Garry Sobers bowling © Getty Images
Garry Sobers bowling © Getty Images

With the English batsmen proving clueless against the left-arm wrist spin of Kuldeep Yadav, Arunabha Sengupta documents the past and present exponents of the art of the Chinaman (oops, left-arm wrist spin) in international cricket. In this episode he covers Garry Sobers, whose versatile genius included this style of bowling in his repertoire as well.

Garry Sobers was a phenomenon.

As a batsman he was undoubtedly the best in the world in his day, certainly the most sublime attacking strokeplayer. Till this day he stands as one of the most supreme wielders of the willow across the entire history of the game.

And as a fielder, he could pouch half-chances in the slip, and at leg-slip grab even those which did not register as chances at all. If, for the sake of variety he was placed in the covers, he could chase like a greyhound and pick up and throw in one action, searing, flat and accurate. He was undoubtedly the greatest all-round fielder of the era.

As a bowler, there have been many better, but few as versatile. He could take the new ball, run in quick and make it dart about. When the ball was older, he could spin it in time honoured orthodox manner. And, to suit the purpose of this series of articles, he could resort to turning it from the back of his hand, sharply and in both ways.

8,032 runs, 235 wickets and 109 catches in 93 Tests. That takes some doing.

When he made his Test debut it was as an orthodox left-arm spinner. Young Sobers had the ability to maintain accuracy through long spells. He did not turn the ball much, but varied his length, and mixed the straighter one amongst his normal breaks.

That was before he scored his maiden Test hundred, a knock that finally amounted to a world-record 365 not out.His role in the team changed, as well as in world cricket. And he went on to make 26 Test centuries. But that is another story.

As a fast-medium bowler, he could be quite nippy off his 11-step run up. Neil Harvey once said that on occasions Sobers could be faster than Wes Hall. His bouncer was indeed more difficult to pick since it accompanied no change in his action. Not many batsmen could successfully play the hook off him.

His natural ball was the in-swinger, and it moved quite a way. Geoff Boycott fell prey to his late inswing quite often, the ball trapping him leg-before multiple times. Yet, he sometimes wasted the new ball swinging it too much and too often down the leg side. His out-swinger did not possess that extravagant amount of movement, but could straighten or leave the bat just enough to pick up an edge.

While playing club cricket in England with Radcliffe, Sobers added the other dimensions to his bowling. The back-of-the-hand Chinaman bowling helped him purchase appreciably more turn. Often even the wicketkeeper went the other way to his googly. His shoulder, however, fell prey to his bowling the wrong ’un too often.

It is difficult to estimate how many of his 235 Test wickets and 1,043 First-Class scalps were obtained with left-arm wrist spin. But, it was a rather substantial percentage, more so in First-Class than in Tests, and significantly greater proportion in club cricket where he experimented more often.

No bowler could lay claim to the amount of versatility Sobers brought to the table, switching between styles according to the conditions.