Sri Lanka is currently touring the West Indies and playing a series of three five-day Test matches. Both teams have been struggling of late and the first Test saw the Windies winning very easily. The second test was poised for an exciting finish on the final day before rain caused play to be abandoned and the game ending in a draw (as no decisions are called in cricket). That game was also marred by the Sri Lankan captain being found guilty of ball tampering and banned from playing in the third Test that is currently underway in Barbados and rain has already interrupted play a couple of times.
Incidentally, the term ‘Windies’ started out as a nickname for the team but now they have adopted it officially. Being originally from Sri Lanka, I am naturally hoping for them to do well but at the same time I am pleased to see the Windies showing the beginnings of a resurgence after going through a major slump. Their traditional strengths have been superb fast bowlers and swashbuckling batters and they seem to have found some talent in the former in the shape of Shannon Gabriel. The batting dominance has yet to arrive but they are showing promising signs.
Since I spent about five years in England as a young boy, I started out cheering for England in international games (Sri Lanka was not a Test playing nation until much later) but as I grew older and learned about its ugly colonial history, I switched allegiance to the Windies, attracted by their wonderfully joyous attitude to the game. They, both players and their supporters, seemed to be always having fun, with the latter brining calypso music to the normally staid cricket grounds.
An example of this is Gary Sobers, arguably one of the best players ever to play the game, who (despite his name) would go out drinking in the evenings even during the five-day matches when players were supposed to be resting after a full day’s play with another full day ahead. In one Test match against England when he was 37 years old and close to the end of his career, his drinking went on so late that he decided there was no point going to bed and so stayed up all night. The next day he played a magnificent innings despite having a massive hangover and stomach pains.
Sobers was known as someone who was likely to be in the mood for a party, even during a major match. “I rarely went to bed at a normal time because I am one of those people who can have four or five hours’ sleep and still wake up fresh,” he admitted. “It was well known I liked a drink after play. My philosophy was that life is for living… I played hard and drank reasonably hard on occasions. I had to make sure those late nights could continue by maintaining a consistently high level of performance.”
While most of the West Indies team returned to the Clarendon Court Hotel, Sobers headed out with Clive Lloyd for a meal and from there hooked up with an old friend, the former West Indies spinner Reg Scarlett, and the pair headed out for a night on the town. They ended up at a nightclub, and as they made ready to leave in the early hours, Sobers said he “realised I had long gone past the need to sleep”. He persuaded Scarlett to come back to the hotel, where the two of them settled down in the bar to reminisce.
“We drank until about 9 o’clock, then I got a cold shower, walked up to Lord’s, got my pads on and walked out as the umpires called play,” he said. “I took guard, but all I could see as Bob Willis ran up was arms and legs. The first five balls I missed, and I could hear Kanhai and everyone else up in the pavilion laughing. Anyhow, the sixth ball hit the bat.”
As his head slowly cleared, he found he had other problems, as “churning pains” started in his stomach. As he neared his hundred they were bad enough for him to consider retiring, but he feared it would break his concentration. He was not helped by the sunshine beating down from a clear blue sky. “I read afterwards that I showed great maturity in playing myself in steadily before proceeding with grace and power,” he said. “Little did they know.”
He completed his century and soldiered on until the afternoon drinks interval, when he turned to Charlie Elliott, the umpire, and said: “I’m not feeling well, can I go off?” Elliott was bemused. “Go? What for? I haven’t seen you get any injury.” An increasingly desperate Sobers replied: “Charlie, I’ve held this in for 50 minutes, I can’t hold it any longer. Put down whatever you like. I gone…” And with that he headed back to the dressing room, unbeaten on 132.
Inside the pavilion, Kanhai asked what was up and Sobers told him that his stomach was “giving him hell”, adding: “The only thing that’ll help me now is a port and brandy mixed.” The drink was duly produced and he downed it in one. “Bring him another brandy and port,” Kanhai said. “But make it a big one this time.”
Sobers had almost two hours to rest while Bernard Julien and Keith Boyce added 76, and by the time Julien was dismissed for his maiden first-class hundred, Sobers was ready to return. He duly completed his 150 before Kanhai declared on 652 for 8.
Sobers’ sufferings were not apparent to those watching, and the newspapers merely referred to his “minor stomach ailment”. In the Guardian John Arlott wrote that the innings had “all the panache in attack and style in defence which makes him as handsome a batsman as we have ever seen… the splendour of his innings lay in the arc between cover point and mid-off”.
The only reason Sobers got away with this kind of behavior that would have resulted in any other player being reprimanded by team management was because his was a rare talent and he maintained his performance levels. He was in a class by himself.