His home is around 2,000 km from Jamaica but whenever there is a Test match at the Sabina Park, the old and the nostalgic never fail to recall that 365 which kicked off a chain of record-breaking feats topped by one that is still held by a West Indian. And at a time when the team is perceived to be too Bajan, Sabina Park is one place that remains committed in its love and unilateral support for Sir Garfield Sobers.
On Friday, Barbados and Kensington Oval ushered in his 80th birthday with a week of festivities but here, at his favourite ground, Sobers was not forgotten. The West Indies team sang ‘Happy Birthday’ for Sobers while Anil Kumble, Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma, Jason Holder, Darren Bravo and Carlos Brathwaite wished him a long life on Twitter. He might be inactive on Twitter but the messages will sure make their way to him.
Often, former players become a recluse with time but Sobers has this inborn ability to remain contemporary cutting across generations. To the T20 generation, he is the man who had hit six sixes and also someone who lauds the Caribbean Premier League for encouraging players to be positive and play shots that can be introduced in the longer format. Venerated as possibly the greatest all-rounder, Sobers has magical figures at his disposal to still wield his charm over people who actually watched him play. And he also remains one of the few who could do pretty much anything a captain could ask for.
A great watch
“His ability to do anything with the ball and then bat in the middle order made Sobers a great watch,” said 78-year old Selbourne ‘Sellie’ Mitchell, who has watched every match at the Sabina Park since 1955 barring one day when he had fractured his arm. “But I had seen him more closely when he used to play for Kensington Club. He joined as a young boy who could bowl spin and bat a little bit. No one could have predicted he would go on to make that record,” said Mitchell, who too played for Kensington Club for 22 years, while watching the Indian team train. “And he never failed at Sabina Park. This was one special ground for him. Everybody used to root for him here,” he said.
“As a 17-year old he batted at No.5 in the Barbados team that played India in a first-class game one time. And that team had batsmen like Conrad Hunte and Clyde Walcott. He still batted at No.5. The four persons before him were legends. But he was 17! And he could bowl orthodox spin, chinaman and a medium pacer in seaming conditions. This was brilliant. Not many people could do that at that time. In England he was considered a knowledgeable player,” said Johnson.
While the unbeaten 365 Sobers had made against Pakistan was one for the record books, Johnson, like many locals, rated another innings higher. “The 365 was great but that Pakistan bowling attack didn’t have variety since only two (Fazal Mahmood and Mohammad Khan) bowled most of the overs (85.2 and 54 respectively) as the rest were injured. I feel his best innings was that 147 against England here in 1960 that saw a dramatic draw and some crowd disturbance as well,” said Johnson.
Inside the Kingston Cricket Club bar, Sobers’ name is prominent among the many who had made centuries at Sabina Park. Sobers though rules the hearts of people who call them fortunate enough to see him play. “It seems like just yesterday I had seen him bat his team out of trouble,” said Johnson. That’s what remains core to the memories of Sobers here --- being there for the team when he was needed most. “He made only one duck in 19 innings at the Sabina Park. But you can’t even call that a failure because in the second innings he made an unbeaten century (113 n.o) against England (in 1968). How can he not be the best ever?,” asked Johnson. Not many could argue with that.