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Six appeal: Sobers’ big hitting becomes way of cricket life

Swansea Bay, where Garfield Sobers hit six sixes in an over

Swansea Bay, where Garfield Sobers hit six sixes in an over

When Brad Haddin hit Ben Stokes back over his shoulder to clear the boundary before 78,000 spectators at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on 27th of December, 2013, the world record for number of sixes in a Test series was broken.

It was the 52nd six and it came in the fourth match in the five test series. So it is likely there will be more yet.The six has always been a thrilling stroke to behold, and the true crowd-pleaser. It is often spectacular, a thing of power and strength – or it was, because there are far more than there used to be.

I was lucky enough to be present when the ultimate boundary-clearing record was broken, when West Indies cricketer Garfield St Aubrun (Garry) Sobers became the first player in the, roughly, 200 year history of the sport to hit every ball of an over for six, playing for Nottinghamshire against Glamorgan at Swansea.

I wrote an account of that day and its context in That Was the Day – Sobers Six Hit Perfection at Swansea. This is an edited extract from my book.

Long before the days of the frantic slog of 20 20 Cricket, when the game proceeded at a gentle rhythm, the draw was a standard result, and the ball cleared the boundary rope without bouncing far less often than it does today, there occurred cricket’s perfect storm. Without warning, almost as if he just felt like it, the greatest cricketer of his day hit all six balls in an over for six.

In ran Nash. All he had to do was put it on a spot where Sobers couldn’t hit it, or at least pitch it up so he couldn’t unleash that deadly swing. If only it was as easy to keep yourself out of the history books in the presence of greatness.

For the first time in the over Sobers, who had despatched the previous five balls for six, seemed to be really trying. In a microsecond his brain had processed the delivery, and the instant it bounced his bat was describing a glorious arc over his right shoulder.

If they ever recreate the over in a movie, I hope the director doesn’t slow this sequence down. The drama is the speed. In a heartbeat, the ball was over the boundary above our heads, still rising.

[Sobers] “Even if I had a top edge it would have gone for six, but I caught it right in the middle of the bat and not only did it clear the short boundary, but it went over the stand as well running, down the hill towards Swansea town centre.” We will forgive him the exaggeration.

“All the way to Swansea” confirmed Wilf Wooller (more understandable excess) in his television commentary. In another sense the ball went further still. Right around the world.

It was the strangest sort of excitement. Not the elation of victory, but the “did you see that?” murmuring after you have witnessed something rare and tremendous. I remember feeling very privileged, that in that instant there was nowhere in the world I would rather have been. I would like to report that Dad and I leapt to our feet to cheer and whoop and hug one another with abandon, then shout out across Swansea: ”Do you know what you just missed?!” But we didn’t. Because in those days you didn’t do those things.

All around there was a murmuring of incredulity, then the sort of warm but restrained applause we wouldn’t recognise today. Pictures show about a quarter of the crowd on their feet, the rest clapping where they sat. We had just seen the most perfect piece of hitting in the history of cricket.

When play began on August 31st 1968 the record for the most runs off an over of six legitimate balls (not full tosses, which are easier to hit) was 32 by Cyril Smart of Glamorgan against Hampshire at Cardiff in 1935. A.W Wellard had scored 5 sixes and a 1 in 1938, and Bradman managed 30 in 1934. (Which is a surprise in itself as Bradman hardly ever hit sixes – the Don hit just six sixes compared to 618 fours in Test cricket.)

Even these formidable achievements were scattered over the years. The very historical randomness is a comment on the immensity of the task. Nobody had any reason to expect the total to be exceeded in 1968. Cricket – like baseball – is a game where 11 opposing players strive mightily to stop the progress of the man at the crease, and ideally to get him out. Only by hitting the ball for six is he quite beyond their interference. No other stroke brings immunity. Batsmen aren’t safe simply by striking the ball well. They can be run out after the most brilliant ground strokes. The finest “certain” four can be cut off at the boundary; a swift return and the batsman’s wicket is broken while he is out of his ground.

The hit for six is different. It represents a moment of pure victory for the batsman over one man, the bowler. It puts the cricket ball beyond the hopes of the fielding side. The ball can be caught over the boundary, but the catch merely mocks the person who takes it because the batsmen is unequivocally not out.

