Sobers as Lethal as Amiable: A Bajan Man Extraordinary

Michael Roberts

Garfield St. Auburn Sobers was born on the 28th July 1936 with six toes and six fingers. This natural feature had nought to do with his extraordinary sporting accomplishments. In truth, it was a bloody nuisance. Get six toes and try putting on boots! It was not till he was in England playing in the Lancashire League that Trevor Bailey helped him secure operations which removed those unwieldy hindrances. That is one account from solid Bajan sources, though a note in cricinfo from Dan Liveman asserts that the ‘extras’ were removed immediately after his birth. From little acorns great oaks of yarn grow!

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Young Sobers: From an early age Gary Sobers displayed extraordinary talent in a wide range of sports: basketball, soccer, table tennis and snooker for instance. He was one of the best young goalkeepers in Barbados at one point. His table-tennis was so good that the top Bajan (i. e. Barbadian) players got him down to practice against for hours (moved by competitive jealousies about each other). Later, Sobers also developed his golf to an excellent level.

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Stamina & Persistence: These natural talents were honed and supported by determination and application. Young Sobers used to spend hours running on deep sandy coastal stretches to develop his fitness. When playing in England he used to skip for 40 minutes when the weather was unsuited for jogging. In brief, assiduous method and discipline was added to genius.

Such stamina extended to his night-time pursuits. In adult days he would play dominoes and drink rum through a night and proceed through to the next day as fit as anyone else. This capacity, one imagines, was carried through to his ball-room enjoyments and his liaisons with vivacious women. As one knows, anecdotal tales, sometimes fanciful but mostly true, accrue around twinkle-toed, daring-do cricketing men of the Compton-Miller-Sathasivam-Sobers type. One story tells us that captain Bradman spotted Miller in a tuxedo walking into their hotel on the morning of a Test match… and that Miller met his quizzical stare with customary aplomb. Another tells us that Sathasivam arrived at a cricket ground in his suit and dancing shoes, showered, and proceeded to haul his side out of a difficulty with a century that day.

Bajan Cricket & Its Minefields: Even for those talented, climbing high in the West Indian cricket world was not a foregone conclusion. The cricketing scene in Barbados in the pr-war and immediate post-war eras was dominated by the Bajan Whites and by certain clubs. The best cricketing clubs were Wanderers, Pickwick and Carlton. White bias and/or club prejudices could restrain a career.

Gary’s elder brother Gerald and his younger brother Saul were both talented cricketers. Gerald was also a talented wicket-keeping batsman, but his progress into the Barbados team was blocked by the presence of a good keeper who was also playing for the West Indies; and when their father died Gerald took up a mercantile shipping job in order to support the family. Wikipedia tells us that at one point Gerald and Gary “helped their Bay Street Boys’ School team to win the primary school Inter-School Cricket championship for three consecutive years.”

The majority of pacemen in Barbados in the 20th century extending to the 1950s were Black or Coloured, while a fair proportion of the best batsmen were White. In their keenness to outshine each other the top clubs used to hire Black/Coloured bowlers as net bowlers. As a teenager Gary, the left-arm spinner, was a net bowler.

“When he was 13, he was recruited to play for two cricket teams in the Barbados Cricket League — the Kent St Philip Club, and the Wanderers.  “Garnet Ashby, captain of Kent St Philip, told him that this was his opportunity to play cricket with “the big boys”(Wikipedia). Ashby seems to have been one of his mentors, but Everton Weekes (b. 1925 and still ‘batting’ today) must surely have been as a role-model. Weekes, as most cricketing aficionados know, was a quick-footed maestro as a batsman.

Young 16-year-old Sobers was invited to the Barbados trials as a promising left-arm spinner and made his debut against an Indian touring team at Kensington Oval, Bridgetown, on 31 January 1953: he left an impression with 4/50 and 3/92. At 17 he batted at No. 5 against an MCC touring team and scored 46 and 27. His talent was recognized and his third first class match was for the West Indies in the Fifth Test vs England at Sabina Park in Jamaica. This was because Alf Valentine had fallen ill. Come in Sobers, Spinner. He batted at No. 9 and scored 14 n. o. and 26, while gaining 4 scalps for 75 in the first innings in a match that England won by nine wickets.

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Sobers The Paceman: Till I read the Wikipedia biography I was not aware that Sobers’s early career had been a struggle. Aged 19 when he touring New Zealand in early 1956, he struggled on the green pitches, scoring “only one half century, and averag[ing] 29.33 with the bat.”

