There can’t be many Tests with such an unexpected twist as that between England and West Indies in Port of Spain, 52 years ago this week. Here’s Bruce Barber in the Guardian at the end of day three, under the headline “A disgrace to the name of cricket”: “In the mid-afternoon hours the only critical problem was to decide whether the batting or the bowling plumbed the lower depths …
“Some devil’s brew was served at lunch, for after that the name of cricket was tarnished. Carew, a second-change off-spinner who would be lucky to get on most Saturdays in league cricket, was allowed to bowl 13 overs, of which 12 were maidens, for one run and one wicket. The leg-breaks of Rodriguez were a distant approximation of that mystic art which Wright or O’Reilly would have disdained to own, so high was the proportion of full tosses and long hops and even no-balls. From 35 overs, 35 runs were struck.”
Two days later: “England defeated the West Indies in the fourth Test today in one of the most stirring finishes ever to thrill a cricket crowd.”
In between: the declaration, an act of cricketing alchemy that turned what was ghastly into gold.
West Indies were 92 for two, 215 runs ahead with a draw apparently guaranteed, when Garry Sobers called them in, giving England 53 overs to knock off the required runs. This was, to be fair, an England team that rarely scored anything but slugglishly, and had almost capitulated when Sobers tried a similar trick in the second Test, but this time they clicked into gear. The finish line was crossed with three balls to spare, and Sobers took the blame. That night an effigy of the West Indies captain was hanged and burned in Port of Spain, and his reputation never recovered. “That declaration and result followed me for the remainder of my career,” he grumbled.
Much of the most interesting moments in that series happened, like the declaration, off the field of play. During the fifth day of the second Test a riot erupted in protest at Basil Butcher’s dismissal, leading to an 80-minute delay and the plentiful if imprecise use of tear gas. “The police threw their gas bombs straight in the path of the prevailing north-east winds,” Alan Ross wrote in the Observer. “As a result, those whom they wished to flush out escaped almost scot-free while the players, the TV cameramen, the cowering members and their friends in the pavilion were obliged to undergo the mild equivalent of a Somme gas attack. Tear gas is a very unpleasant business, scorching both eyes and lungs, and I don’t recommend it.”
After that game, like the first, was drawn England moved to Barbados, where during preparations for the third Test the vice-captain and best all-rounder, Fred Titmus, lost four toes in a swimming accident. “Two were cut off by the propeller of a small speedboat around which Titmus and several teammates were cavorting as carefree as dolphins near the shore,” the Guardian reported, “and two others had to be amputated.” Astonishingly Titmus returned to action within two months but would play only four more Tests, and none for six and a half years.
And then the declaration, which prompted the only positive result in a series that otherwise featured four draws.
That this series is seen as some kind of nadir for Sobers is puzzling. He scored more runs than anyone else on either side, averaging 90.83; only the spinner Lance Gibbs bowled more than his 232.5 overs; and among the West Indies players he ranked No 2 for wickets and No 1 for catches. Also confusing is the divergence between his extremely negative view of the series, and other observers’ more positive spins.
“That series was so boring,” Sobers wrote. “England were bowling something like 12 or 13 overs an hour operating with two spinners for much of the time and eight men on the offside, bowling on the off stump. I got so sick of it. I was so fed up. I was there to play cricket and this wasn’t what I thought of as cricket.” The former England player Reg Simpson said England’s slow over-rate was “negative and dull, and the sort of thing that is killing cricket”, adding: “I applaud Sobers all the way and am quite disgusted at England’s bowling only 22 overs in two hours. There was no justification for it and people have a right to be incensed by it.”
Meanwhile in the Guardian, Bruce Barber gushed of the series that “Barbados in the third Test afforded respite from almost unbearable thrills”. In the Observer, Ross was equally effusive: “Four thrillers out of five is something no one can complain about, though most of the Tests took a long time to get under way, keeping up a predictable steady rhythm until the weekend and then, on the verge of drifting into stalemate, accelerating into high drama. Cricket as a spectacle in the West Indies tends to be disappointing but each match, often surprisingly, acquired a dramatic intensity of its own and the series as a whole was an astonishing one.”
Without the Sobers declaration, none of those words would have been written. It was a gamble that lost his side the Test and the series, and himself a reputation, but it also turned the mundane into the memorable, and as such was surely a noble act of self-sacrifice in the causes of sport and entertainment. “I wanted to make a game of it rather than letting the game die,” Sobers said. “When things pay off you are great and when they don’t you are a darn idiot.” The truth is that this one did pay off, and handsomely. Perhaps it’s time this moment was redefined as something that rather than castigation deserves celebration.
• This is an extract from the Guardian’s weekly cricket email. The Spin.
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