The perfect six sixes, although technically achievable in any six ball over ever bowled, was never considered by statisticians as “only a matter of time”. sIt is important to put those distant 1968 sixes in perspective. Younger readers might wonder what all the fuss is about. There are certainly many more big hits today than there used to be, and a one-day game without a smattering of sixes would be an oddity indeed. Bats are heavier, although the evidence that people are hitting the ball higher and harder because of their bats alone is inconclusive.

The one day game has brought bigger, more urgent hitting, but one-day cricket was already being played in 1968, and the first one day six sixes over did not happen until 16 March 2007, in a match between South Africa and the Netherlands at the Cricket World Cup. The big change has come with the introduction of Twenty20 (T20) cricket (20 overs a side), where walloping the ball as hard and as far as possible is one of this game’s principal aims.

On 19 September 2007, in a match between England and India, Indian cricketer Yuvraj Singh hit six sixes off a six-ball over in a Twenty20 game during the inaugural ICC Twenty20 World Cup in Durban, South Africa. The bowler was Stuart Broad of England. As late as the 1970 and 80s, sixes were rare enough to be commented on as individual strokes.

At Lords in 1977 Glamorgan‘s Mike Llewellyn almost joined a small band of players to have hit a ball over the Pavilion. His feat came during the game with Middlesex in the Gillette Cup Final. The left-hander had already hit Mike Gatting for six. His next six, off John Emburey, rolled back into the gutter of the top tier of the pavilion. In modern times we look to batsmen such as Andrew Flintoff and Kevin Pieterson for prodigious hitting. Ian Botham once managed 32 (4, 6, 6, 4, 6, 6) off I R Snook against Central Districts in New Zealand. Wisden notes huffily that some instances of high scoring in an over have been excluded from the official record “because of the bowlers’ compliance”.

There have been several examples of prodigious hitting at Swansea, before boundary clearing became commonplace. In 1964 Tom Veivers hit six sixes in his defiant 51 in defeat by Glamorgan. Glamorgan’s Matthew Maynard, as a 19-year old here in 1995, hit three successive sixes to reach a century against Yorkshire.

Elsewhere, in a quickening accumulation of big hits, records are being rapidly revised. The record for most sixes in a Test match innings stands at 12, by Pakistani all-rounder Wasim Akram – in an innings of 257 not out against Zimbabwe in 1996. The one day international record for most sixes hit in an innings is held by Shane Watson, with 15 against Bangladesh in Dhaka in April 2011. Adam Gilchrist tops the list of most sixes in a Test career (100 as of March 2009). Shahid Afridi holds the record for most sixes in an one day international career (293 in 296 matches). The record for the most sixes in a Test match is 27, in a 2006 encounter between Pakistan and India.

How much pleasure is there, ultimately, in witnessing a six, Barney Ronay wondered in an article in the Guardian. “Certainly it is a diminishing pleasure, as in any debauch.” (Consider this, at the time of writing, Ross Taylor of New Zealand held the record for the T20 with 164 sixes.) “This could be the self-defeating irony of a format based on an assumption of unceasingly progressive excitement,” writes Ronay.

There is only one barrier yet to be broken, a six struck off every ball in a test match over. I would like to think that will never happen, although Kapil Dev came close at Lords in 1990 when he hit the first four balls from Eddie Hemmings for six to save the follow-on. Perhaps purists will now retreat from cricket’s blunderbuss dimension, to an appreciation of the artistry of the men who preferred the hit for four, and had very few sixes against their names. Men such as Bradman and Jack Hobbs. Would that be an even finer achievement, the mark of a higher technical ability, hitting every ball for four, against the very best bowling?


And what of Sobers. His feat retains a completeness of its own. Let’s try a geographical analogy. The first European to see the Pacific after crossing America? Or even an interplanetary one: the first man on the moon? It could only be done once, for the first time. Cricket has other records that will inevitably be smashed. There will be bigger scores, faster centuries, examples of the ball struck further, just as athletes will hurl a javelin further, just as microscopic slivers will always be shaved off the 100m or the 1500m record, although some, such as the 3 ½ minute mile may never be achieved.

But even if the game is still played centuries from now, Sobers will be remembered as the first man to hit the perfect six off six deliveries.