In his early years, Gary Sobers as bowler was mostly a versatile left-arm spinner whose orthodox spin was supported by a googly, arm-ball and a thinking mind. But his versatility is revealed in his ability to switch to pace bowling. I believe this virtuosity was developed during the famous West Indian tour of Australia. For reasons of the type that have been the bane of West Indian cricket from time to time, two of the fastest pacemen of that day were not selected. Two of the pacies selected, Dewdney and Watson, were so limited that Frank Worrell sometimes opened bowling with his left-arm in-swing in support of Wesley Hall. But Skipper Worrell also persuaded Sobers to bowl as a paceman when required. In Joe Hoad’s opinion Sobers was almost as quick as Hall.

As the cricketing world knows, that tour of Australia in 1960/61 was as pulsating as momentous. The famous tied Test at Brisbane was followed by an Aussie victory at the MCG, a West Indian triumph by a thumping 220 runs at Sydney, a drawn Test at Adelaide and a close Australian win by two wickets at Perth. Sobers’s big ‘marks’ were 132 in Brisbane, 168 in Sydney and 5 for 122 at the WACA in Perth. As a consequence of this tour Sobers and Kanhai played for South Australia in the domestic season that followed in 1961/62. In Adelaide Sobers had an enormous impact on attendances, causing an 89% increase with gate receipts rising” two and a half times” (according to Harte quoted in Wikipedia).

His Cricketing Statistics: As recorded by ESPNcricinfo, the summary figures are

Batting and fielding averages

Mat Inns NO Runs HS Ave BF SR 100 50 4s 6s Ct St
Tests 93 160 21 8032 365* 57.78 26 30 109 0
ODIs 1 1 0 0 0 0.00 6 0.00 0 0 0 0 1 0
First-class 383 609 93 28314 365* 54.87 86 121 407 0
List A 95 92 21 2721 116* 38.32 1 18 41 0

Bowling averages

Mat Inns Balls Runs Wkts BBI BBM Ave Econ SR 4w 5w 10
Tests 93 159 21599 7999 235 6/73 8/80 34.03 2.22 91.9 8 6 0
ODIs 1 1 63 31 1 1/31 1/31 31.00 2.95 63.0 0 0 0
First-class 383 70789 28941 1043 9/49 27.74 2.45 67.8 36 1
List A 95 4387 2393 109 5/43 5/43 21.95 3.27 40.2 4 1 0

But do statistics tell us what is best and sharpest! Surely not! One needs men with cricketing acumen and story-tellers. Still there are special statistical moments: when Sobers made 365 runs not out against Pakistan at Sabina Park in 1958 to create a new Test Match record; when he hit Malcolm Nash for six sixers in one over at Swansea;[1] and when he scored 254 runs for the Rest of the World against Australia in 1971 in a manner that awed the Don (Dan Liveman).

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Gary Sobers the Coach: In an extraordinary lapse Wikipedia fails to note that Gary Sobers coached Sri Lanka in the early 1980s. Sri Lanka secured entry to Test status only in 1981 – partly on the success of their teams in the previous decade, partly through the conversion of Australia in 1981[2] and largely through the strategic cum-tactical political work of Gamini Dissanayake,[3] a Cabinet Minister in the UNP government who was also President BCCSL.[4]

Dissanayake felt that having the world’s greatest allrounder as coach would be a boost for the fledgling side in a tough arena: it would provide the necessary confidence. I have still to discover HOW he managed to approach and win over Sobers. It is possible that a friendship with Rudi Webster when Dissanayake was briefly at Cambridge[5] provided one line of persuasion. Sobers’s appreciation of Sathasivam[6] and his cricketing visit to Sri Lanka in the 1960s may also have been an influence supporting his acceptance of this imposing task.

In surmise it could be said that cricketers extraordinary, men of genus, do not make good coaches. They are so extraordinary that they cannot guide those ordinary. Presented otherwise, the surmise is that they do not bring method into their ways of coaching. Coaching, in this view, is about system. Coaching is about method – at least in good part.

A genius is a kind of madman, not a method man. A genius might inspire, but only fitfully. A method man will instill, drill consistency into practice and get players mentally attuned to their tasks.

In further assertive surmise I would indicate that Ian Botham would not be a good cricketing coach. Then there was Vivian Richards the disastrous flop as coach was there not.

So, how did Sobers fare as Sri Lanka’s coach? Sidath Wettimuny, who played under Sobers, is enthusiastic in his evaluation: He “definitely gave us confidence” and everybody benefited—he charged us up.” Moreover, his “reading of cricket pitches was quite incredible” – thus a lesson in itself. He “did not muck around on the technical side,” saying that our techniques were decent enough.

