Imagine a cricketer so absurdly talented that he could inspect a pitch and only then decide what he was going to bowl. A man able to bowl left-arm fast – and twirly ‘chinamen’, sometimes in the same match. Or orthodox left-arm spin against right-handers, or medium pace swingers if the overhead conditions suited.
The only man in recent times to have the genius to flip between bowling styles depending on the conditions and the opposition is Sachin Tendulkar, but he has almost always been a part-time partnership breaker and his bowling record – 37 wickets at 49 apiece in 126 Tests – confirms that. In fact, he has just two more wickets than Test centuries.
Australians, no doubt, will point to Andrew Symonds as a man who has bowled medium pace and off-spin in Test matches but they really shouldn’t. Brilliant one-day cricketer that he is, the fact that Symonds has been regarded as a Test match all-rounder ought to be a source of deep embarrassment rather than pride to Australian cricket lovers.
Sir Garfield Sobers collected 235 wickets at an average of 34 during his 93 Test matches and he did so bowling whatever was most appropriate at the time. Nobody else has ever done that in Test cricket because, as any modern day Test cricketer will happily tell you, the skills required to do so are as divergent as those required to conduct a symphonic orchestra and fly a helicopter.
The greatest all-rounders in the history of Test cricket have been worth two players to their team. What made Sobers unique was that he was worth three. If the West Indies needed an extra batsmen and were forced to sacrifice an opening bowler, then Sobers could open the bowling. And they never needed to pick a specialist spinner because their best batsman was one. If they needed a second spinner, Sobers could be that, too.
His batting was devastating. His maiden century just happened to be an unbeaten 365 and his average (57.78) would have been even higher had it not been for the constant temptation to hit the ball out of the ground. Of modern day ‘greats’, only Adam Gilchrist displays equally scant regard for statistics and records, hence the Australian ‘keeper’s regular appearance up the order when quick runs are required. He, like Sobers, would much rather lose his wicket cheaply in the thrill of a run chase than make a solid 35 not out.
The point about remembering the genius of Sobers is to help quantify the achievement of Jacques Kallis in becoming only the second man to match his staggering feat of scoring 8000 runs and taking 200 wickets in Test cricket. Many cricket statistics can be made to say whatever you want them to say, but the career numbers of Sobers and Kallis are just too overwhelming to argue about.
Tests Runs Average Wkts Average Catches
Sobers 93 8032 57.78 235 34.03 109
Kallis 102 8020 56.08 200 31.61 98
As similar as their careers look in numbers, however, their styles, personalities and cricketing characteristics were completely different, which is neither a criticism nor a compliment, merely an observation. Just as South African fans long to see a more ruthless Kallis with a deadlier, match-winning instinct, there were times (‘though not as many) when West Indian fans would have enjoyed a shade more solid, dependable reliability.
Both men also caught just about everything that came their way and both are passionate and dedicated golfers. (The last I heard Sobers was still playing off a single figure handicap at the age of 69.)
On the second evening of the final Test against New Zealand, after Kallis had dismissed Stephen Fleming to claim his 200th wicket, I called him to ask for his reaction. His telephone was switched off. As per ICC regulations!
Ten minutes later he called back.
“It’s an incredible honour to be associated with a man like him,” he said. “It hasn’t really sunk in. It’ll probably mean a lot more to me when I’ve stopped playing, when I can sit back and look at my career and ‘okay, that wasn’t too bad.’ But it’s a small club, that’s for sure,” Kallis said with a chuckle.
Warming to his theme, Kallis tackled the subject of his fast-medium away swingers compared to Sobers’ ability to bowl anything.
“Excuse me,” laughed Kallis, happily taking the mickey out of himself, “I have bowled leg spinners in a Test and I’ll prove my ability to bowl off-spinners…the next time we find ourselves in a ‘dead’ Test!”
He did, indeed, bowl two overs of leggies against New Zealand on the infamous glued pitch at Eden Park in Auckland eight years ago…including one delivery that bounced twice before reaching the batsman and another that bounced onto the upper tier of the main grandstand.
There always were, and always will be, some things that only Sobers could do.
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