As defeat loomed ahead of World XI, Garry Sobers essayed one of the greatest innings ever seen in the history of the game. Arunabha Sengupta recalls the blistering 254 made at Melbourne that Don Bradman considered the greatest innings ever played in Australia.
Young Dennis Lillee had been ripping the vaunted World XI batting line up apart. Three weeks earlier he had demolished the side at Perth with eight for 29 in the first innings, taking nine wickets in a session. Whenever captain Garry Sobers had walked in, he had let fly a series of short pitched deliveries. The great man had gloved the third delivery he faced to ‘keeper Rod Marsh.
The series in 1971-72, arranged as a substitute for the cancelled South African tour that year, moved to Melbourne for the third ‘Test’.And there was no respite from the furious shelling. Graeme Pollock had flown in to add quality to the World XI batting. It did not matter to Lillee. He got Pollock, Sunil Gavaskar, Hylton Ackermann, Farokh Engineer and Sobers – for another duck – to take five for 48 as the visitors slumped to yet another low score of 184. The stars from around the globe were roundly criticised for a series of insipid batting performances.
Australia ended the first day on 58 for one.
That evening Sobers let his opposite number, Ian Chappell, know that he was taking the short pitched stuff seriously.
Sobers recalls: “I went in to bat in the first innings and Dennis came up with a short-pitched ball. I played a little bit early and Keith Stackpole picked me up at second slip. That evening I went to the dressing room where Ian was sitting and said to him, ‘You’ve got a boy here called Lillee. Every time I have gone in, all I have got from him is bouncers. I want you to tell him that I can bowl quick too, and I can bowl bouncers. So watch out for me when he comes in.’ “
The following day, Greg Chappell led the Australian reply with an attractive century, but Sobers, Tony Greig and Intikhab Alam bowled steadily to restrict the lead within manageable limits. Lillee came in with the score reading 285 for nine.
According to Sobers: “Tony Greig is like an elephant; he doesn’t forget anything. He came to me and said, ‘Why don’t you let him have it?’ I said, ‘Let him have what?’ He said, ‘Let him have the bouncer’. I ran up and I bowled this bouncer, and it whizzed past Dennis and he looked at me and he had turned completely pink. I knew by that time that I had got him.”
Lillee slogged the next ball straight up in the air and Bishan Bedi took a skier at mid-off. At the end of the day’s play, World XI stood at 42 for one in the second innings.
Sobers had gone in to the Australian dressing room yet again and Ian Chappell confided to him, “I’ll tell you something: when Dennis came in, before he reached the room, the bat hit the wall, and he said, ‘That little so-and-so, I will show him. I haven’t really bowled quick at him yet’.”
The legendary all-rounder replied, “Well, he’s got the ball, I’ve got the bat. I’ve never met the one who can scare me before, and I don’t think that I will.”
The next day, Sobers came in to bat at 146 for three. The lead less than fifty and the balance was still tilted well in favour of Australia. Lillee charged up and bowled short.
What followed was carnage. Sobers started with a blistering square-cut past point that sped to the fence at a rate almost approaching the speed of light. It set the tone for the day. When the ball was up, he drove – with timing and power beyond the capability of lesser men bound by the limitations of the mortal. When it was short and wide, he cut or drove off the backfoot with a ferocity that was primal in beauty and brutality. And when deliveries came rearing into his body, he rocked back to pull and hook, furious and fearless.
Lillee, Bob Massie, Terry Jenner and Kerrie O’Keefe combined into an intimidating attack. All of them were slaughtered with a blade that flashed in a manner both savage and sublime. The fast men were carted all around the wicket. The spinners were driven and lofted with uncanny quickness of eye and feet, and a thorough disdain for their length, line and reputation.
Everyone at the ground was aware of an exhibition beyond the ability and dreams of all but that one man on the planet, and there were plenty of great cricketers assembled for the match. The few hours at the crease saw dominance never witnessed before.
“I had three men square on the off side for the short delivery, and I remember him driving and cutting repeatedly between them. It was amazing stuff,” recalls Lillee.
With the second new ball, Lillee bowled a searing yorker on the off stump. Sobers square-drove it past point and O’Keefe hardly had time to react before it hit the cement and bounced back into the field.
“Any other batsman would have been bowled, but this bloke had the time to open the face of the bat and hit it past point,” recalled John Benaud, a minor character in the match.
There was another great stroke, a gem that shone brightly even in that dazzling display of fireworks. Massie bowled full and Sobers initially thought it was going to swing away from him. It turned out to be a late in-swinger. Sobers changed his shot halfway through the downswing, and instead of hitting it through the off-side hit it between Jenner at mid-wicket and Benaud at mid-on. The fielders saw the ball rocketing between them, stood rooted to the ground and shrugged.
By the end of the day, he was on 139 and World XI at a respectable 344 for seven. Ian Chappell trudged into the rival dressing room that evening. “I head over in his direction to congratulate him … just the two of us are in a quiet corner, and after I pour him a beer, he has a sip and then says, ‘Prue’s left me.’ Prue being his wife who lived in Melbourne in those days. I said: ‘Sobie, if that’s the bloody thing that’s annoying you so much, give me her phone number, and I’ll tell her to get bloody home straight away.’ You know, he just laughed. And it didn’t make any difference – he came out and belted us again.”
The carnage continues
The next day the merciless annihilation continued. Peter Pollock, who scored 54 and added 186 runs with his captain for the eighth wicket, went up to Sobers time and again, asking him not to give it away. There were runs on the board and Pollock was afraid that Sobers might get out to a loose stroke. However, the great left hander continued to belt boundary after boundary, with power and grace and sublime timing. When Lillee ran in with the third new ball, he was blasted out of the attack within a few overs.
The crowd stood as one to applaud each time he reached a milestone – hundred, hundred and fifty, double hundred, two hundred and fifty. And when he finally fell, lofting Greg Chappell down the throat of mid-on, he had scored 254. The Australian fielders clapped him all the way back to the pavilion. Lillee looked at Sobers and said, “I’ve heard about you and now I’ve got my tail cut properly.”
Sitting in the stands was the great Don Bradman, who thought it was the greatest innings he had ever seen in Australia. And he had seen quite a lot.
What happened next
Soon after the dismissal of Sobers, World XI were all out for 514. But the 414 run target was always going to be too much for the Australians.
They finished the fourth day strongly enough at 139 for three, but with the pitch taking turn, Intikhab Alam and Bishan Bedi worked through the tail. Doug Walters scored a century, but the World XI triumphed by 96 runs to level the series.
(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://twitter.com/senantix)