Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Barbados' National Heroes - Sir Garfield Sobers

According to the Concise Oxford Dictionary, a hero is "a man noted or admired for nobility, courage, outstanding achievements ... a man of superhuman qualities, favoured by the gods".

One need only a glimpse of his career to note how aptly these terms apply to sports super-star Sir Garfield Sobers who, for 20 years, bestrode the cricketing world like a colossus, leaving millions gaping in amazement and admiration.

Destiny seemed to have chosen him from very early for great things, endowing him with the capacity to play with great skill almost any sport involving a ball, particularly cricket, football and basketball.

He was the fifth of six children born to Shamont and Thelma Sobers of Walcott Avenue, Bay Land, St. Michael.

Gordon Bell, author of "Sir Garfield Sobers", records that Garfield and his similarly talented brother Gerald helped their Bay Street Boys' School team to win the primary school Inter-School Cricket championship for three consecutive years.

By age 13, Garfield had caught the attention of Garnet Ashby, captain of the Barbados Cricket League (BCL), St. Philip team, Kent, and Denis Atkinson who played for the Barbados Cricket Association (BCA) team, Wanderers, (then located at Bay Land) and for the West Indies.

Ashby, who recruited him to play for Kent in the BCL competition, gave him his first opportunity to play cricket with "the big boys".

The opportunity to further hone his skills came by providing Wanderers cricketers, including Atkinson, with practice in the nets off of his seemingly effortless left arm spin bowling. It was there that captain of the Police team, Inspector Wilfred Farmer (a former Wanderers player and later Police Commissioner), saw him in action and shortly afterwards offered him a chance to play for Police.

By age 16, the prodigy was in the Police First Division team. That same year he was called to the Barbados trials for the 1952-53 tour by India to the West Indies. He made the team as 12th man, an honour for a lad in his first season of first class cricket, then getting his chance to play for Barbados when Frank King, West Indies fast bowler for the Test series, was forced to rest for the colony game.

At 17 years old, he made his international debut for the West Indies in the fifth and final Test against the touring English side in Jamaica in March 1954.

From such an auspicious beginning Garfield Sobers' 20-year cricketing career, took him to unforeseen heights, inspiring almost poetic praise from writers, broadcasters and his peers.

In Michael Manley's "A History of West Indies Cricket", the author describes Garfield as "the first complete Caribbean folk hero after George Headley". Australian fast bowler Keith Miller describes him as "a batting wizard" and "the complete cricketer", while renowned cricket writer E.W. Swanton in his book "Sort of a Cricket Person" writes: "There is a tradition of good sportsmanship in West Indies cricket, long established, which has never weakened. Gary Sobers is its perfect expression."

England's Trevor Bailey, who became a lasting friend of Garfield and who wrote a biography entitled "Sir Gary", said: "He could mishit and still score a six." Finally, renowned Caribbean writer C.L. R. James called him "this superb product of the modern age".

Sir Garfield's records, some of which still stand, include scoring in 1958 at the age of 21, an incredible 365 runs (not out) which stood for 36 years as the highest individual Test score ever made. It was erased in Antigua in 1994 by current West Indies captain Brian Lara who scored 375.

Another record is his sixth wicket stand at Lord's, in 1966, against devastating England bowling. He and David Holford responded to the attack by establishing a record partnership (posting 163 and 105 not out respectively). He was also the first batsman to score six sixes in a six-ball over in a first class match.

Sobers captained the West Indies cricket team for 39 matches between 1965 and 1972, the Barbados team in 1966 and 1967, Nottinghamshire from 1968-1971 and the Rest of the World for two tours - one of England and the other of Australia.

Altogether, he played cricket for Barbados for 21 seasons, English League cricket eight seasons, for Nottinghamshire seven seasons and for South Australia three seasons in their Sheffield Shield Competition.

Garfield was among the first personalities trying to integrate apartheid countries through sport by coaching black youths and playing in racist Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in 1969.

He was seriously criticised, mainly in the West Indies, for his actions. But his subsequent apology is all the more significant now that many players, including West Indians, have made a living doing the same thing in South Africa even before the end of apartheid.

Retiring in 1974 after his knee cartilage finally gave out, Garfield featured in another precedent when, in 1975, Queen Elizabeth II overturned tradition by dubbing him a Knight in an open-air ceremony at the Garrison Savannah instead of at Buckingham Palace.

In "100 Years of Organised Cricket in Barbados", historians Keith Sandiford and Ronnie Hughes accurately sum up this magnificent career.

They write: "When the cricket world discusses the greatest batsmen of all time the name of Sir Garfield Sobers features prominently in the debate. He is in that short-list which includes Bradman, George Headley and Jack Hobbs. When the greatest all-rounders are being discussed the debate is really about who should rank second behind Gary Sobers."

They rightly observe that Sir Garfield Sobers is "the star personality in the history of West Indies cricket" and that "he helped to make Barbados the strongest cricketing country in the Caribbean during its early period of Independence".

"He has inspired a host of youngsters to play the game and his influence can clearly be seen in the approach and mannerisms of his many imitators. As an international star lifting himself to the top by the magnificence of his cricket, Sobers has served as a role model to thousands of lower income Barbadian boys."

The authors continue: "He has been the role model also for millions of youngsters beyond the shores of Barbados. He is the single most popular of all Barbadians and he has taken our name to all parts of the world and covered it with glory."

This then is the significance of Sir Garfield's contribution to his country, a contribution that moves him from the realm of cricketing/sporting hero to that of national hero.

In the words of Sandiford and Hughes: "He is the embodiment of cricket excellence, and, as such, is one of our truly great national symbols. As a representative of the BCL, Police, Barbados, Radcliffe in the Central Lancashire League, South Australia, the West Indies and the Rest of the World, Sobers made enormous contributions to the growth and popularity of cricket. He richly deserved the engraving of his picture on a Barbados Independence Postage Stamp in 1966, the knighthood which Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II saw fit to bestow upon him in 1975 and the placing of his name on the Players' Pavilion at Kensington Oval.

"The name of Garfield St. Auburn Sobers will live forever in the fond memory of Barbadians and cricketers everywhere."

Truer words were never spoken - or written.

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