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.

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The joy of only winning once: why England should be proud of 1966

We feel the glory of that triumphant moment, 50 years ago, all the more because of all the other occasions when we have failed to win.

There’s a phrase in football that I really hate. It used to be “Thirty years of hurt”. Each time the England team crashes out of a major tournament it gets regurgitated with extra years added. Rather predictably, when England lost to Iceland in Euro 2016, it became “Fifty years of hurt”. We’ve never won the European Championship and in 17 attempts to win the World Cup we have only won once. I’m going to tell you why that’s a record to cherish.

I was seven in 1966. Our telly was broken so I had to watch the World Cup final with a neighbour. I sat squeezed on my friend Colin’s settee as his dad cheered on England with phrases like “Sock it to them Bobby”, as old fashioned now as a football rattle. When England took the lead for the second time I remember thinking, what will it feel like, when we English are actually Champions of the World. Not long after I knew. It felt good.

Wembley Stadium, 30 July 1966, was our only ever World Cup win. But let’s imagine what it would be like if, as with our rivals, we’d won it many times? Brazil have been World Champions on five occasions, Germany four, and Italy four. Most England fans would be “over the moon” if they could boast a similarly glorious record. They’re wrong. I believe it’s wonderful that we’ve only triumphed once. We all share that one single powerful memory. Sometimes in life less is definitely more.

Something extraordinary has happened. Few of us are even old enough to remember, but somehow, we all know everything that happened that day. Even if you care little about the beautiful game, I’m going to bet that you can recall as many as five iconic moments from 50 years ago. You will have clearly in your mind the BBC commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme’s famous lines, as Geoff Hurst tore down the pitch to score his hat-trick: “Some people are on the pitch. They think it’s all over. It is now”. And it was. 4 - 2 to England against West Germany. Thirty minutes earlier the Germans had equalised in the dying moments of the second half to take the game to extra time.

More drama we all share: Geoff Hurst’s second goal. Or the goal that wasn’t, as technology has since, I think, conclusively proved. The shot that crashed off the cross bar and did or didn’t cross the line. Of course, even if you weren’t alive at the time, you will know that the linesman, one Tofiq Bakhramov, from Azerbaijan (often incorrectly referred to as “Russian”) could speak not a word of English, signalled it as a goal.

Then there’s the England Captain, the oh-so-young and handsome Bobby Moore. The very embodiment of the era. You can picture him now wiping his muddy hands on his white shorts before he shakes hands with a youthful Queen Elizabeth. Later you see him lifted aloft by his team mates holding the small golden Jules Rimet trophy.

How incredible, how simply marvellous that as a nation we share such golden memories. How sad for the Brazilians and Germans. Their more numerous triumphs are dissipated through the generations. In those countries each generation will remember each victory but not with the intensity with which we English still celebrate 1966. It’s as if sex was best the first time. The first cut is the deepest.

On Colin’s dad’s TV the pictures were black and white and so were the flags. Recently I looked at the full colour Pathe newsreel of the game. It’s the red, white and blue of the Union Jack that dominates. The red cross of Saint George didn’t really come into prominence until the Nineties. The left don’t like flags much, unless they’re “deepest red”. Certainly not the Union Flag. It smacks of imperialism perhaps. In 1966 we didn’t seem to know if we were English or British. Maybe there was, and still is, something admirable and casual about not knowing who we are or what is our proper flag. 

Twelve years later I’m in Cuba at the “World Festival of Youth” – the only occasion I’ve represented my country. It was my chance to march into a stadium under my nation’s flag. Sadly, it never happened as my fellow delegates argued for hours over what, if any, flag we British should walk behind. The delegation leaders – you will have heard of them now, but they were young and unknown then – Peter Mandelson, Trevor Phillips and Charles Clarke, had to find a way out of this impasse. In the end, each delegation walked into the stadium behind their flag, except the British. Poor Mandelson stood alone for hours holding Union Jack, sweltering in the tropical sun. No other country seemed to have a problem with their flag. I guess theirs speak of revolution; ours of colonialism.

On Saturday 30 July BBC Radio 2 will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1966 World Cup Final, live from Wembley Arena. Such a celebration is only possible because on 16 occasions we failed to win that trophy. Let’s banish this idea of “Fifty years of hurt” once and for all and embrace the joy of only winning once.

Phil Jones edits the Jeremy Vine Show on BBC Radio 2. On Saturday 30 July the station celebrates the 50th anniversary of the 1966 World Cup Final live from Wembley Arena, telling the story of football’s most famous match, minute by minuteTickets are available from: www.wc66.org