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Comment

Sobie, '73

Fifty-one years ago, one of the very greatest set Lord's alight

Mark Nicholas
Mark Nicholas
08-Jul-2024
Garry Sobers on his way to 150 not out, his final Test hundred, England v West Indies, Lord's, August 24 1973

Sobers made 306 runs and took six wickets in the 1973 series  •  PA Photos/Getty Images

He say, "Do you remember?"
He say, "Do you recall?"
I say, "Yeah, I remember,
Oh, I remember it all
"
- "Windy Town", Chris Rea
And I do, pretty much, remember it all. It was Sobers really, Sir Garfield Sobers. He was so good, it was ridiculous. Of course, Keith Miller, Imran Khan, Richard Hadlee, Kapil Dev, Ian Botham, Jacques Kallis - of course. But I promise, Sobers had them all covered.
Lord's, the summer of 1973. Just a boy. The Grand Stand, in a box, the guest of a senior figure in the British law and cricket hierarchies, Sir Oliver Popplewell; a lovely man, who after my father died when I was ten, invited me to Lord's for the Easter coaching nets. The next time he invited me was five years later to see my first Test match. His son was a friend of mine - Nigel Popplewell. We go way back to the scene at the time: flared trousers, long-sleeve flannel shirts, sideburns on every bloke in town, and more than a moustache or two. No helmets, and each bareheaded warrior a hero for being just that. We imitated these cricketers in the back garden and Sobers never failed to do something spectacular. In fact, as I also recall, Sobers was in the score book more than anyone else, ever.
I went to the first three days of the Test. A lot happened. Sobers made 150 not out in two parts. Rohan Kanhai, who could play more than just a bit, made 150-odd too. Sobers' two parts came because he had a monster hangover - or so the story goes - and when he got to 130, his tummy couldn't take anymore, so he asked the umpires for permission to leave the field. Apparently he said to Messrs Bird and Elliott, you can count me retired hurt or hurt, either is good with me! He felt so damn dreadful, he just didn't mind. Between 100 and 130, he had become unstable on his legs and somewhat breathless. He team-mates are said to have stood on the dressing-room balcony with howls of laughter as runs were notched with only a care for some sleep. Almost certainly Garry was their hero too.