Lanka’s cricket lore also tells us that it was Sobers who pushed young Arjuna Ranatunga (b. 1st December 1963) into the Test side as a youngster, but the records show that Ranatunga at the age of 18 was elected to play in the inaugural Test match against England in February 1982 before Sobers arrived.

Sobers was coach when Sri Lanka visited New Zealand for one Test and then played their inaugural Test vs Australia at Asgiriya in Kandy from 22-26th April 1983. Sri Lanka lost both these matches by an innings. It must not be forgotten, however, that the rebel tour of South Africa had taken some of their experienced players beyond the pale. The bowling stocks were especially depleted following the loss of Lalith Kaluperuma, Ajit de Silva and Tony Opatha.

Sobers coached the squad taken to England for the Third World Cup series in May-June 1983.

  • 1st Match Pakistan v Sri Lanka at Swansea – Jun 9, 1983, Pakistan won by 50 runs (Pak 338/5; SL 288/9)
  • 5th Match: England v Sri Lanka at Taunton – Jun 11, 1983, England won by 47 runs (Eng 333/9; SL 286)
  • 10th Match: New Zealand v Sri Lanka at Bristol – Jun 13, 1983, New Zealand won by 5 wickets (with 20.4 overs remaining) (SL 206; NZ 209/5)
  • 15th Match: Pakistan v Sri Lanka at Leeds – Jun 16, 1983, Pakistan won by 11 runs (Pak 235/7; SL 224)
  • 18th Match: New Zealand v Sri Lanka at Derby – Jun 18, 1983, Sri Lanka won by 3 wickets (with 7.1 overs remaining) (NZ 181; SL 184/7)
  • 21st Match: England v Sri Lanka at Leeds – Jun 20, 1983, England won by 9 wickets (with 35.5 overs remaining) (SL 136; Eng 137/1)

It must have been a difficult tour, though the results are not surprising. The more intriguing question is why Sobers’s coaching spell was so brief. This issue has to be chased down through more painstaking inquiries and one may perhaps have to throw the horrible July pogrom directed at Tamils into this ‘ring. black july-- sundayleader1983 riots–Pic from Sunday Leader

However, all Sri Lankan cricket fans will be delighted that Sobers is back in the island this month of October 2015, albeit briefly, and has been mightily recognised through the Sobers-Tissera Trophy for cricket between the Caribbean isles and the little island in the Indian Ocean. Cricket Luv’ly Cricket … we love cricket.

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He is now, of course, Sir Garfield Sobers, being the youngest ever Bajan knight when he was so honoured by Queen Elizabeth in the  1975 New Year Honours. It is just typical of Sobers that this august benediction has not gone to his head. Even during his halcyon days that Bajan man Sobers was always approachable and would not to talk down to young school kids. He was/is amiable to all and sundry, passers-by as well as those known to him. He knew — and still knows — what it was, and is, to be born middling poor working class.

ADDENDUM, 31 October 2015: Sidath Wettimuny also recalls that at one point when Sobers was coaching them he said that they (the SL cricketers) could e world beaters in ten e years. Wow! What a forecast!

arjuna aravinda



[1] The fifth hit was caught on the boundary but the fielder fell over the rope! He was the first in the history to do so. Since then, Yuvraj Singh and Herschelle Gibbs have done so.

[2] I was in Sri Lanka in1981 when the Aussie team enroute to England toured on research work and saw the first two ODI matches at Moratuwa and the SSC: Australia won by a whisker at Moratuwa courtesy of a rain delay and was beaten convincingly at the SSC, in the 2nd match and won the third when Kent caught Madugalle on the boundary to prevent a winning six. Sri Lank had fielded virtually two different sides in the first two matches. These performances and that in the test Match at the P Sara Oval won over the Australian manager.

[3] As Minister in charge of the Mahaweli Development Project, Dissanayake had built up a strong connection with a British firm Balfour Beatty. That corporation and Maharajas backed Dissanayake’s lobbying campaign in England in MCC circles. Wine and Dine (and Tea!) would seem to be a vital ingredient in moving mountains!

[4] See

[5] Dissanayake completed a Cambridge (not discovered quite when).

[6] See Roberts, Essaying Cricket. Sri Lanka and Beyond, Colombo, 2006, for several pictorial images of such moments.


Felicitation of Sir Garfield Sobers by Sri Lanka Cricket

PublishedAdd to on Oct 29, 2015

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