When Sobers Came To Guildford

Published: 16th May, 2020

It should have been the Guildford Festival this weekend, when Surrey and Northamptonshire were due to do battle in the 100th first-class match at Woodbridge Road.

The party will have to wait, like so much else at the moment.

The vagaries of the fixture list have meant that Surrey’s annual trip to their holiday home has moved around the calendar in recent years, having been firmly established in mid-July for a lengthy period at the turn of the century.

Yet that year’s match would not have been the earliest Guildford Festival – that honour was claimed in 1974, when Surrey opened their County Championship campaign on Wednesday May 8 with a visit from Nottinghamshire.

Given they had finished bottom the previous summer, that might sound like the fixture from hell except for one factor – Garry Sobers.

No one else in the world game could set the pulse racing quite like Sobers, still regarded by many as the finest all-rounder to grace the stage even though, approaching his 38th birthday, his overworked knees were increasingly troubling him.

This was a man who had scored more than 8,000 Test runs, claimed 235 wickets through both seam and spin and claimed catches which seemed impossible for anyone with remotely normal reflexes. He had achieved it all with a flair and sportsmanship which brought the adoration of both fellow players and spectators the world over.

Few realised – and the great man, knighted by the Queen nine months later at the Garrison Savannah Racecourse in his native Barbados, gave no indication – that he had just played his last Test. It was a remarkable one in which England had secured a remarkable 26-run victory to claim a remarkable 1-1 draw in the Caribbean, despite West Indies looking certain to overwhelm them just as they had done the previous summer.

“The pitches were incredibly flat out there at that stage and you needed to have more speed than I  did to get something out of them,” said Geoff Arnold, England’s spearhead, who had bowled last man Lance Gibbs to claim victory at Port of Spain, just his second wicket in three matches.

A month later and it was a different matter, early May in England perfectly suited to a bowler who Geoffrey Boycott said gave him more problems over 25 years of first-class cricket than any other opponent.

Nottinghamshire’s decision to bat first at Woodbridge Road rebounded on them, instantly sliding into trouble – despite Wisden describing the pitch as “slow and lifeless” – against Arnold and strike partner Robin Jackman. Sobers entered at 17-2 and might have been surprised to find off-spinner Pat Pocock brought into the attack early but almost immediately being adjudged leg-before wicket for just two.

“I managed to get Garry out a few times but, unfortunately, never in a Test,” recalls Pocock. “I must have ended up bowling 300 overs at him in the end. He was a great player but he played each ball on its merits, so in some ways he was easier to bowl at than some others.”

Pocock had also been involved in that gruelling five-Test series, given an opportunity now that Ray Illingworth had been replaced by Mike Denness as captain. He claimed 5-110 in the opening Test but was restricted to another four victims in as many matches after that. And in that final series-equalling win, he had watched as Tony Greig, previously a medium-pacer, metamorphasised so successfully into an off-spinner that he claimed 13 wickets in the match.

Now he ran through Notts, claiming 5-30 in 17 overs, while Arnold (3-12) and Jackman (2-23) did the rest to dismiss the visitors just after lunch for 85. The only man to reach double-figures was future England batsman Derek Randall, who made 20, although extras contributed 17.

Surrey’s reply was rocking at 14-2 after the loss of Mike Edwards (1) and Kiwi Geoff Howarth (2), John Edrich’s typically solid 31 and a fluent 43 from Younis Ahmed seeing off the initial danger before reaching 136-5 at close of play.

Losing two wickets almost immediately on the second morning, the hosts were in danger of throwing away the advantage at 138-7 but Jackman, maker of many essential lower-order contributions, and Arnold (23) added 52 – the highest stand of the match – with Jackman finishing on 54 to earn Surrey a lead of 142. Sobers went wicketless, seamer Paul Wilkinson’s 4-46 the best return.

“Jackers could bat and he played some important innings for us,” reckoned Arnold, who scored a half-century in the second of his 34 Tests, against Pakistan at The Oval in 1967 but admitted: “I should have got more runs along the way.”

If Nottinghamshire wanted to save the match, it was going to need a major innings from someone in the top-order but Arnold immediately trapped Mike Harris (3) leg-before and had Mike Smedley caught by Graham Roope in the slips for a duck.

That brought Sobers to the crease for the second time and he reached double-figures this time, making 10 before falling to Jackman, courtesy of what Daily Mail cricket correspondent Alex Bannister described as a “brilliant catch at deep-mid-off” from Arnold.

Opener Bob White (51) held firm in a fourth-wicket stand worth 54 with Randall (42). Yet their separation saw Notts slide from 85-3 to 146 all out – Arnold taking centre-stage this time with 5-23, which included the wicket of Test selector Jack Bond for the second time in the match, giving the captain “a taste of his speed and hostility” – to finish with match figures of 8-35.

That left Surrey needing just five to win with tailender Pocock, having claimed another three wickets in the second innings, promoted to open and scoring them all off six balls from a Barry Stead over to complete victory by 10 wickets inside two days.

Sobers wasn’t the only great player to find Guildford a difficult ground to conquer. Two decades later Brian Lara arrived with Warwickshire shortly after his world record score of 501 not out but could only make 46 runs in three innings.

And in 2017, Kumar Sangakkara’s triumphant first-class farewell tour around the country, which saw him score eight centuries in 10 Championship matches, was interrupted by two failures against Essex. Maybe it’s something about left-handers.

The only other time Surrey have played at Guildford in May came in 1976, when they overcame Somerset by seven wickets in a rain-affected match.

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