****

I saw Sobers in his prime
Another time
another time
- Adapted from a short poem - very short, because that was it - about Len Hutton by the playwright Harold Pinter.
Actually I didn't see Sobers in his prime, not live. I saw him often on the telly, though, because he played for Nottinghamshire as well as West Indies. On this day at Lord's in 1973, he blitzed the English attack all around the old ground. He hit one straight boundary off Ray Illingworth that none of us saw until it sped up the little hill in front of the pavilion and into the brick wall. Sobers was breathtaking between backward point and bowler, driving and cutting . When he slogged, or pulled for that matter, to the on side, he almost swung himself off his feet. It was all utterly thrilling.
Kanhai was a strong little fellow with surprisingly big and determined strides. When they met in the middle for a yarn, Sobers - by comparison - almost slid across the turf with his short steps and languid gait. Heaven knows what they said to each other. Maybe "This is easy!" Which was exactly as it looked. Arnold, Willis, Greig, Underwood, Illingworth - easy! The five of them bowled more than 30 overs each; as if the captain, Illingworth, was sharing their pain equally. West Indies made 652 for 8 declared.
Kanhai went low in his strokes, sometimes square-driving with his right knee on the ground. Sobers stood regal, tall, as if he were above the humdrum, which he was. They hit 40 boundaries between them, laying the English field to waste. It is before me, set steady in my mind's eye. No helmets, no worries.
Oddly, Sobers had not been picked for the tour. The feeling was that age - it was around the time of his 37th birthday - and niggling injuries had got the better of him. Then the youngsters picked up injuries, and given he was in England for Nottinghamshire anyway, they called him in. Must be the greatest substitute sportsman ever.
For a start, none of the contestants for that title would have pushed the witching hours so hard. The hangover thing is worth a moment more. The Notts lads used to shove him out at night and try to keep him out. The worse he felt the next morning, the harder he tried, they said: in order not to let them down. He loved a drink and a party and often said that life was for living and that cricket was just a part of that living.
West Indies declared on the Friday afternoon and England were three down by the close. Wickets fell regularly the next day and the follow-on seemed inevitable until around about mid-afternoon, quite unannounced, the umpires suddenly whipped the bails off, pulled the stumps from the ground and sent the players from the field. There was pandemonium as the covers were rushed out, just about beating the spectators, who had invaded the playing area, to the pitch itself. Umpire Charlie Elliott had gone with the players but Dickie Bird stayed to guard the pitch. We were all told to leave the stands because there had been a bomb-scare call to the secretariat of MCC. Yikes! So off we all went, except for those out in the middle, the vast majority of whom were West Indian. It became quite funny: Dickie out there for England, surrounded by these Caribbean cricket lovers, who ribbed him rotten and didn't give a damn about the bomb. There were right not to. Nothing was found and play continued an hour and a half later.
The fun was by no means over, however. Following on, England lost Dennis Amiss and Alan Knott soon enough and still there were 40 minutes or so to bat. Geoff Boycott and Brian Luckhurst coped well, until calamity struck in the last over. Boycott, miffed that Luckhurst had turned down a single, began hooking wildly at bouncers bowled by Keith Boyce. It was if he had lost his mind. Kanhai took his time to rearrange the field and ensure Boycott noticed the deliberate placement of the man at deep square leg. He had read that confused mind perfectly. Next ball, another bouncer and Boycott hooked up and high and straight into the hands of Alvin Kallicharran, who barely had to move a muscle in completing the catch.
There was chaos then. We watched in astonishment as the West Indian supporters stormed the ramparts for the second time in the day. This time they came to celebrate with their compadres dressed all in white, and to taunt the Yorkshireman who had fallen foul of the old three-card trick. Boycott admirably resisted slapping any of them with his Slazenger but the sight of him pushing past these ecstatic fans as he ran towards the pavilion was never to be forgotten. In the Popplewell suite, we wondered about the atmosphere in the dressing room. Oh, such delicious asides.
Geoffrey talks well of this now, admitting that, for just about the only time in his career, he "lost it" and paid the price. On occasion in the commentary box, when he criticised a poor shot, we would show him this on YouTube and he would laugh with us at his daftness.
Over the years Geoffrey talked a lot about Sobers' bowling: that he could be quick - like, really quick, and swung the ball a lot and late. In general, Boycott found left-arm swing awkward and for a time was persecuted by Ekki Solkar, the Indian left-armer, who also caught anything and everything near the bat. But there is one ball that Sobers bowled to him that can still be found on YouTube and it's a crackerjack, Wasim Akram-type missile of a ball that would have done for most of those in Boycott's shoes on the day.
This greatest of all Bajans was a five-in-one cricketer, for he began Test match life as an orthodox left-arm spinner, having impressed for Barbados as a youngster; soon he turned himself into a useful left-arm wristspinner; always he caught brilliantly close to the wicket (and swooped elsewhere) as well as batted big and bowled fast. He was, and remains, a god-like figure wherever he treads those toes that once twinkled. To Sir Garry, we simply say thank you for a generation during which you shone as the brightest star and inspired us all - from Battersea to Bridgetown - to play the greatest game with a smile on our face.
Since then, well, where does one start? In 1976 Clive Lloyd's burgeoning team shocked the whole of England with its searing pace attack and dynamic batters. What Michael Holding and Andy Roberts did to men such as Brian Close - bareheaded still and previously battered and bruised by Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith in 1963 - beggars belief.
And then there was Viv; like Seve, just Viv will do. Enough said. And Roy Fredericks and Gordon Greenidge, and later Dessie Haynes; and Kalli and Larry and Jeffrey; and Joel Garner and Malcolm Marshall and Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh and Bish and Brian Lara. These were incredibly good cricketers and forged together for a period of 20 years or so during which West Indies ruled the world. Many of them Clive Lloyd bound as one, much as Sir Frank Worrell had done some years before. After Lloyd, came the Passion of Richards and all that therein lay.
It was, looking back, a remarkable time. A film was made of this era, Fire in Babylon, which was both thrilling and revealing. It centres on pace like fire, which there was, and the way in which the cricketers united the people of the many different Caribbean territories. The film was financed by two young Englishmen - Ben Goldsmith, brother-in-law to Imran Khan, and Ben Elliott, nephew of the Queen. Why? Because they loved what they saw. As did we all. Most of the players in that period played county cricket and it was our privilege to play with and against them.
But that time has moved on. The Caribbean is no longer besotted by cricket and the players of today have to live with the legend of yesterday. There are many reasons for this but they are not for now. Instead, we should think back to Brisbane some seven months ago when the West Indians pulled off a heist for the ages at the Gabba. Oh my, what a sight that was at the moment of victory when the quick bowler Shamar Joseph led a merry dance around much of the ground, having taken 7 for 68. As epic a celebration as we have seen and this from a young team with an enterprising style of play. Anyone good enough to beat the Aussies at the Gabba deserves respect.
Interviewed after the match, the gifted and exhilarated Joseph said, "I will always be available to play Test cricket, no matter how much money is out there." Amen to that and wouldn't Sir Garry have approved!

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, is a TV and radio presenter and commentator

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