The Master – Sir Garry Sobers
It was one of those special days which leave you walking away with a massive smile on your face down the sunny side of the street.
The man from the tourist agency had asked if I was interested in a chat with “Garry”; if so, he could arrange the meeting as long as I was flexible.
Was I flexible? Of course I was. Why wouldn’t I be with the chance to meet Sir Garfield St Aubrun Sobers, whom in my not-so-humble opinion was the greatest cricketer to grace this earth?
And somebody who was happy – or maybe tolerant! – about us singing jazz songs together at the Holiday Inn Crowne Plaza in Edinburgh after we had talked about cricket for hours on one of Garry’s regular visits to Scotland in the late 1990s, as he explored a rich seam of golf courses.
Even then, the spectre of arthritis was setting in. And Sobers was afflicted as well! But, joking apart, that summer tryst on August 31, 1998 was one of the most joyous of my life. Garry was 62 at that stage. He didn’t look it, of course. But, heavens above, the Caribbean maestro turns 80 next month.
Not that he needs to worry about the advance of the old man with the scythe. And yet, that meeting has stuck indelibly with me because we talked about subjects which interested both of us. There was no mention of the hapless Glamorgan bowler Malcolm Nash, who was struck for six successive sixes in an over by Sobers in 1968.
Nor did we yammer to an excessive extent about the precipitous decline of West Indian cricket beyond lamenting, in the great man’s words that: “[Brian] Lara’s a wonderful player. But he’s not a golfer – he can’t win Test matches on his own.”
Instead, we were captivated by a mesmerising performance from Muttiah Muralitharan, who was in the midst of performing miracles against England at The Oval. You might be unfamiliar with the background: the tourists were only given one Test, yet seized their opportunity when the spinner took nine for 65 – from more than 54 overs – as England collapsed in a heap on the last day of the game.
Sir Garry was well impressed. Perhaps more pertinently, in Associate cricket terms, he was convinced there was no reason why the likes of Scotland and Ireland couldn’t progress in the footsteps of Sri Lanka and, erm, Zimbabwe.
He told me: “Cricket isn’t a complicated game. It’s two sides of 11, and if you work hard enough and remember to do what works for you, anything is possible.
“I sometimes wonder why we don’t have more countries playing Tests. I go to all these different places and see cricket clubs and I wonder why we only have eight or nine teams. It’s not enough. We all know that. But what do we do about it?”
It’s still a pivotal question for the emerging nations and especially when you think how easily England have just beaten the underwhelming Sri Lankan class of 2016. And yet Sobers wasn’t complacent, even during that glorious meeting.
Yes, he might have been a one-man dynasty: masterful batsman, glorious pace bowler, sublime spinmeister and a fielder par extraordinaire. But he wasn’t wasting time on platitudes.
On the contrary, as he said: “Scotland should be doing better than they are. They love cricket or at least I think they do and you look at all the guys I know who have come here, from [Rohan] Kanhai to [Malcolm] Marshall and [Gordon] Greenidge and you wonder how much the Scots are learning?
“I know it’s difficult when your boys are only playing part time. But Sri Lanka were in the same place not so very long ago. Hopefully, other countries will come through. We need the game to get bigger.”
Nearly two decades on, the same reservations apply. After we had finished chatting, Sir Garfield asked if I wanted to join him for a song.
As you might anticipate, he was a class act: a mixture of Bob Marley and Nat King Cole, which wasn’t as strange as it might sound.
Eventually, we persuaded the piano player to roll out his version of the Gershwin classic: “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” and we were both in our element.
I’m told that, the very next morning. Sobers was hitting immaculate irons on a Fife golf course. For my part, I was simply grateful to have met one of my true sporting heroes.
And he’s still right about the number of Test teams, by the way!