Sobers, Miller and the Wisden Five

Updated: 12 April 2013 17:43 IST

Michael Palin, whose comedic work and travel writing need no introduction, concluded his speech in the Long Room at Lord's on Wednesday night with the words: "Let our tribe be lbw - led by Wisden." It was an apt way to finish an evening that was equal parts tradition and nostalgia, and further illustration of the affection for the yellow book that is so much more than that.

Sobers, Miller and the Wisden Five

Michael Palin, whose comedic work and travel writing need no introduction, concluded his speech in the Long Room at Lord's on Wednesday night with the words: "Let our tribe be lbw - led by Wisden." It was an apt way to finish an evening that was equal parts tradition and nostalgia, and further illustration of the affection for the yellow book that is so much more than that.

Palin's oration had many high notes, but it was the warmth with which he spoke of his childhood hero, Keith Miller, that got me thinking. Like many cricket lovers, Palin too went down the I-wish-I-could-have road. In his case, it was the desire to have seen the innings that Miller played for the Dominions against England in 1945. He struck seven sixes, one of which landed on the roof of the Long Room.

Since the number five - Cricketers of the Year - is central to the Wisden dinner, I started thinking of my greatest sporting regrets. The Bill Shankly era at Liverpool preceded me. I didn't see Vince Lombardi's Green Bay Packers either. I never watched Bjorn Borg win a Grand Slam, and Barry John's magic at fly-half for Wales ended before I was born. I was four months old when Ali won the Rumble in the Jungle.

Who would make my Wisden-five wishlist? Victor Trumper would be first. I wouldn't be writing on the game now if not for my grandfather mentioning Trumper, and Jack Fingleton's essay on him - Never Another Like Victor. It wasn't just the quality of the writing that struck a chord. There was something of the knight gallant, something of the Scarlet Pimpernel, about the character Fingleton described.

Years later, I would see the famous photograph of Trumper stepping out to drive. I don't believe there's another image that conveys the beauty of cricket quite like it. I never had the ability to replicate the stroke, so I did the next best thing. On the final day of my first tour to Australia, I visited Waverley Cemetery and spent 20 minutes by Trumper's grave - paying tribute to the two men who had shaped my life.

Tim Rice, who also spoke at the Wisden 150 dinner, called the Almanack "a magnificent brick in the wall of the greatest game". He got his first one as a nine-year-old in 1954, and suggested that it had taught him history, geography (Holkar against Bengal), mathematics and English.

His words - "Cricket matters a lot to a lot of people" - made me think of my second time-machine choice - Stan McCabe and the 232 he made at Trent Bridge. It was an innings sandwiched by the Bodyline crisis and a war that would end careers and lives, most notably that of Hedley Verity, perhaps the greatest of all left-arm spinners.

The McCabe story had an awful final chapter, but the one written in Nottingham makes you wish you had been there. How good must he have been for Sir Donald Bradman to call his teammates on to the balcony to watch? Like Trumper, McCabe was more entertainer than accumulator, a free spirit rather than a slave to orthodoxy. Such men make memories.

The war was over, and McCabe and Bradman both long retired by the time my third choice left his imprint on an Ashes series. Just over a decade ago, I interviewed Frank Tyson at the National Cricket Academy in Bangalore. Over the course of 60 minutes, he spoke eloquently about what went into the art of fast bowling. That he was so articulate didn't surprise me. He had been a teacher after all.

What amazed me was the gentleness of the man, a contrast to what he had done on the field nearly half a century earlier. This was Typhoon Tyson, whose searing pace had clinched a rare Ashes win for England in Australia. The stereotype of the snarling fast bowler is just that.

Number four on my list would be Miller, Palin's hero. Ever since I was a young boy, I've gravitated towards the flawed geniuses, the Gauguins of this world. I admired Pele, but it was Garrincha's story that captivated me. Bobby Moore was great, but it was George Best - who never even played a World Cup - that appealed to the imagination.

Miller led the sort of life comic book heroes do. In an age when the term allrounder is so badly abused, it's hard for us to fathom a man good enough to bat in the top four and take the new ball. We've been blessed to watch Jacques Kallis, but it would be a stretch to say that he was ever one of the best two or three quick bowlers in South Africa.

When it came to living it up off the field, Miller was very much in the Garrincha-Best league. Part of his greatness stemmed from the fact that he achieved so much while treating cricket as nothing more than a game. Having seen the horrors of war, he wasn't about to resort to cliches about life and death.

Last but certainly not least, we have someone who surpassed even Miller when it came to allround excellence. During the 2007 World Cup, I met Lawrence Rowe twice. He was a fascinating interview subject, with an ego the size of Kingston camouflaging the sense of hurt he felt over the path his career had taken. But even as he talked up his own ability - "there was no shot I couldn't play" - the man they called Yagga admitted that there had been someone better.

That someone was Sir Garfield Sobers. If I could go back in time to watch just one innings, it would be his 254 for Rest of the World against Australia in 1971-72. Those that watched it at close quarters, like Sunil Gavaskar and Ian Chappell, run out of superlatives when asked to describe it.

As you travel around the Caribbean, you will hear many Sobers stories - of runs made with panache, of batsmen deceived by both pace and spin, and catches casually plucked out of the air. At Trent Bridge, you will hear tales about his love of the high life. An entire chapter in the biography of Jim Baxter, legendary Scottish footballer, is titled: Drunk and Sobers in Nottingham. There will never be another like him.

In his speech, Lawrence Booth, the editor of the Almanack, spoke of a letter from an 11-year-old who got his first Wisden for Christmas last year. "I wish I was 150 years old," it said, "so I could have collected all 150 editions." Hopefully, in a few years time, when his collection is big enough to fill a shelf, that young man will engage in his own Wisden-five exercise. If he's lucky, there might even be a time machine waiting.

Topics : Cricket Keith Miller Victor Trumper Gary Sobers
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