Muhammad Ali reading a newspaper © Getty Images
Muhammad Ali, two days after thrashing Henry Cooper © Getty Images

We all remember the Lord’s Test of 1966, thanks to Garry Sobers’ multiple autobiographies. An incisive 6 for 91 from Ken Higgs skittled out West Indies for 269. No Englishman got a hundred, but Tom Graveney and Jim Parks both scored nineties to secure an 86-run lead. Then Barry Knight struck, as did Higgs: West Indies were left reeling at 25 for 3. Rohan Kanhai and Basil Butcher staged a fight-back, but Basil D’Oliveira chipped in, and at 95 for 5 there was no way West Indies could come back into the Test. Then Sobers was joined by his cousin David Holford, at best a competent bowling all-rounder.

At stumps on Day Four Sobers was well past his hundred. By the time he declared on the fifth afternoon, the pair had put up 274 in 318 minutes, Sobers remaining unbeaten on 163 and Holford on 105. Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith reduced England to 67 for 4, but Colin Milburn’s belligerent unbeaten 126 meant England finished on 197 for 4.

Months before, as the West Indians had been preparing for the English before the tour, a different set of events had been unfolding in another part of the world. Cassius Clay had embraced Islam only of late. Journalists were still reluctant to use the name Muhammad Ali despite Ali calling Cassius Clay his ‘slave name’.

Clay’s first wife Sonji Roi, a waitress, had objected to several Muslim dressing-codes. The couple was divorced in January that year.

At the same time, Ali’s refused to become part of the Vietnam War (“war is against the teachings of the Holy Qur’an … We are not supposed to take part in no wars unless declared by Allah or The Messenger”). The resistance was resistance. Ali even called himself a ‘conscientious objector’. It did not go down well with the American Government. There were charges, and things would turn murky by 1967.

Henry Cooper and Ali (then Clay) had fought at Wembley on June 18, 1963. At that time Cooper did not even have a trainer, and was famously 27 pounds lighter than Ali when the bout had taken place.

Ali had always maintained that it was one of the toughest battles of his life (Cooper’s blows were so hard that “his ancestors in Africa felt it”). This was the match where Clay’s trainer Angelo Dundee illegally infamously used smelling-salt after Cooper knocked him out with a left hook in the fourth round.

Clay eventually won the bout. By the time they were pitted against each other three years later at Highbury, Clay (then Ali) was the defending world champion.

The fight was gruesome. A better-prepared Ali used his hands to grip Cooper like a vice; when asked to move away he took giant leaps, scarring Cooper severely every time. Cooper was ahead on the scores, but the repeated blows were too much for him to handle. He was knocked out in the sixth round. Cooper needed stitches, and even a plastic surgeon, to get his face back in shape.

While Ali was busy smashing Cooper’s face into a pulp, Sobers and Peter Lashley were making merry at Fenner’s. Cambridge succumbed to Holford (4 for 63 and 8 for 52), losing by 174 runs.

While the first day’s play was on (and Ali was winning against Cooper), MCC received a report on Griffith’s action during the Lancashire match that preceded the Cambridge encounter.

They drew against Yorkshire, thrashed Derbyshire by an innings (losing only 2 wickets in the match), and won the first Test at Old Trafford by an innings (Lance Gibbs took 10 wickets, Sobers and Conrad Hunte got hundreds).

Then Gloucestershire rolled them over for 151, and set them 285. Michael Carew led a frantic run-chase, and when time ran out West Indies needed a solitary run to win. Then they ran into Sussex and John Snow after a not-too-sober night.

It is not clear on which day Ali visited Lord’s, but he met the entire West Indian dressing-room. England were definitely batting, for Ali was impressed by Hall’s fast run-up and athleticism. He talked to the entire team before he took a bat (but not, presumably, a box), played some extremely original strokes (in the air, thankfully), and, stretched himself on one of the massage-tables in the dressing-room.

Four years later he would pay cricket a visit again, this time at Edgbaston. By that time his life would have changed completely.

(Abhishek Mukherjee is the Chief Editor at CricketCountry and CricLife. He blogs here and can be followed on Twitter here.)