The incomparable CLR James delineated the context of cricket in the socio-economic upliftment of the Caribbeans and its role in uniting a bunch of islands, politically independant and diverse, in his magnum opus, Beyond a Boundary. A seminal work of art given the shape of a book on sports, Beyond a Boundary is not really a book on the intricacies of the game; it is rather a first-hand narrative of the West Indians, a superb study on history, sociology and economic regeneration of the downtrodden, the deprived and the suppressed.
Coming to the cricketing content of this book and cricket in the islands lavished by the sun, greenery and the lashing sea waves, one’s mind is transported to the cricketing exploits of their extraordinary and extravagant cricketers. When we think of Sobers, we recall his expansive drives off a high backlift, his versatile bowling – compared to a bag of dry fruits by the great Jack Fingleton- and his stupendous gazelle-like athleticism and phenomenal catching close to the wicket. Simply put, the greatest performer that the game has seen in over 140 years of test cricket.
The stats of Sobers are mindboggling; he scored 8032 runs at an average of nearly 58 with 26 centuries in 93 tests, his first coming in his 17th test match – a triple century that broke all records- a total of 232 wickets and 109 catches. In a career that spanned two decades, amidst the pressures of high expectations, amidst the strain and attrition of constant playing, he scaled the highest peaks of excellence with consummate ease. Here was a man who hit six sixers in an over, who demolished Lillee with a stunning 254 at the fag end of an illustrious career and batted divinely with blissful ignorance of the record books over a very long period of time. The only allrounder to retire from test cricket with the highest aggregate of test runs, he batted like a champion; indeed, he strode to the wicket like a champion with his slightly bent walk, shirt collar unbuttoned at the chest and had an aura about him that few can dream of.
I return to CLR since the emergence of Sobers has to be understood in the greater historical perspective. Yes, he was a special talent that graced many a cricket field but he was not deprived of the opportunities that afflicted and abridged the careers of his predecessors. His predecessors shaped the future of Caribbean cricket and sculpted a statue out of hard, uneven rock. Let us take the case of George Challenor. The few photographs we have of this cultured batsman reveal his class and technical perfection. He played only three tests in 1928, the first test series played by the West Indians. He never played test cricket again, losing out to Father Time. The likes of Learie Constantine and George Headley both suffered at the dawn of West Indian cricket. Constantine was the first truly great cricketer to emerge from the islands in the sun. His electrifying fielding, aggressively fast bowling and exhilarating batting set the Lancashire league on fire. Yet, he was badly hampered by two factors, one avoidable the other unavoidable. Racism deprived him of greater and better opportunities and World War II destroyed his career just when the Caribbeans were playing tests more frequently. Talking of War, none was more adversely affected than George Headley, popularly known as the ‘Black Bradman’. A contemporary of the great Don, he would have flowed on an on had not War played such a cruel part. The first cricketer to score two centuries in a Test match at Lords(in 1939), Headley ended up with a staggering 10 centuries in only 22 Tests playing against the formidable Englishmen and Australians. He mastered Grimmett in a way very few cricketers can dream of. The quintessential professional, he ended up with an average of over 60 for a heavily losing side. The war took away from his career six vital years and proved a greater obstacle than racial bias. Indeed, there has been many a debate over whether Bradman should be nicknamed “White Headley”!
The arrival of Worrell on the scene was no accident but an evolution of the free spirit of the locals and the gradual diminution in the weight of the white colonialists. It was an explosion that was bound to take place but Worrell’s persona made it look like a smooth take over. A great player and captain and one of the most iconic human beings to have graced this planet, Frankie made the West Indians function as a unit representing the ethos of the islanders and their cavalier, happy go lucky spirit that had been shackled for so long. Yet, the man himself was refined, graceful and bore no malice towards his oppressors. West Indies cricket had come of age!
It took 4 years and 14 tests for Sobers to notch his first three-figure knock, but what an innings that was! It was a mind boggling, breathtaking triple century that smashed the world record for the highest individual score in Test cricket. His 365 at Kingston against Pakistan will be talked about for the drama that surrounded its build-up like a crescendo, an ocean of runs starting out as a stream that promised more in the years to come. And Sobey did not disappoint; another 25 centuries in 79 tests to justify his position as a premier batsman of his time and of all times. This century to test ratio is one of the highest in case of a batsman who has played 50 or more tests for his country. Sobers arrived at the scene after the Caribbean cricket had matured otherwise his career would have been nipped in the bud; he had not scored a test century in fourteen tests and history reveals many a batting genius who had failed to blossom owing to the intolerant and prejudiced policy of the colonialists.
It was not just the quantity but the manner in which he batted that will be talked about. He has lived his life to the full, enjoying the parties, savouring the wine and participating in the dances. On the field, he made the bowlers dance to his tune, batting in a cavalier fashion decimating the opposition with ease. The pressures of an expecting public and captaincy did weigh him down and made him adapt; the results were equally breathtaking – a series of tons, including big hundreds shepherding the weak tail with great success. It is perhaps true that his performances as a batsman were so great that his bowling got less attention.
Time marches on but certain endearing images remain forever – that of Sobers smiting Nash for six sixes,batting at Brisbane in 1960-61 or at Lords’ 1973,destroying Lillee with Bradman commenting and marvelling at his batting, running from slip to third man to catch Kunderan at Eden Gardens. The magic is in the talent of spontaneity and unbridled gaiety. He was a true cricketer from the islands in the sun, an epitome of greatness, a supremely evolved cricketer yet freakish. We salute him on reaching 80 years a few days back.