Windies between 1954 and 1974, scoring 8,032 runs at an average of 57.78 with 26 centuries (highest 365 not out), took 235 wickets at an average of 34.03, including a half-a-dozen haul of five wickets or more (best 6/73) and 109 catches/stumpings.
While the various test records he set including the highest individual score and the maximum total runs, as well as the first ever six sixes in one over in first class cricket have been equalled or bettered, it was not easy. His 365 not out stood for 36 years before fellow West Indian Brian Lara broke it. There are only three men who surpassed it (Lara twice) and it is still the fifth-highest individual score.
But what statistics may not convey is the effortless grace that Sobers brought to his playing in any department of the game. As the West Indies captain 1964-1972, he notched up some significant victories, initiated the process that would make the team world beaters and showed sportsmanship at his best.
Of this, two examples that are the best was his sporting decision to declare in a Test during an England tour of West Indies in 1967-68, which enabled them to win the match and the series and willingness to concede the toss in a crucial match against India in 1970-71 when opposite skipper Ajit Wadekar insisted he had won.
And then he is the only man to captain an international cricket in two series, leading Rest of the World XI against England in 1970 and then Australia in 1971-72 to compensate for the cancelled tours of South Africa, which had been suspended for its apartheid policies.
Born in Bridgetown (Barbados) on July 28, 1936, Garfield St Aubrun Sobers was the fifth of six children and lost his father, a merchant seaman, during World War II. He showed his independent streak by removing, during childhood, an extra finger on each hand "with the aid of catgut and a sharp knife".
From a child, he exhibited his sporting skill, shining in any sport involving a ball, particularly cricket, football and basketball. Recruited in local cricket teams when 13, his skill impressed the captain of the police team, who offered him a chance in the 1951-52 season while he was still only 15.
The 12th man for Barbados in January 1953 in a match against the visiting Indian team, he suddenly got a chance to play after a player dropped out. It was a year to his second first first-class match — against the MCC.
His third appearance was in the test squad — as a bowler — and since then there was no looking back.