Sobers is undoubtedly the greatest all-rounder of all time. But like many cricket greats before and after him, Sobers’ one weak spot was captaincy.
Perhaps his lowest point came at Port of Spain, Trinidad in the fourth Test match against England in March 1968. With the first three Test matches ending inconclusively, Sobers’ gambling instincts got the better of him and his needless declaration on the final day saw England scrambling home with just three minutes left in the game.
It was a cross he had to bear for many years and a result that plunged cricket in the Caribbean into crisis. Indeed the West Indies did not win another series under Sobers till he lost the captaincy in 1973 to Rohan Kanhai who finally led them to triumph in England that same year to break the five-year drought.
Even his most loyal fans could not justify the declaration that set England 215 to win in 165 minutes. They lost just three wickets in chasing down the runs.
To make things worse, this turned out to be the only decisive match in the series in which ironically Sobers played a colossal role with both bat and ball.
A fortnight later the fifth Test at Georgetown, Guyana, ended in a tense draw with England’s last wicket hanging on grimly to ensure they won the series 1-0, a galling result for the passionate West Indian cricket fans.
With rain severely curtailing play on the first two days, West Indies’ innings dragged into the third day even though all the batsmen played attacking and attractive cricket. Sobers made the first of his two declarations, closing the first inning at 526 for 7, scored at nearly four runs an over.
Seymour Nurse and Rohan Kanhai led the way with 136 and 153 respectively with all the other batsmen contributing usefully. Nurse and Kanhai added 273 runs for the third wicket. Openers Steve Camacho (87) and ‘Joey’ Carew (36) had set the tone with their partnership of 119 runs. The captain also chipped in with a quick 48.
With John Edrich and Geoff Boycott giving them a good start of 86 runs, the English batsmen appeared to be cruising to a big total, finishing the third day at 204 for 2, captain Colin Cowdrey batting on 61.
Cowdrey got to his century and was eventually out for 148. But England lost eight wickets on the fourth day for 200 runs to concede a lead of 122. Shockingly, five of those wickets were claimed by part time wrist spinner Basil Butcher for the cost of just 34 runs from 14 overs. Indeed these would be the only wickets Butcher—famous for his aggressive batting—would claim in his entire Test career!
England’s plight would have been worse but for a century stand for the sixth wicket between Cowdrey and wicket-keeper Allan Knott whose 69 not out was the first half-century of his career.
By lunch on the final day it looked like yet another draw was inevitable. There was no sense of urgency in their batting and most of the crowd and many of the West Indian players themselves were resigned to the stalemate.
Then with the score reading 92 for two came the shocker. Sobers had declared! In his autobiography he insists he consulted his senior players and manager Everton Weekes. By the end of the match however they all denied any prior knowledge and Sobers was left hanging out to dry.
The Queen’s Park Oval pitch has always favoured spin and with Willie Rodriguez taking three wickets with his leg spinners in the first innings, the captain was convinced they had a fighting chance to win since he too was a useful spin bowler. Plus, the brilliant off spinner Lance Gibbs was also in their ranks.
Always attacking by nature, Sobers admitted he was sickened by England’s go-slow tactics that had virtually killed off interest in the series till then. The safety-first nature of the tourists may have goaded him into attempting to inject some artificial excitement into the Test match. He was not only encouraged by the pitch taking spin but also by England’s laborious run-rate in the series which had seen them score at barely 35 runs an hour.
Sobers was to play county cricket in England for the first time just a few months after this series. Unknown to him at the time, English batsman were skilled in chasing down a target once they set their mind on it and this is where the calculation badly misfired.
In the first innings they crawled along, scoring at less than two-and-half runs an over. Who would have guessed at the dramatic turnaround in the second innings?
Edrich and Boycott this time put on 55 for the opening wicket. Now the captain took charge. His 71 runs came at nearly a run-a-minute while Boycott kept one end up with 80 not out. The scoring rate was furious. Together they added 118, the last 100 runs coming from a mere 18 overs before Sobers brilliantly caught Cowdrey off Gibbs.
Tom Graveney also fell cheaply to Gibbs. But by then it was too late. Boycott and D’Oliveira ensured there were no further setbacks with the winning runs being scored with just three minutes to spare.
Significantly, fast bowler Charlie Griffith was missing from the line-up. He had bowled only three overs in the first innings before going off injured and this was a major handicap for the home side.
Sobers finished the series on top of the batting averages, 545 runs at 90.83 and also claimed 13 wickets. But his individual brilliance could not cover up for the blunder that cost West Indies the Test match and the series. It was one of the few setbacks in his otherwise glittering career and one that is furiously discussed to this day in the Caribbean.