On March 19, 1968 Garry Sobers made an extremely curious declaration against England. Abhishek Mukherjee looks back at a decision that cost West Indies a Test and a series at home.
On the morning of March 19, 1968 nobody in Port-of-Spain had the slightest idea about what the day had in store for them. West Indies were, after all, leading by 128 with all 10 wickets intact, and a draw was the only possibility on the cards. The pitch was flat, and none of the England bowlers had been able to create any sort of impact on the West Indies line-up (that included the likes of Garry Sobers, Rohan Kanhai, and Clive Lloyd) in the first innings.
Only that Sobers thought otherwise.
But that should come late. Let us go back to the lead-up first.
The first four days
With the series poised at 0-0, the West Indians dropped Wes Hall for the fourth Test at Port-of-Spain. Sobers won the toss and decided to bat, and Steve Camacho and Joey Carew put up 119 for the first wicket. Even after they were dismissed, there was no respite as Seymour Nurse (136) and Kanhai (153) both scored hundreds, and added 273 for the third wicket. Lloyd and Sobers also joined in the fun, and Sobers finally declared the innings closed at 526 for seven on the third morning.
England, too, had a solid start in response, with John Edrich and Geoff Boycott putting up 86. Hall’s absence hurt West Indies badly, and the fact that Charlie Griffith injured his leg after three overs did not help. England, just like West Indies, had an imposing third-wicket partnership (133 runs) between their captain Colin Cowdrey and Ken Barrington. After that, things looked a bit precarious at 260 for 5, but Alan Knott helped Cowdrey put up 113 for the sixth wicket, going past the follow-on mark. Sobers then asked Basil Butcher to bowl his leg-breaks, and he picked up the last five wickets, including Cowdrey’s (148) in a single spell. Knott remained stranded on 69, and Butcher finished with five for 34. Surprisingly, these were his only wickets in Test cricket.
When Camacho and Carew walked out to bat on the fourth evening, any possibility of a result was ruled out. They finished the day at six without loss, 128 runs ahead.
The fateful Fifth Day
Camacho and Carew batted on calmly, apparently in no kind of hurry. Once again they put up a good opening stand — this time worth 66 runs, before John Snow removed Camacho. Nurse was run out with the team score on 88, and then, when Carew was eyeing his fifty with Kanhai for company, Sobers declared for the second time in the Test — on 92 for two — just like that. What made the declaration even more bizarre is the fact that the batsmen weren’t warned beforehand, and neither were they asked to accelerate at any point of time.
England were supposed to chase 215 for a victory in 165 minutes. Sobers later mentioned: “I made that declaration for cricket. If I had not done so the game would have died. This way the West Indies could have won. England had never scored at forty runs an hour during the tour and I did not expect them to do so then.”
The great man had chosen to ignore several facts during the declaration:
- The wicket was still very flat.
- The English batsmen were used to chasing in their domestic circuit.
- England had a very strong batting line-up, consisting of a few all-time greats like Barrington, Cowdrey, Boycott, and Tom Graveney.
- They did not have Hall, and Griffith was ruled out of the Test.
- Sobers himself had not taken a single wicket in the first innings, and his ace spinner Lance Gibbs had taken one.
- Butcher’s five-for was a fluke — he was not a bowler by any standards — and his performance was more of an exception than an example on the track.
All in all, it boiled down to two options: an English victory, or a draw. West Indies were simply not in game anymore on the placid track without Griffith against some quality batsmen.
Sobers’s biographer Trevor Bailey, though, has a different viewpoint: “Sporting declarations in Test cricket like Garry’s in Trinidad, which give the opposition a chance, are very rare.” He added “Declarations of the type made by Garry at Port-of-Spain must improve the game as a spectacle and give those watching value for their money.”
We can only wonder to what extent the local spectators found their money worth after the day’s play.
Sobers opened bowling with Gibbs, and Boycott and Edrich provided England with another solid start, adding 55 in 19 overs. This was only the third time in the history of cricket (and the second time in less than two months) that all four opening partnerships in a Test had resulted in fifty-run partnerships.
Cowdrey joined Boycott when Willie Rodriguez clean bowled Edrich with his leg-breaks. England went to tea at 75 for one, requiring 140 more in 90 minutes. Sobers had used Carew and Butcher, but to no avail. He had to rely on the three specialist bowlers available to him — Gibbs, Rodriguez, and himself.
In the England dressing-room, meanwhile, there was a commotion of sorts going on. In Graveney’s words, “Colin [Cowdrey] wasn’t sure if we should keep going for the runs. Just before tea, Willie Rodriguez had bowled two or three really good overs at Kipper [Cowdrey] and he hadn’t got the runs he thought he should have.”
There was an argument, voices were raised, and Barrington insisted that England should go for the chase. Boycott, not known as an aggressive chaser, argued: “Sobers has given us a real chance. Now let’s go and make a bloody crack at it.”
Thus prepared, Boycott and Cowdrey launched a furious assault on the West Indies spinners. It did not help that Sobers did not believe in wasting time, and West Indies had been bowling at 21 overs an hour. The two of them took the score to 173 in just 18 overs, and when Cowdrey was finally caught by Sobers off Gibbs, he had scored 71 in 75 minutes, studded with 10 fours. The target had been reduced to 42 in 35 minutes now, and victory was in sight.
Graveney fell cheaply as Gibbs went past his defence. Cowdrey promoted Basil D’Oliveira over Barrington, and it was then that Boycott took command. He smashed Gibbs for two fours in an over, and 200 came up with 18 minutes to spare. He had timed his innings to perfection. David Brown, the English fast bowler, later commented: “That afternoon we saw a glimpse of what he could do. He played brilliantly and I thought, if you played like that all the time you’d be an absolute revelation.”
Boycott saw England through with three minutes to go. Gibbs had two balls left in his unfinished over, which meant that England would have had another over in hand. All in all, it was a convincing victory, masterminded by Boycott, and suitably supported by Cowdrey. Boycott eventually finished with an unbeaten 80 from 162 minutes with seven boundaries.
Sobers was ostracised all over West Indies, and the West Indies press literally tore him apart, asking for his resignation. Desperate to prove a point, he tried his best to level the series in the final Test at Bridgetown with 152, 3 for 72, 95 not out, and 3 for 53, but England got off with nine wickets down in the fourth innings when time ran out, claiming the rubber.
West Indies 526 for 7 declared (Rohan Kanhai 153, Seymour Nurse 136, Steve Camacho 87) and 92 for 2 declared lost to England 404 (Colin Cowdrey 148, Alan Knott 69 not out, Geoff Boycott 62; Basil Butcher 5 for 34) and 215 for 3 (Geoff Boycott 80 not out, Colin Cowdrey 71) by 7 wickets.
(Abhishek Mukherjee is a cricket historian and Senior Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He generally looks upon life as a journey involving two components – cricket and literature – though not as disjoint elements. A passionate follower of the history of the sport with an insatiable appetite for trivia and anecdotes, he has also a steady love affair with the incredible assortment of numbers that cricket has to offer. He also thinks he can bowl decent leg-breaks in street cricket, and blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in. He can be followed on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/