Is Sobers cricket's Muhammad Ali?

Garry Sobers sits with Muhammad Ali in the dressing room PA Photos

It was 50 years ago next week, and the gods of sport are sharing the same rickety bench in the West Indies dressing room at Lord's: the planet's loudest mouth and cricket's prettiest assassin, Muhammad Ali and Garfield St Aubrun Sobers. Not unusually, the former is doing his damnedest to dominate attention. Undeterred, the latter looks him squarely in the eyes - respectfully, smilingly, unflinchingly; an equal in every meaningful sense.

A few days earlier, the greatest cricketer who ever drew breath had begun his definitive campaign. Sublimely stylish, cooler than a frozen cucumber and more or less a team in his own right, the Great Garfield had struck 161 at Old Trafford to help administer England's first three-day home defeat since the Second World War. In doing so, he also kicked off the purplest patch in Test history.

Next up, in a match intermittently watched by Ali, was a Lord's hundred that did not so much ward off impending defeat as render it laughable. Come campaign's end his swagbag contained 722 runs, 20 wickets and ten catches: still an unchallenged record for a Test series. Maybe Ali's Instagram message was bang-on. Maybe the impossible really is "nothing". In which case, is it too fanciful to propose that he drew some inspiration from the Great Garfield's breath-snatching brilliance beneath Father Time's approving gaze?

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, exerted an impact that reverberated far beyond the ropes: one knowingly, one warily.

In that summer of '66, nonetheless, the boxer who'd had the brass-balled audacity to anoint himself "The Greatest" was trumped by the Fabulous Bajan Boy. Ali's labours comprised 20 one-sided minutes at Highbury against England's Henry Cooper; the following morning, the latter's slashed eyebrows were splashed over the front of the Sunday Times, a monochrome twist on bloody gore that gave an eight-year-old North Londoner enough nightmare fodder for a lifetime. The Great Garfield, by contrast, worked his woolly socks off. He consistently annoyed, confounded and humiliated 11 of the nation's finest for months on end, captaining a team that unified a region and a race while measuring its fortunes in tens of dollars rather than millions. Rebels, like Ali, with a timeless cause.

That's why that Lord's photo darted back to mind when I read the email from CNN informing me that the bravest human being of my lifetime had died. I was still shuddering when a text arrived from Andy, my beloved boyhood pal, surrogate big brother and all-round World's Nicest Guy, wondering whether the deceased had been my ultimate sporting hero. My first, dazed response was to wonder whether Andy had known me for four weeks rather than 45 years.

"Ali may have been the most important human being of the 20th century, but for this observer, the Great Garfield was its greatest sportsman by dint of one inarguable fact: he was team sport's answer to Stevie Wonder"

Shouldn't the best man at my wedding, on the eve of the 1989 Ashes mugging, know my mind inside-out by now? Hadn't we known each other since the second form at John Lyon, the winter Ray Illingworth led the English Armada in search of the Ashes and returned with a dose of glorious history? Didn't he know he was asking that question of a sports junkie who had renounced his earliest addiction after seeing Bob "Feed the World" Geldof and his entourage occupy the best seats to watch Naseem Hamed fight at the Albert Hall two decades ago?

There was so much I wanted to say, but I lacked the space, time and wherewithal to do so. That I loved Ali despite, rather than because of, what he did in the ring. That while sport (in its broadest sense) gave him the platform to spread his universal message, it also brought out the very worst in him. That he treated Joe Frazier with an unbrotherly contempt that defied forgiveness. That while we play sport, nobody "plays" boxing. That sport had absolutely nothing to do with the tears in my heart - apart, that is, from those guilty memories of his artistry, of those dancing feet and the Ali shuffle, of the seductive elegance of that brutal competitiveness.


"Who is cricket's Ali?" Within hours of his passing, that question was posed by The Full Toss, a regrettably cagey nom de plume for the admirable blogger James Morgan. Before we attempt to tackle such an intriguing question, though, it bears asking why it is worth asking.

Throughout his time as Australian PM, Sir Robert Menzies had a photo of Keith Miller hanging above his desk; on display in Barack Obama's White House study are a pair of Ali's gloves and a photograph of his most iconic moment: standing snarlingly over the prone Sonny Liston in 1965, daring the "sucker" to rise from the canvas. If Viv Richards didn't have that poster somewhere on his bedroom wall, I'd be surprised.

To Hugh McIlvanney, the Shakespeare of sportswriters, Ali was "the most remarkable performer sport has ever produced". No contemporary political figure, he added, "however influential, impinged on the consciousness of so many people". No argument here. Still, in the interest of balance, let's consult an infinitely less respectable source.

Galling as it is to cite Don King as an authority on anything other than greed, corruption and dodgy hairdressers, the street artist more commonly known as "Dung King" did manage Ali's professional life for a number of extortionately profitable years, so one can only assume he has a feel for the man as well as the boxer.

Those aware of the multiple misdemeanours of Planet Earth's most unscrupulous promoter might also be aware that King was once dubbed an expert in "black-on-black crime" by one of his own clients, Tim Witherspoon: plenty of room for scepticism, then. Even so, King's character analysis takes some beating. Ali, he proclaimed, possessed "the fortitude, the inspiration, the motivation to stand up for what he believed in and to say what he means and mean what he said".

How apt, then, that, in his message to his fellow Americans on Saturday, Obama should quote his hero's call to arms: "I am America. I am the part you don't recognise. But get used to me - black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own. Get used to me." The most resonant tribute came, nonetheless, from George Chuvalo, whose guts saw him go the distance with Ali before losing in 1966 and 1972*. "He made a lot of people proud of being black," reasoned the Canadian. "It was like giving them a new face."

"Don't remember [him] as a sanctified sports hero," urged Dave Zirin, American sportswriting's reigning conscience-in-chief. "He was a powerful, dangerous political force." Ali's greatness, in other words, lies not in his physical attributes or trophy cabinet but his spiritual quest. If, on the other hand, the purpose of sport is to challenge beatable opponents and reduce spectators to awe, he fell short of the very highest standards.

All of which is an awfully long way to set up another key, if somewhat scurrilous if not outright heretical question: in anointing himself "The Greatest", was Ali conning us? He may have been the most important human being of the 20th century, but for this observer, the Great Garfield was its greatest sportsman by dint of one inarguable fact: he was team sport's answer to Stevie Wonder.

Ah, but does that make him cricket's Ali - someone who transcended their sport and shook up the world? 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, other candidates leap far quicker to mind: Learie Constantine, Frank Worrell, Imran Khan and - a perennial personal nomination - Basil D'Oliveira. But how can we possibly ignore King Viv? No indubitably great cricketer this column has ever met has stood up so fearlessly for his beliefs.

There is no need to prolong such a trivial discussion, especially not now. The overriding point is that every single one of those worthies echoed CLR James' eternal dictum: what counts is not where your journey ends but the distance you cover. And if you can float like a butterfly as well as sting like a bee, so much the better.

Will that do, Andy? Sincere and profuse apologies for the excessive public reply and the lack of jokes. Then again, as Elvis Costello never tired of reminding us back during our schooldays, what's so funny about love, peace and understanding?

02:22:12 GMT, June 9, 2016: * The article originally incorrectly said Chuvalo earned a draw with Ali in 1968