“Did I entertain?”
Garry St Aubrun Sobers never asked his fans that question. The answer would indisputably have been an emphatic, unanimous, unqualified yes. Those three words actually came out of the mouth of Brian Charles Lara at the end of a stellar 18-year career.
Sobers, a West Indian sporting personality quite unlike any other, served the West Indies for two years more than his illustrious left-handed successor.
His cricketing talents were massive, his service was long, his on-the-field contribution to West Indies cricket immense. Not unlike Lara, he bestrode the West Indian cricketing world like a colossus for a decade and a half. Both piled up impressive numbers and littered the landscape with records along the way.
And yet, post retirement, this faithful servant of the Caribbean game waited in vain for the call to serve the region in some other capacity.
For many, the reason remains a major mystery.
No chance of a link to the overly generous 1968 declaration in Trinidad that handed Cowdrey’s side an undeserved 1-0 series win, is there? Didn’t Clive Lloyd, who has served in diverse capacities post-retirement, also declare and lose against India in 1976—also at the Queen’s Park Oval?
Or might the answer be found in Chapter 19 of Sir Garry’s eponymous autobiography, bearing the title ‘Out of Africa’?
The worst period of my cricketing life came in 1970, Sobers writes, when I accepted an invitation to play in a double-wicket competition in Rhodesia, as Zimbabwe was then known. I was there for 36 hours but it caused massive repercussions that threatened my reputation and my international cricket career.
In the short term, there were no serious consequences to this arguably injudicious deed. A willing surrogate penned an apology—it was readily accepted by the powerful people who professed to be most offended.
Their number included both Jamaica’s Michael Manley and Guyana’s Forbes Burnham, huge cricket fans.
In the long term? Who knows…
The mystery, it seems, entire endures.
Maybe there is a clue hidden in the subsequent chapter of the same text, titled ‘Strictly Personal’. I quote here a single paragraph. Does it tell us why the WICBC and its iterations never saw it fit to involve Sobers in any aspect of West Indies cricket?
I admit that I was a law unto myself, but everything I did, I did for West Indies. If I had to bowl all day for them, I would and did. West Indies cricket did a great deal for me and the only way I could give something back was by performing to the best of my ability, not for me but for the team.
That was my way of showing my gratitude. I knew that if I performed, it would benefit me too, but West Indies were always first and I was second. (emphasis mine)
He performed, he says, “to the best of my ability. Not for me but for the team.” And he omits to mention it but, in so doing, he also memorably managed to lift a few young players above themselves.
Two examples. The second innings of the Lord’s Test in July 1966. Sobers is in his second series as captain. David Holford, his cousin who left us at the end of May, is in his first series, his second Test.
When the pair come together, West Indies are teetering on the brink at 95 for 5.
Eventually, the skipper is able to declare at 365 for 5. Sobers is 163 runs to the good. The 26-year-old Holford has an unbeaten 105 to his credit.
Lord’s, August 1973. Trinidad and Tobago’s Bernard Julien, 23, bats right hand and bowls left-arm pace and spin. He was being widely being touted as the next Sobers. For his entire generation, there was no higher compliment you could pay a West Indian cricketer.
So, in only his third Test, he walks to the wicket to join his skipper. The score reads 373 for 6.
When they are finally separated, the scoreboard shows 604—eventually enough for an innings and 226-run West Indian victory. Sobers’ contribution is 150 off 227 balls, Julien’s 121 off 171 balls.
It is now many years since the Holford/Julien generation, inspired directly by the sight of Sir Garry in action, has exited stage left. For their successors, inspiration has had to come from stories of his storied career.
Not unlike a number of other West Indies legends, Sir Garry has always been kept at arm’s length. For him, active post-retirement duty was limited to a stint with Sri Lanka in the lead-up to the 1983 World Cup. No West Indies duty. No West Indies service.
A man with ideal qualifications to be an excellent sole selector has never been invited to serve the WICBC. Or the WICB. Or CWI.
Not so much as a visiting lecturer.
The statue that adorns the vicinity of Kensington Oval and the stand in his name are “gifts” from the Barbados Cricket Association. From the West Indian Board? A trophy named after him to be contested between Sri Lanka and the West Indies beginning in 2015.
Full-stop. Unless I am severely mistaken. Perhaps he has been receiving a generous pension from CWI. Or from WIPA. But if that is the case, it is an extremely well-kept secret.
In reporting on the send-off arranged for Shane Warne at the MCG in March this year, the Telegraph’s Chief Sports Writer, Oliver Brown observes thus:
Warne, named one of Wisden’s five players of the 20th century despite playing long into the 21st, has been immortalised in bronze at the MCG since 2011. But now his name will endure, too, in the eponymous stand unveiled here.
“The stand of the people,” McGuire declared. “The Shane Warne Stand forever.” It gives an appropriate permanence to a sporting personality quite unlike any other.
A bronze statue? An eponymous stand? A cricket ground? So far, CWI and their predecessors have failed to give Sir Garry his due. Now, having just celebrated the occasion of his 86th birthday, the authorities must make atonement for that.
Appropriately, therefore, the last word goes to a calypsonian.
“We ought to know how to bridge the gap,” Explainer sang plaintively in 1982, never looking beyond his own country, “because there are people who put us on the map…”
Misquoting him, I say, “No, no, no, no, no, no, WI ought to know, WI shouldn’t treat our heroes so.”
It is high time WI find a way to “give appropriate permanence” to a West Indian “sporting personality quite unlike any other.”
Editor’s Note: Click HERE to read read Part One of Earl Best’s tribute to cricket’s unique ‘six-tool player’ Sir Garry Sobers.
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