Was Sobers Truly The Greatest Ever? - Bruce Baskin
Former West Indian cricket captain Garfield Sobers attends a news conference for South Africa's Herschelle Gibbs during the World Cup cricket tournament in Basseterre on St. Kitts March 19, 2007.
©REUTERS/Tim Wimborne (ST. KITTS AND NEVIS) Picture Supplied by Action Images
Not having grown up a cricket fan in America, I have often accepted conventional wisdom about the sport on face value because I simply didn't known enough to question it. As I've learned more about cricket, however, I've come to understand how and why some of these conventional wisdoms exist, including the consensus view that Gary Sobers was the greatest cricketer ever. At first and second glance, it's hard to find fault with that notion.
I don't need to explain who Gary Sobers is. We all know. There is nothing negative to see when looking at his career in the game. Great batsman. Great bowler. Great fielder. Great captain. A match-winner in every way. If there was a flaw in Gary Sobers' game, I sure can't find it. It's hard to disagree that he was the best all-rounder ever. As great as Sobers was however, I wonder how much actual influence he had in cricket's development.
To me, the ultimate sign of greatness is how much you have changed your chosen field. There may well be more brilliant computer scientists than Bill Gates, but who has changed the computer industry more than he has? There have been greater pilots than Charles Lindbergh, but how many have had a larger legacy in aviation? While I won't even attempt to argue that Sobers wasn't the most talented cricketer ever, I just don't think that he was as great an influence on the game as England's bearded giant, W.G. Grace.
As with Sobers, I won't recount Grace's feats for this audience because I don't need to. If anyone's record in cricket is better known than Sobers, it's the Doctor. I'll admit that in direct comparison (with allowances for differences between their respective eras), I would give Sobers a decided advantage in fielding and a slight nod in bowling and captaincy, while Grace gets the edge in batting. But that's not the point here.
At his peak, Sobers was universally regarded as the greatest cricketer of his time, perhaps all time. At his peak, Grace WAS cricket itself. The game Sobers played at the start of his career was largely unchanged by the time he retired. He was the best player in the world, but could not be called revolutionary.
On the other hand, Grace entered the game at a time when it was popular in pockets of English society, and then set about transforming it into a national mania and helping cricket take its first steps as an international game. He changed the way the game was played and became the very face of the sport in the process of his four-plus decades as a player. Cricket had been a difficult game for batsmen because of uneven wickets, thus defense was the basis of a team's innings in the crease. Grace changed all that by racking up prolific run totals, employing a very proactive approach to batting while never abandoning the basic precepts of defending his wicket. As a result, others took up this approach and cricket gradually developed into the modern game in which scoring runs is the focus instead of protecting wickets, especially in the one-day game.
As a bowler, Grace was not as dominant a figure. There were faster bowlers like Frederick Spofforth, but Grace was extremely accurate and able to consistently bowl near the wickets, no mean feat given that bowlers had to negotiate those same uneven pitches as the batsmen on the receiving end. Try bowling on a cow pasture and see how easy it is to hit the wickets regularly, yet Grace took nearly 3,000 wickets under often primitive conditions so he obviously had an idea how to find them.
While Gary Sobers probably came as close to perfection as any modern cricketer has, W.G. Grace essentially invented modern cricket as we know it while becoming perhaps the most famous man in the British Empire in the process. As such, the Good Doctor gets my vote as the greatest cricketer ever because he had more influence on the sport than anyone else before or after. Perfection canít happen without invention preceding it.
© Bruce Baskin 2007