Garfield St Aubrun Sobers was born on 28 July 1936 to Shamont and Thelma Sobers of Walcott Avenue, Bay Land, St Michael, Bridgetown, Barbados, and was the fifth of six children. At birth he had two extra fingers, one on each hand, which he removed himself during childhood, "with the aid of catgut and a sharp knife." Sobers was only five when his father died at sea in January 1942, after his ship was torpedoed by a German U-boat.
Sobers gained useful experience by bowling to Wanderers batsmen, including West Indies Test player Denis Atkinson, at practice in the nets and soon developed his great skill as a left arm spin Bowler. More importantly for his career, he was observed by Inspector Wilfred Farmer, captain of the Police team in the BCL First Division. Farmer offered Sobers a chance to play for Police in the 1951–52 season while he was still only 15. In the 1952–53 season, Sobers was invited to the Barbados trials for the colony's tour match against the Indian touring team at Kensington Oval, Bridgetown. He was initially selected as 12th man but then made the team itself when Frank King was forced to withdraw. He therefore made his first-class debut on 31 January 1953, aged only 16. Batting at number nine, he scored 7 not out in his only innings but made an immediate impression as a Bowler, taking 4/50 and 3/92.
Australia toured the West Indies in 1954–55, and their all-rounder Keith Miller thought that Sobers would become a better batsman than Bowler despite batting in the lower-order. Sobers was not selected for the First Test, which the West Indies lost by nine wickets. However, he regained his place for the Second Test in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago. The match was a high-scoring draw, with Sobers scoring 47 and eight not out. He was barely used with the ball, bowling three overs for ten runs, as Australia amassed a first-innings total of over 600. Sobers was given a further opportunity in the next Test in Georgetown, Guyana (British Guiana at the time) in South America. Despite scoring only 12 and 11 with the bat, he took three wickets in the Australians' first innings. Nevertheless, Australia won by eight wickets. West Indian captain and opening batsman Jeff Stollmeyer twisted his ankle after treading on a ball ahead of the Fourth Test in Barbados, "triggering huge debate about who should open." Eventually, Sobers was chosen to open the innings after Australia had amassed another total of over 600. Sobers had a suspicion he might be asked to do the job. "I couldn't see them sending in anyone else — I was a Bowler with a little ability as a batsman and they wanted someone to help see off the shine and protect the three W's." Sobers struck his first three deliveries for boundaries, all from the bowling of Miller. In the fast-bowler's second over, Sobers hit him for another three fours. He was eventually dismissed for 43 out of a first-wicket partnership of 52 with JK Holt. The match was drawn, and Sobers took one wicket in the Australians' only innings, before scoring 11 in the West Indies second innings. The home team were again defeated in the Fifth and final Test in Jamaica. Sobers performed with the bat, however, scoring 35 not out and 64.
Sobers went on his first overseas tour in the early months of 1956 when, aged 19, he was part of the West Indian tour of New Zealand. The series was not successful personally for Sobers, who struggled on the foreign batting wickets. West Indies pitches had little or no grass to speak of, while in New Zealand the pitches were green. "I took one look and asked myself how I could possibly bat on that? How could I make runs? I was out before I even walked to the crease," Sobers later wrote. Playing in all four Tests, he totalled 81 runs and two wickets. As a batsman, Sobers needed time to develop at Test level and, in nine Tests as a teenager, he scored only one half century, and averaged 29.33 with the bat.
Sobers spent several seasons in English league cricket. Having completed his first tour of England with West Indies in 1957, he followed the advice of his mentor Frank Worrell and became the professional at Radcliffe Cricket Club in the Central Lancashire League, staying for five seasons from 1958 to 1962. This experience enabled him to hone his skills in varying conditions and Sobers says that playing in the league furthered his cricket education. He enjoyed considerable success at Radcliffe. In 1961, he achieved a rare "double" by scoring 1008 runs and taking 144 wickets, his performances being instrumental in Radcliffe winning both the league's championship title and its supplementary Wood Cup competition.
While he was engaged at Radcliffe, Sobers underwent emotional trauma after a road accident in September 1959 on the A34 near Stoke-on-Trent which resulted in Collie Smith's death. Sobers was driving a car in which Smith and another West Indian Test player Tom Dewdney were passengers. Smith's back was broken by the collision and he died three days later. Sobers could not recall much about the crash and was fined 10 pounds for driving without due care and attention. He "began drinking more" and there were concerns, expressed by himself and others, that the experience might affect his cricket career. He got over the trauma by deciding that he would be letting his country down if he "disappeared into the mists of an alcoholic haze" and he resolved to play not just for Garfield Sobers but for Collie Smith as well, thus setting himself the task of playing for two men. He recovered well and, after an outstanding home Test series against England in 1959–60, he returned to Radcliffe where he continued as club professional for the next three seasons.
Sobers took 15 wickets in the 1960–61 series, including a best analysis of 5/120, at an average of 39.20, and his bowling allowed Worrell to play an extra batsman in the final three Tests, thus using Sobers for the first time as a designated all-rounder, a role in which he became the dominant player in world cricket over the next decade, being awarded the Wisden Leading Cricketer in the World title (retrospectively) eight times in 13 years. Sobers was never a prolific wicket-taker in Test cricket, and his average of three wickets per game in this series typified his whole career. Overall, he took 235 wickets in his 93 Tests at an average of 34.03 and was more effective when operating as a pace Bowler. His best performance was 6/73 and, although he achieved five wickets in an innings six times, he never took ten in a match.
