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It was some 50 years ago, and the Gods of the sport took the time to share the same rickety bench in the West Indies dressing room at Lord’s – Planet Earth’s loudest mouth and cricket’s prettiest assassin, Muhammad Ali and Sir Garfield Sobers. It was nothing surprising that the former looked well in control to dominate all the attention. And Sobers being somewhat undeterred stares at him squarely in the eyes – smilingly, respectfully, and unflinchingly – an equal in every meaningful sense you can find.
Only a few days earlier, the greatest cricketing figure this gentleman’s game has witnessed started his definitive campaign. Cooler than a frozen cucumber, sublimely stylish and more or less a team in his own right, the Great Garfield had smashed 161 at Old Trafford to lead the proceedings for England’s first three-day home defeat since the Second World War. And with this, he also kicked off the glorifying patch in Test history.
Next, in a thrilling match watched by Ali, it was a brilliant Lords’ century which didn’t so much ward off an impending defeat. At the end of that memorable campaign, Sobers had contained 722 runs, 20 wickets, and ten catches. For your kind information still an unchallenged record for a Test series.
Maybe the impossible is “nothing”, in Ali’s words. But, is it too fanciful to suggest that Muhammad Ali drew some sort of inspiration from the Great Garfield’s outstanding brilliance in those two matches at Old Trafford and s?
The planet’s loudest mouth and cricket’s prettiest assassin had appreciably more in common, of course than floating like butterflies and stinging like bees. They were both outsiders who scaled an unprecedented pinnacle of excellence; both dazzling symbols of the triumphant unprivileged. Both, furthermore, managed to exert an impact which reverberated far beyond the ropes of the two different sports: one knowingly, one warily.
In that summer of 1966, nevertheless, the legendary boxer who had the brass-balled audacity to claim himself “The Greatest” was trumped by the mesmerizing Garfield. Ali’s labours saw 20 one-sided minutes at Highbury against England’s Henry Cooper. Next morning, Cooper’s slashed eyebrows were splashed all over the front of the US media, a black and white twist on bloody gore that actually gave whole England enough nightmare fodder for a lifetime.
The Great Garfield Sobers, by contrast, worked his woolly socks off. He consistently annoyed, confounded and humiliated 11 of the England’s finest for months on end, captaining a West Indies team that used to unify a region and a race while measuring their fortunes in tens of dollars rather than millions. Rebels, like Ali, might have wondered in mind, this guy is just like me: Cricket’s Muhammad Ali.
The Great Garfield Sobers, you may call him the greatest sportsman this planet has ever seen by dint of one inarguable fact: he was team sport’s answer to Ali.
But does that make him cricket’s Ali – someone who transcended their sport and shook up the world single-handedly? To be frank, for all that he was a champion for his race, and for all that the focus of his account of that 1966 tour was much more about fighting prejudice than totting up runs and wickets.
It’s the reverberations. Yes, not the rumbles we are talking about, it’s the reverberations. The death of Muhammad Ali recently forced people’s minds to talk about his epic boxing matches against Joe Frazier, George Foreman, or retrospectives about his epic “rumbles” against racism and war. But we have to understand the reverberations in order to know Muhammad Ali as what he will be remained: the most important athlete to ever live.
Yes, that’s what Sir Gary Sobers believed throughout his career, beyond his cricketing folklores. At some point, there is no difference between Muhammad Ali’s philosophy of life and what Sobers still lives on with.