Garry Sobers pulls

Carry on, Garry: Sobers followed up his 322 runs in the 1963 series with 722 when West Indies returned in '66

© PA Photos

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My black teacher

Watching Garry Sobers dominate England in 1963 was a lesson in race relations and in cricket

Simon Barnes  |  

An education in cricket can't help but be an education in many other things. The West Indies tour of England in 1963 was as important a lesson as I ever learned in my life. I can refine this to two moments, both from the first Test match, at Old Trafford. Both concerned Garry Sobers. I suppose that is inevitable.

Let's put things into context. The London of my youth was a city dealing with a multiracial society as a relative novelty. It was an enthralling but rather uneasy time. I lived a couple of miles down the road from Brixton, London's Caribbean heartland. The lovely lilt of the Jamaican accent was part of London back then, heard often enough in the loudspeakered announcements on train stations: "Purley Oaks, Purley and Coulsdon Naaaarth!"

I lived in a liberal household. Neither my parents nor us children would have dreamed of making an openly racist remark, or for that matter, even thinking in terms of destructive racial generalisations, and yet….

And yet the predominant tone of the time was still gently and subtly racist. You got used to the casual assumption that black people were less intelligent, and for that reason spoke funny, and what's more, had grotesque sexual appetites. Of course they were humans like us, of course we were all equal, but it was damn good of us to admit that, wasn't it? So perhaps that showed that we liberals were slightly more human than the rest. Better not say that out loud. Just let the thought creep beneath your guard and lurk treacherously in the deepest recesses of your thoughts.

Is there anything he can't do?

Is there anything he can't do? © PA Photos

The West Indies team arrived in this country as a pretty considerable bunch. It was thrilling to see them, for in those days there was mystery about all overseas teams, seen only once every few years. There was a double mystery about these players. They were West Indian like our neighbours in Brixton, but they were also swaggering athletes with a great record of achievement. There was no deference. Nor even any pretence of deference.

I watched as much of that first Test match as I could, staring at the black and white cricketers on the black-and-white television. I turned to the newspaper the following morning, reading the cricket report as an evangelical Christian reads the Bible, convinced that in these words an ultimate truth was there for the taking. And I suppose there was.

Sobers was 26 and already a great cricketer. But he was all new to me. And the thing that really amazed me was that he just didn't move like anyone else. There was something flowing in everything he did, as if every joint had been bathed in a gallon of oil.

Just watching him play a defensive shot was a remarkable experience. And as for the times, the many times he went on the attack…

Much later in life, I became deeply familiar with night-hunting leopards. In their ultimately sinuous movements I could recall the way Sobers moved on a cricket field. Not just in the killing stroke but in the potential danger that threatened in every step.

I had two main heroes in that England team. The first was the captain, Ted Dexter, an attacking batsman of immense daring. The second, the fast bowler Brian Statham, was there because of my Lancastrian father's constant recommendation of his talent.

The West Indian teams of the mid-20th century forced people to re-examine their views on race

The West Indian teams of the mid-20th century forced people to re-examine their views on race © Getty Images

The first moment, then, is Sobers' hooked six off Statham. The best that England - the best that we - could offer was whacked into the stands. It was painful to watch, and glorious too, in one of the great contradictions of sport when partisanship wages war with admiration. Sobers scored 64 and West Indies went past 500. I had to accept they were better than us.

The second moment came during England's first innings. A great allrounder should be worth his place in the Test team for both his batting and his bowling. Sobers could get into any team in the world for his batting, for his fast bowling, for his orthodox left-arm spin, or for his left-arm wristspin.

Dexter - who else - was leading the England fightback and was on 73. It was then that Sobers bowled him a googly that took the glove and dollied to Frank Worrell in the slips. Not beaten; deceived. This wasn't glorious West Indian athleticism, this was glorious West Indian brain. I knew that before CLR James spelt it out, and Sobers was my teacher.

Sobers took four. West Indies won the match by ten wickets. They won the series 3-1. Sobers made 322 runs and took 20 wickets. Anyone who thought white people were superior to black people had only to look at the scoreboard. England were outplayed, out-fought and out-thought.

And it was beautiful. A great lesson from a great teacher.

Simon Barnes is a former chief sportswriter of the Times and the author of more than 20 books