Sobers - the man

THE infectious smile probably says the most about Sobers. He was a man who took life as it came, enjoyed the game and played it as it should be played. To him, the game was a microcosm, an encapsulation of his view of life; it was never a grim battle for superiority. He accepted the fact there were days when one was up, others when one was down. He would put his best into it, but realised that every day is not a Sunday.

Sobers embodied the islander's attitude to the game. He was not playing for riches -- what he earned was a pittance compared to what today's players make -- and he was not in the game for this or that reason. He played it simply because he was good at it -- to him it was that simple. He was untouched by the commercialism that has begun to taint the game and reduce it to a farce at times.

He was the sixth of seven children, who at the age of six lost his father, a merchant seaman, when his ship was torpedoed by the Germans. Few could have as unpromising a start in life. Yet the man went on to achieve what few have in the game, using his prodigious talents to the full to give endless pleasure to those who saw him play. His name can still evoke the kind of reverence which today's players can never hope to. He is that rare individual who is loved, not merely by his friends and the island of Barbados but by people round the world wherever the game is played.

Sobers played as a football goalkeeper for Barbados a position which led to him hurting his left knee. Later, he had to have surgery on this knee. He played basketball and dominoes for the island. And after retiring from cricket, he became an international golfer.

Many have painted an image of a man who was excessively fond of the juice of the grape but this is harsh judgement to pass on one who merely loved to have a drink with his friends. There was a phase in his life when he turned to the bottle for comfort and to forget and he has never made a secret of this. It happened in 1959, after the death of his close friend O.G. "Collie" Smith. Sobers was at the wheel and the accident shook him up as nothing else had. Three days later Collie Smith was dead. The restraining influence gone, Sobers began to drink heavily and he has readily admitted this in his autobiography. Around the same time, he developed an interest in a mild flutter. Nothing compulsive, but it was something that fitted in with his view of life. He was at the courses every now and then and more than anything it helped to fill a vacuum in his life.

If there is anything which is painful to him, it must be the breakdown of his marriage. He was married to an Australian, Prudence Kirby, and their two sons Matthew and Daniel live with him while their daughter, Genevieve, lives with Pru in Melbourne. Sobers met her while she was working for an Australian firm; she had come to England to tape a message to promote Australian fruit. They became friends and married in September 1969.

When Kerry Packer's pyjama parties began, Sobers moved to Melbourne to work in various coaching and promotional activities and he was there seven years. But he ultimately wanted to return to Barbados. His wife wanted to stay on in Melbourne, her home town. She was writing and promoting a book of her own and had a successful career and finally, in 1985, they agreed to go their own ways. To put it in the great man's own words: "These things happen in life."

To the end of his career, and even today, he remains a modest man, untouched by his own achievements. Not for him the swagger that comes with fame, the brushing off of an impecunious reporter, the putdown which comes to the nouveau riche. No, he was a gentleman to the core and played by the rules. He brought to the game the same principles which governed his life. There was no question of situational ethics; he was one who believed that there was more to life than cricket and it did not matter to him if playing by the book meant losing.

The tributes to him have been many and varied: the peerless C.L.R. James probably put it best: "We may some day be able to answer Tolstoy's exasperated and exasperating question: `What is art?', but only when we learn to integrate our vision of Sobers on the back foot through the covers with the outstretched arm of the Olympic Apollo.''

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