The greatest all-rounder of all time turns 75

Last Updated: Thu, Jul 28, 2011 05:38 hrs

Gary Sobers turns 75 today and it is to be hoped that he is physically fit to celebrate it wherever he is. Even his magnificent physique could take only so much and an overload of cricket over a 20-year period did take its toll, the knees being particularly vulnerable. The greatest all-rounder of all time graced international cricket from 1954 to 1974 and during this period notched up the kind of feats that would otherwise be the subject of fiction books.

All-rounders have cornered much of the attention in cricket, right from the days of WG Grace. The cricketers who can bat and bowl with equal dexterity have often been portrayed as the game's most romantic figures. Think of the great all-rounders in cricket right from the early days - Giffen, Noble, Hirst, Rhodes, Armstrong, Faulkner, Sinclair - and a clearer picture of this image will emerge.

Woolley in the twenties and Constantine in the thirties added considerable lustre to the image of the all-rounder. But it was the advent of Miller in the forties that seemed to give the word all-rounder its true and ultimate meaning. For a decade, Miller, a colourful personality, was the apotheosis of the great all-rounder and one thought that the standards he set would be hard to surpass.

Until Sobers appeared on the scene. He started his career even as Miller's was on the decline. But this was the time when he was primarily a slow left arm bowler. In fact it was in this role that he played his first Test against England as a 17-year-old in March 1954, picking up four for 75 in the England first innings and going in at No 9 in the batting order.

He however worked on his batting and played a few more Tests going in the middle order or even opening the innings. But in his first nine Tests, he had only one half century and the figures registered against his name in his first Test remained the best. There seemed absolutely no indication that he was to become an effective all round cricketer and in fact greater things were predicted for his colleague and close friend OG 'Collie' Smith.

Then came the series against Pakistan in early 1958. Starting off with scores of 52, 52 and 80 in the first two Tests marked Sobers as a promising batsman but what effect that would have on his bowling, in which he seemed to hold out more promise, was being discussed.

Sobers ended the debate in the most regal manner possible in the third Test. In scoring 365 not out, he not only registered the highest score in Test cricket but from now on it became clear that his batting would attract more attention.

But while his batting improved - enough for him to be ranked as the best in the world - Sobers did not neglect his bowling. In fact he worked on it so well that by 1960 he was the leading all rounder in the world, ahead even of Alan Davidson. Moreover he had added new skills to his repertoire as a bowler and now could bowl fast medium, orthodox left arm slow and even the Chinaman.

Throughout the sixties, Sobers did enough to warrant the supreme elevation - from the greatest all-rounder of his time to the greatest all-rounder of all time. His feats were stupendous. Taking five wickets in an innings in a Test and scoring a century on two occasions. Scores of 152 and 95 not out and six wickets in a match. On numerous occasions did he get a hundred and take three or four wickets in an innings.

And finally, the supreme all rounder's supreme performance - 722 runs and 20 wickets in the series against England in 1966. This was the peerless cricketer's golden summer. Three hundreds, scores of 94 and 81 thrown in along with a regular bagful of wickets and ten catches complete the picture. Even the Gods were kind to Sobers as West Indies, under his captaincy, took the series 3-1 and he won the toss in all five Tests.

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This was the time Sobers superseded Miller as the game's greatest all rounder. Miller had the dynamic touch of being able to change the course of a match in a short time, by scoring a quick 50 or taking two or three quick wickets. Sobers went one better.

Probably, the prime example of this came about in the second Test against England in 1968. West Indies were obliged to follow on and on a spiteful wicket, Sobers rescued them with an unbeaten 113. Ten minutes later he was back on the field, opened the bowling and dismissed Boycott and Cowdrey in his first over.

And so he carried on, scoring plenty of runs and a number of centuries till, with 26 hundreds in Tests, he had only Bradman to beat. And he also went on taking his regular bag of wickets till he had 235 in his 93 Tests. Eighty five of them were successive games, a tribute to his fitness, besides his skill, till knee surgery kept him out of the series against Australia in 1973.

And yet at 37, he found the stamina to score 150 not out, his last Test century. For a long time he held the record of most runs scored in Test cricket, with his tally of 8032 runs being broken by Boycott, who played 30 innings more, only in December 1981.

A player of his gifts, skill and class was naturally in demand and Sobers was the first jet age cricketer. He was a professional who plied his trade round the year, playing for Barbados in the West Indies, Queensland in Australia and Nottinghamshire in England. His dynamic qualities inspired Nottinghamshire, for long a struggling side in the county championship, to rise rapidly and his six sixes in an over from Malcolm Nash in 1968 is well documented.

Old timers in England viewed Hirst and Rhodes as the greatest players of their time while those in Australia thought the world of Giffen. When Miller was at his peak, the experts said there would not be another all-rounder like him. Sobers proved them wrong.

But we of his generation, who have also lived long enough to cherish the feats of the great all rounders since then, Botham, Hadlee, Kapil, Imran and Kallis, are left with no doubt that the cricketing world will never again see the likes of Garfield Sobers.

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