In the 1961–62 Australian season which followed the 1960–61 West Indies tour, Sobers and his West Indian colleagues Wes Hall and Rohan Kanhai returned to Australia to take part in the Sheffield Shield. Sobers played for South Australia and had an enormous impact on attendances, causing an 89% increase with gate receipts rising "by two and a half times". He topped both the batting and bowling averages at South Australia, his best performance being against champions New South Wales at the Adelaide Oval when he scored 251 and took 3/51 and 6/72.
He was even more outstanding in 1963–64 when, largely due to his efforts, South Australia won the Sheffield Shield. Sobers was the season's leading runscorer with 973 at 74.84 and the leading wicket taker with 47 at 28.27.
Sobers was briefly engaged to Indian Actress Anju Mahendru after he met her on the 1966–67 tour of India. He married Prue Kirby, an Australian, in September 1969. They had two sons, Matthew and Daniel, and an adopted daughter, Genevieve. The marriage ended in divorce in 1990 after the couple broke up in 1984; however, Sobers acquired dual Australian citizenship through marriage in 1980.
At the end of the 1967 English cricket season, it was agreed that each county club could immediately sign a non-English player for the 1968 season. Seven clubs approached Sobers and, on 14 December 1967, Nottinghamshire announced that he had signed for them and had been appointed club captain. Sobers stated that, although he had enjoyed his time in league cricket, he had a definite preference for the first-class game and he looked forward to restoring Nottinghamshire's fortunes. Though details were undisclosed, Wisden 1968 speculated that his contract would run for three years and be worth £7000 a year (a very high income at the time), including an apartment and a car.
On 31 August 1968, Sobers became the first batsman ever to hit six sixes in a single over of six consecutive balls in first-class cricket. The feat consisted of five clean hits for six and one six where the ball was caught but carried over the boundary by Roger Davis. Sobers was playing as captain of Nottinghamshire against Glamorgan at St. Helen's in Swansea; the unfortunate Bowler was Malcolm Nash. This tally of 36 runs in an over broke a 57-year-old record of 34 runs, held by Ted Alletson. The ball was collected from a garden by 11-year-old Richard Lewis; he later gave the ball to Sobers. In 1984–85, Indian batsman Ravi Shastri equalled the record by scoring six sixes in an over while playing for Bombay versus Baroda.
C. L. R. James, when describing the batsmanship of Wilton St Hill, commented upon St Hill's ability to judge the ball early in its FLIGHT and so quickly decide which stroke to play. In James's view, only Don Bradman and Sobers were comparable with St Hill in having this capability of "seeing" the ball. Wisden 1969 described the "lightning footwork" of Sobers as he got into position for his stroke. Commenting upon Sobers' six sixes in an over against his team in 1968, Glamorgan captain Tony Lewis said: "It was not sheer slogging through strength, but scientific hitting with every movement working in harmony."
In 1970, captaining the Rest of the World XI against England, he took 6/21 on the opening day of the First (unofficial) Test at Lord's with pace bowling, the ball swinging and seaming at high speed. He then scored "a magnificent" 183 and helped bowl out England in the second innings using his left arm wrist spin. In the Fourth Test at Headingley, Sobers scored 114 and 59 as his team won by two wickets. Following the Rest of the World series, he outraged many in the West Indies by playing in a friendly double-wicket tournament in Rhodesia in September 1970.
In January 1972, in the Third (unofficial) Test between Australia and the Rest of the World XI at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, Sobers played an innings of 254 which was described by Don Bradman as "probably the greatest exhibition of batting ever seen in Australia". He reached his century in 129 balls and after a rest day, reached 254 in 326 balls. It was "one of the most magnificent innings seen on the Melbourne Cricket Ground" and his "superb display of forceful cricket" lasted 376 minutes and included two sixes and 33 fours.
He was the subject of This Is Your Life in 1975 when he was surprised by Eamonn Andrews while attending a reception at the Barbados High Commission in London to celebrate his recent knighthood.
In 2000 Sobers was named by a 100-member panel of experts as one of the five Wisden Cricketers of the Century. He received 90 votes out of a possible 100. The other four cricketers selected for the honour were Don Bradman (100 votes), Jack Hobbs (30), Shane Warne (27) and Viv Richards (25).
In 2004, the International Cricket Council (ICC) inaugurated the Sir Garfield Sobers Trophy which is awarded annually to the player selected by ICC as its Player of the Year. The recommendation to name the award after Sobers was made by a panel consisting of Richie Benaud, Sunil Gavaskar and Michael Holding, who were asked by the ICC "to select an individual with whom to honour cricket's ultimate individual award".
In 2007 Wisden retrospectively selected the Leading Cricketer in the World for every year dating back to 1900 (except 1915–18 and 1940–45), Sobers being selected for eight years (1958, 1960, 1962, 1964–66, 1968 and 1970). Only Sobers and Bradman (10) received the accolade more than three times.