On the evening of July 28 this year, Kensington Oval was filled to capacity with local and overseas cricket fans who came out to honour “the greatest cricketer the world has ever seen”.
It was Sir Garfield Sobers’ 80th birthday. Cricket stars past and present also staged a T20 charity match to mark the occasion.
It was only fitting that the celebrations were held at Kensington Oval, for it was there that a 16-year-old Sobers tried out for the Barbados team on the tour against India. He made the squad, marking the start of his first-class career. Up until then, he had only played at the local level, with the Wanderers Club and the Kent St Philip Club .
The all-rounder made his Test debut a year later, against England at Sabina Park in Jamaica, playing most of his matches as a bowler.
At age 21, the Bayland, St Michael resident made history when he became the youngest player to set a Test record, scoring 365 not out in Jamaica against Pakistan. He broke the score of 364 set by England’s Len Hutton 20 years earlier in 1938. Sir Garry’s record remained unbroken for 36 years until another West Indies great, Brian Lara, scored an unbeaten 375 in Antigua in 1994.
During his 20-year career, Sir Garry went on to stamp his authority on the gentleman’s game on several other occasions, and also played for overseas teams, notably Nottinghamshire and Australia.
In 1968, he scored six consecutive sixes in an over bowled by Welsh cricketer Malcolm Nash when Nottinghamshire, captained by the Barbadian, played Glamorgan in Swansea.
In 1971, he thrilled cricket fans once again when he smashed 254 in the Rest of the World against Australia.
He succeeded Frank Worrell as West Indies captain in 1965, leading the team in 39 Tests against Australia, England, India and New Zealand. He held that position for seven years until he handed the reins over to Rohan Kanhai in 1972.
Throughout his career, Sir Garry played 93 Test matches, scored 8,032 runs, and took 235 wickets and 109 catches. It is an achievement that Prime Minister Freundel Stuart described as “a legendary all-round performance for any Test cricketer”.
In his first-class career, meanwhile, he amassed 28,315 runs, scoring 85 centuries. He also took 1,043 wickets and 407 catches.
In 1975, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for his contribution to the sport.
It was those achievements that local, regional and international cricketing players and fans came out to celebrate as Sir Garry entered his eighth decade of life this summer.
Prime Minister Stuart made no attempt to disguise his admiration of the island’s only living National Hero when he recalled the West Indies tour of England in the summer of 1966, months before Barbados gained Independence.
Sir Garry’s men handed England a 3-1 defeat, but according to Stuart, it was not the triumph of the West Indies that mattered to Barbadians but rather Sir Garry’s performance as “he dominated that Test series in a way that was unprecedented and certainly unparalleled”.
“In the first Test at Old Trafford he scored 161. In the second Test at Lord’s, he scored 163 not out. In the third Test at Trent Bridge he scored 94, and in the fourth Test at Headingly he scored 174. And in the fifth Test at the Oval he scored 81. Add to that, the fact that he took 20 wickets in that series and took ten legendary catches,” Stuart said.
President of the Barbados Cricket Association Joel Garner reminded the audience that for his exploits on the pitch, Sir Garry has been globally recognized as a genius.
“Some have described him as the embodiment of West Indian cricketing excellence . . . . It is difficult to imagine another of equal ability gracing us within the next century,” Garner said.
Lara was grateful for Sir Garry’s inspiration to many a young player, including himself.
“Standing in front of you, today, is one person who has received so [much] support from Sir Garfield. I remember coming here as a schoolboy to play in the Sir Garfield Sobers tournament and I got a few runs, and I heard through the grapevine that the great man was impressed. There is no greater inspiration for any young man when he hears that Sir Garfield Sobers was impressed. To me, after that point, the sky was the limit,” the Trinidadian recalled.
At 80, Sir Garry remains one of Barbados’ treasures. A roundabout, the sports complex in Wildey, and a pavilion at the Mecca of cricket all bear his name, and it is not unusual to see visitors posing for pictures next to the 12-foot bronze statue of the great man.
As Lara said: “Some of us have been lucky enough to go past the score of 365, but none of us will ever surpass the impact Sir Garfield had on the game of cricket, the cricketing world, the West Indian diaspora, and us as West Indians.”