What a £26,400 cricket ball tells us about our mania for sport

The ball that cricketing legend Sir Garry Sobers smashed for six sixes in one over at St Helen's in 1968 was sold at Christie's in 2006 - only, it turned out to be the wrong ball.

Writing about sport throws up a unique challenge. The affection for the subject that most, if not all, sports writers have means that the usual journalistic scepticism wrestles constantly with the desire to believe that what we want to see is what we are seeing. Sport engages because of the glory that comes with achievement, because of its capacity to inspire, its ability to help us escape the everyday, if only for a moment. So when doubt emerges, when a tiny something suggests that all is not as it seems, it’s easy to look away.

It’s something the Sunday Times journalist David Walsh goes into in some depth in his book Seven Deadly Sins, in which he details his growing realisation of the enormity of cycling’s doping culture and his pursuit of the truth about Lance Armstrong. Everyone wanted to believe that cycling had cleaned up, and everyone wanted to believe that Armstrong had battled back from life-threatening cancer to achieve sporting glory. It was a magnificently inspiring narrative. For some years, Walsh was a pariah for questioning it but now, thanks to his efforts and the bravery of the cycling insiders who decided to speak out, we know it was untrue.

The need to believe fuels sporting passion, and it drives an increasingly lucrative market for sporting memorabilia. The chance to own a piece of sporting history is the chance to make a physical connection with the magic. That’s why, in 2006, a cricket ball was sold at London auction house Christie’s for a staggering £26,400. For this was not just any cricket ball. It was the ball that cricketing legend Sir Garry Sobers smashed for six sixes in one over at St Helen’s in Swansea during a match between Glamorgan and Nottinghamshire in 1968. Sobers was the first batsman in first class cricket history to achieve the feat, and it has only been matched three times since. The ball came with a signed certificate of provenance from Sobers himself, and fetched a world record price.

The trouble is, it is not the ball with which history was made. Journalist Grahame Lloyd discovered that fact, for fact it is, when writing a book on the 40th anniversary of the Six Sixes over. And he’s still trying to set the record straight.

The ball auctioned by Christie’s was made by Duke & Son. But the balls used by Glamorgan throughout the 1960s were supplied by the Stuart Surridge firm. The bowler who bowled the over to Sobers that day, Malcolm Nash, remembers the ball was a Surridge, not a Duke. In the lot notes, Christies said the ball was one of three used during the over. Nash is certain he did not change balls. What’s more, BBC TV footage of the over clearly shows the same ball being returned to Nash after the first five sixes, and then hit out of the ground for the sixth. (It was returned two days later by a schoolboy who found it in the street).

The discovery presented Lloyd with a dilemma. He had wanted his 40th anniversary book, Six of the Best, to be the definitive record of an iconic sporting moment. But what he had uncovered called the integrity of Sobers, not only a cricketing colossus but a boyhood hero of Lloyd’s, into question. Also called into question was the judgement of Christie’s, an institution firmly embedded in the British establishment and with an international reputation. When you are an individual journalist about to go up against such reputations, and such power, you think twice. Lloyd thought, and decided that not to pursue the case would not be cricket.

In his book on the anniversary, he raised the doubts. In his latest book Howzat? The Six Sixes Ball Mystery, he pursues the protagonists in an effort to discover how the wrong ball came to be sold, and to set the record straight. It’s a meticulously-researched investigation featuring a rich cast of characters, deployed with a deft storytelling touch by Lloyd.

High passions make it difficult to be impartial about sport. Photograph: Getty Images.

Martin Cloake is a writer and editor based in London. You can follow him on Twitter at @MartinCloake.

Photo: Getty
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Tory arguments about public sector pay are misguided and divisive

The only oppositions that matter are between capital and labour, and between top executives and everybody else.

Is Philip Hammond right? Are public sector workers better paid than workers in the private sector who hold equivalent qualifications? Yes, if we believe the Office for National Statistics and the Institute for Fiscal Studies. Yet the calculations do not take into account the private sector’s bonuses (though most private sector workers never have bonuses) or the public sector’s considerably better pension rights. And if you try to take account of the burdens imposed by staffing cuts (probably greater in the public sector), you will get a headache.

