August 24, 1973. Garry Sobers started drinking early on the previous evening and the party carried on till half past nine in the morning. And then he showered and put his pads on. Arunabha Sengupta remembers the unbeaten 150 at Lord’s scored through hangover and stomach cramps.
“I rarely went to bed at a normal time because I am one of those people who can have four or five hours’ sleep and still wake up fresh. It was well known I liked a drink after play. My philosophy was that life is for living… I played hard and drank reasonably hard on occasions. I had to make sure those late nights could continue by maintaining a consistently high level of performance.”
No one doubted the Garry Sobers take on life and cricket, least of all the bowlers who were taken apart by his rapier of a blade. However, he was 37, had not been picked for a home series against Australia after injury problems, and had come off a rather mediocre season of county cricket for Nottinghamshire. He was playing for West Indies that summer only because a string of injuries had left the tourists short of players. One could have been forgiven for expecting him to be just a little more human.
Sobers had scored fifties at The Oval and Edgbaston, but his brilliance had not really gushed forth in the same spectacular proportions as in the earlier tours of England. And as West Indies went to Lord’s one up in the series, and captain Rohan Kanhai won the toss and batted, Sobers played second fiddle to the skipper’s 156 not out as they ended the first day at 355 for four. The left-handed legend ended the day unbeaten on 31.
The night of merrymaking
While the West Indies team returned to the Clarendon Court Hotel, Sobers was approached by Clive Lloyd for a night out. Never once in his career did Sobers say no to an evening of entertainment. It was against the very core of his being. They dined with some Guyanese friends in London, and hooked up with former off-spinner Reg Scarlett in a nightclub. The drinking, interspersed with dancing, went on and on, the evening gradually stretched and stretched till it was four o’clock in the morning and the sun was starting to peep through the other end of the sky.
By then, Sobers was past any need to sleep. “I have so much liquor in my head that if I go home to the hotel and go to bed, I am not going to wake up,” he confessed to Scarlett. So, as the most obvious alternative, they went to Clarendon Court for some more drinks and to talk about the good old days.
Sobers writes in his autobiography: “We drank until about 9 o’clock, then I got a cold shower, walked up to Lord’s, got my pads on and walked out as the umpires called play. I took guard, but all I could see as Bob Willis ran up was arms and legs. The first five balls I missed, and I could hear Kanhai and everyone else up in the pavilion laughing. Anyhow, the sixth ball hit the bat.”
They continued to find the middle of the bat, the head cleared of the fumes of drink and along with Bernard Julien he put the English bowlers to sword. But other problems were raising their uncomfortable heads. A ‘churning pain’ gripped his stomach, and several times he considered retiring as he neared his century. The sun beating down did not really help his cause. He battled on till an hour after lunch, when on 132 he could not take it anymore. Turning to umpire Charlie Eliott he said, “Can I go off?” The surprised Eliott asked what for and Sobers responded, “Charlie, I’ve held this in for 50 minutes, I can’t hold it any longer. Put down whatever you like. I gone…”
Once he was inside the dressing room, Sobers told Kanhai that his stomach was ‘giving him hell’. “The only thing that’ll help me now is a port and brandy mixed,” was his self healing prescription. As Keith Boyce walked out to join Julien, the drink was prepared and he downed it in one gulp. Kanhai looked at him and called, “Bring him another brandy and port. But make it a big one this time.”
Sobers rested for a good hour or so; Bernard Julien and Boyce added 76 in the meantime. When Julien was dismissed for 121 furious runs with two sixes and 18 fours, he was ready to return. Sobers hit his way to 150 before Kanhai declared at 652 for eight.
The next day, his forced retirement was deduced as ‘minor stomach ailment’ by most newspapers. It was anything but minor. The innings however sparkled enough to make all his misdemeanours irrelevant. It had ‘all the panache in attack and style in defence which makes him as handsome a batsman as we have ever seen… the splendour of his innings lay in the arc between cover point and mid-off’, wrote John Arlott in The Guardian.
Some hostile bowling by Boyce, Julien and Vanburn Holder skittled England for 233 and 193, giving West Indies an innings win within four days. According to Wisden, “Soon after lunch thousands of West Indians were dancing around the outfield to celebrate victory after a match that was embarrassingly one-sided.” Sobers did not bowl much in the game, hampered by a dodgy knee.
As a result of the humiliation at Lord’s Ray Illingworth was sacked as the England captain and was replaced by Mike Denness.
The Lord’s hundred was the 26th and last century of the great career of Garry Sobers. He played just one more series, at home against England the following winter, and did not really enjoy a great time with the bat.
West Indies 652 for 8 decl. (Roy Fredericks 51, Rohan Kanhai 157, Clive Lloyd 63, Garry Sobers 150*, Bernard Julien 121; Bob Willis 4 for 118) beat England 233 (Keith Fletcher 68, Tony Greig 44; Vanburn Holder 4 for 56, Keith Boyce 4 for 50) and 193 (Keith Fletcher 86*; Keith Boyce 4 for 49) by an innings and 226 runs.
(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twiter.com/senantix)