After South Africa’s tour of Australia in the 1970-’71 season was cancelled in the wake of the controversy over apartheid, Australia faced a season without international cricket.
The administrators quickly got to work. They sent invites to players all around the world asking them if they would wanted to be part of a Rest of the World team to play a series of five unofficial Tests and three one-dayers.
Scrambled together, yes. But it wasn’t a weak team by any standard. It included among others, Bishan Bedi, Sunil Gavaskar, Zaheer Abbas, Intikhab Alam, Clive Lloyd, Rohan Kanhai and Tony Greig. There was even place for a few South Africans – Graeme Pollock and his brother Peter and opening batsmen Hylton Ackerman. The team was to be captained by West Indian legend Garry Sobers.
It was a very talented team no doubt but they had never played as a unit together and against a well-drilled Australian team lead by Ian Chappell, they were not going to have it easy.
The first Test at Brisbane was rain-affected and ended in a draw. But things got ugly for the World XI at Perth, the venue for the second Test. Australia won by an innings and 11 runs after Dennis Lillee ran riot in the first innings.
The hosts put on 349 in their innings and in reply, the ROW XI were bowled out for just 59 in 14.1 overs with Lillee claiming an incredible 8/29. The ROW XI did a little better in the second innings, putting on 279, but it wasn’t enough.
So as the circus moved to Melbourne for the third Test, the Australian team was feeling pretty good about itself. And when ROW XI were dismissed for 184 in their innings with Sobers making a duck, that feeling just got stronger.
There was even some talk that Sobers had become Dennis Lillee’s bunny as he had hardly scored any runs going into the Melbourne Test. But now that was exactly the kind of thing that fired up Sobers.
“I went in to bat (in the first innings) and Dennis came up with a short-pitched ball,” Sobers told the Wisden Asia Cricket magazine in 2002. “I played a little bit early and (Keith) Stackpole picked me up at second slip. That evening I went to the dressing room where Ian (Chappell, Australia captain) was sitting and said to him, ‘You’ve got a boy here called Lillee. Every time I have gone in, all I have got from him is bouncers. I want you to tell him that I can bowl quick too, and I can bowl bouncers. So watch out for me when he comes in’.”
And then, when Lillee came in to bat, Sobers tried to push that thought out of his mind initially. He bowled regular cricket deliveries – outside the off-stump, trying to induce the edge. But then Greig ran in and egged him on.
Sobers decided to give Lillee a taste of his own medicine and one of those bouncers whizzed past Lillee’s head. The Australian suddenly understood he was in a battle. But he didn’t hang around for long after that. He was dismissed the next ball for a duck.
Now, Lillee knew he wasn’t a batsman but he was always up to riling the batsmen in whatever way he could. So that evening he went back to the dressing room and told Ian Chappell that he will show Sobers a thing or two in the second innings.
Now, Chappell let Sobers, who had come by the Australian dressing room for a chat in the evening, know what Lillee had told him.
“At the end of the day’s play we went back to the dressing room and I went to Ian again and sat by him,” Sobers told Wisden Asia Cricket in 2002. “He said, ‘I’ll tell you something: when Dennis came in, before he reached the room, the bat hit the wall, and he said, ‘That little so-and-so, I will show him. I haven’t really bowled quick at him yet’.’ So I said, ‘Well, he’s got the ball, I’ve got the bat. I’ve never met the one who can scare me before, and I don’t think that I will’.”
Sobers came to the wicket in the afternoon session of the third day’s play with the ROW XI at 3/146. And given his form in the series, not much was expected. But the West Indian was in a different mood that day.
The timing and power was there from ball one and the virtuosity of his genius batsmanship was on display for anyone who wanted to watch. He made a pretty strong statement that day. The spectators simply sat back and marvelled at the occasion. It was the fearless brand of cricket that had made Sobers one of the most exciting cricketers in the world.
He ended the day on 139 not out. There was a rest day scheduled but when the match restarted, Sobers simply took off again. He wasn’t holding back at all.
The Australia attack – Lillee, Bob Massie, Graeme Watson, Terry Jenner, Kerry O’Keeffe – was pretty good but Sobers made them look positively second-string. He was particularly brutal on Lillee, who was smashed for 133 runs in his 30 overs.
By the time, Sobers was dismissed for 254 the next day, ROW XI was 9/505 leaving Australia a target of more than 400 to win the Test. Now, there is no official record of how many balls he faced. But according to unofficial records, he batted for only six hours and 16 minutes and hit 35 fours and two sixes in his knock.
The great Don Bradman was awestruck by the innings as well and gave it high praise.
“The innings was probably the best seen in Australia. The people who saw Sobers have enjoyed one of the historic events of cricket. They were privileged to have such an experience,” said Bradman.
But the best part for Sobers was the statement that Lillee made as the West Indian was walking back to the dressing room after being dismissed.
“The important thing about that innings was that when I was walking off,” said Sobers in the Wisden Asia Cricket interview. “And they were all clapping, Dennis looked at me and said, ‘I’ve heard about you and now I’ve got my tail cut properly’.”
The knock effectively won the game for ROW.
You can watch the highlights of the great innings below: