Annie and Gary and Me

If you like cricket and you're on Twitter, and you follow everybody that everyone else follows, you will probably have heard of Annie Chave. These days, it seems, most people have. Among other things, Annie commentates on Guerilla Cricket, and she recently had the privilege of being flown to Barbados to broadcast on the First Test between the West Indies (they will never ever be called the 'Windies' around here) and England. The only thing stopping it being the trip of a lifetime is the fact that she'll probably do it again.

While most people out there have only heard of Annie in the last year, she and I go back a long way. Her Dad - a remarkable man well worth knowing in his own right - had the dubious pleasure of captaining me many times on the Devon village circuit either side of the turn of the millennium. Annie, with her sister and her brothers and her mother, and later with her husband and son, was often around. Annie watched, Annie scored, and on one occasion Annie missed an important game (the time we said farewell to our old ground before it was turned into a housing estate) because she was detained in a maternity suite. Life gets in the way of cricket sometimes.

During the game in Barbados, Annie posted a picture of herself talking to Sir Gary Sobers. This set me thinking.

I met Gary Sobers once too. And, many years before that, I saw him play.

This is not point scoring; unlike me, Annie met him properly and had a conversation with him. More, much more, than I will ever do.

The time I met him came when he paid a visit to a public school with which I have a tenuous connection which gets me invited to things. My memory is a bit hazy, but there was a Question and Answer session, incongruously conducted (unless I’ve dreamt it, and now it sort of feels like I might have done) by the former Glamorgan and Sussex batsman Tony Cottey. After that, it was a question of queuing up for the great man’s autograph behind a large number of sixth formers who had presumably been told about Sobers by their Grandparents. Initially I wasn’t sure if I wanted to bother with this, affecting to think of myself as a bit too cool (well, a bit too old) for such things, but, with my mind drifting back to the time at Lord’s (after the 1978 Gillette Cup final, which, don’t forget, Somerset lost) when I was last in a seemingly endless line of kids seeking Viv Richards’ signature (and he waited, and he signed my scorecard), I decided it was worth it.

I took along my prized copy of Alan Ross’s classic account of England’s 1959-60 tour of the West Indies, Through the Caribbean, and selected a photo of the young Sobers, hooking. Sobers signed it with a flourish and handed it back, commenting ‘That’s a rare photograph. I’m batting in a cap’. I thought about it afterwards and it was true that virtually all my other recollections of him - easing his way on to the path to 254 at Melbourne, or the 150 at Lord’s on his final England tour, or hitting Malcolm Nash ‘all the way down to Swansea’ saw him bare headed. I also remembered the time - the one and only time - I saw him play in the flesh.

September 1982; The Oval. Two end of season games: one between a ‘Barbados Board of Tourism XI’ and a World XI, and another, the next day, between the World XI and an Old England XI. The Barbados side was distinctly useful: the attack comprised Marshall, Garner, Hall and Griffith, with Sobers, Greenidge, Haynes, Collis King and Seymour Nurse to provide the runs. I can't remember whether I went to both games but I know I went to the second one, as my memory tells me it was the last day of a long summer holiday between school and college, which, for all kinds of reasons, was a time of change and adjustment.

Of course, detailed recollections are few after all these years, but my memory of Sobers coming out to bat for the World XI that Oval Sunday are crystal clear. He came in at six, with his old colleague Rohan Kanhai at the other end. Bobby Simpson, Farokh Engineer and Neil Harvey (Neil Harvey? Jesus. It dawns on me now that I saw one of Bradman's invincibles bat, a fact I didn't recall years later when I sat in the back of a minibus with him one Melbourne night.) had come and gone. I don't know who was bowling, but I think it was a spinner, so it would have either been Don Wilson or Brian Close, but, very early in his innings, Sobers, who wasn’t wearing a cap (or indeed a helmet, which would have been an option by 1982) unfurled a cover drive of such epic majesty that I've never forgotten it.

When it comes to cover drives by left-handers, people talk about elegance and purity of timing (think Gower, think Moeen) or they talk about punchiness and raw, elemntal power (think Warner, maybe, or, from the T20 generation, someone like Corey Anderson) but my memory is that this shot by Sobers (the bowling was from the Vauxhall End, so it was played towards the Harleyford Road) stood perfectly on the razor sharp cusp between one and the other. It had elegance, but it also had withering power. No matter that the fielder it passed may have been someone, like Sobers himself, born in the 1930s. This, as old Jim Laker would have said back then, was ‘four from the moment it left the bat'.

It says much about the selective nature of memory that I can recall that single shot so perfectly after nearly forty years. Is it because it was the best shot I've ever seen, or simply because someone - perhaps my Dad, who took me to the game - had told me that I was watching the greatest player who had ever lived and that I should make an effort to remember it as I would never have the opportunity again? Possibly it's the latter, although my Dad, unlike me, was never really one for the long view or the grandiose statement, so I'm doubtful. A more self-regarding way of reflecting on it would be to say that even as a sixteen year-old (but one who was obsessed with cricket) I knew a great shot - no, that's too prosaic - I knew a thing of beauty when I saw one. But then anybody, even someone with no knowledge of the difference between a cover drive and a reverse sweep, would have instantly recognised it as a supreme blend of athleticism and that which can’t be defined or described, but which we know as timing.

Few people have ever got close to emulating this aspect of Sobers’ game. To me, Yuvraj Singh at his best - against Australia in Nairobi when nobody had seen him before, or killing England in the 2006 ODI series - is the player who has come nearest. But nobody ever will, really.

Time moves on. Of the 22 men who played that afternoon at The Oval, 12 (including nine of the England team) are no longer with us. One of those who still lives to tell his tale is Gary Sobers. I know he tells a good tale, because Annie has told me so. A tale of the Caribbean of old, but also of a Swansea day in 1968 and of an England he still visits and loves.

Perhaps, when he is in the right mood - when his thoughts stray to 1966 and to Graveney, to Murray, to Snow and to Higgs - or even to a day late in his cricketing life, he will talk of The Oval.

Because we all have memories.

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