The calculations are further complicated by the increasingly blurred lines between the sectors. The main point of privatisation and outsourcing, regardless of waffle about “efficiencies”, is to cut wages for ordinary workers while boosting them for the boss class. It would be surprising if this project hadn’t achieved some success, though train drivers, reportedly singled out by Hammond as “ludicrously overpaid”, are unambiguously in the private sector.

The Tories contrive such arguments to divide those who are justly aggrieved by low wages. Public v private, migrants v true-born Britons, women v men, graduates v non-graduates, train drivers v less skilled workers. The only oppositions that matter are between capital and labour, and between top executives and everybody else. Hammond cannot expect nurses and teachers to accept stagnant wages just because wages for office workers and delivery people have stagnated at a lower level.

First class

For years, everyone complained that young people didn’t bother to vote. Now, they are accused of voting too much. The Electoral Commission’s report on last month’s general election, while noting “lack of evidence of widespread abuse”, says it takes “very seriously” boasts by people on social media that they voted twice. Tory MPs and defeated candidates are also taking this seriously, with students the alleged culprits.

Electoral law allows people to register in two locations if they have two residences. Students, therefore, can register at their family home and their term-time abode. In local elections, they can vote in both locations, provided different councils are involved. In general elections, they can vote only once. It is all very confusing and, theoretically, wide open to abuse. But think of the practicalities. To influence results significantly, a voter needs to have residences in two marginal constituencies and to have time, energy, money and organisation to travel from one to the other in a day. Does that sound like any student you know?

Austerity blues

Several weeks ago, I drew attention to falling life expectancy in the US and France. Now the leading epidemiologist Michael Marmot finds that increases in British life expectancy – uninterrupted since the Second World War – are “pretty close to having ground to a halt” since 2010. Marmot says it is “entirely possible” that austerity has played a role. He offers no analysis of which sections of the population are most affected but you need only read the Times’s death notices to know that top people rarely die before their nineties. I hope Labour will use this open goal.

Sex degrees of separation

Seumas Milne, Jeremy Corbyn’s spin doctor, may have other things on his mind, however. To the excitement of the tabloid press, he was recently photographed embracing a young blonde lawyer not his wife. Hacks unearthed the woman’s “links” to Julian Assange, whom she once represented (no impropriety alleged), and to her close friend Amal Clooney (ditto), the human rights lawyer married to George Clooney.

In London, where the political, media, arts and legal establishments are closely entwined, it is always possible to find such “links”. When I edited the Independent on Sunday, I entertained my boss David Montgomery, the Mirror Group’s chief executive, by drawing circles of relationships between leading upmarket media figures. These showed that, if you started with A, who had slept with B, who had slept with C, and so on, you could usually get back to A in about six steps. Montgomery was so thrilled that he summoned the editors of Mirror Group tabloids to admire this product of a broadsheet editor’s intellect.

Mail pattern weirdness

The Daily Mail is outraged that the new Doctor Who will be female. Male heroes, it screams, are “disappearing from the box”. Its TV critic complains that, “in almost every new British drama, men are relegated to sidekick status or else cast as moral weaklings”. Doctor Who has been ruined by lesbianism and “transgender politics”. BBC executives are “wrecking their own Saturday night mainstay to demonstrate how right-on they are”.

I worry about the Mail. Since Theresa May’s disastrous election performance – the Mail backed her more emphatically than it backed even Margaret Thatcher – it has become increasingly deranged. A few weeks ago, it blamed her failure to woo voters on the influence of “headmasters”. Paul Dacre, the editor, celebrates 25 years in the chair this year. Is it time for the proprietor, Lord Rothermere, to suggest that Dacre retires to his 17,000-acre estate in the Scottish Highlands where there is excellent shooting and deerstalking to be had?

Over the top

The England cricket coach Trevor Bayliss said earlier this year: “This is an entertainment business. If you are not entertaining, people don’t turn up.” Indeed. Under him, the team has developed the habit of losing a Test match by a large margin immediately after winning one. It has just done it once more against South Africa at Trent Bridge in Nottingham. And nobody can deny that, with two matches to play, a Test series squared at 1-1 promises more entertainment and more spectators than would a series in which England led 2-0. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder