Viv Richards: The bowler's nemesis

At Headingley last week, the West Indies were running out of batsmen: Shivnarine Chanderpaul had withdrawn with tendinitis, and their captain, Ramnaresh Sarwan, had just damaged his shoulder diving over the rope while trying to save a boundary.

Christopher Martin-Jenkins, microphone in hand, turned to Viv Richards, who was working for BBC radio, and asked: “When did you last play?” And a ridiculous thought flickered across our minds. It was ridiculous.

Viv Richards played his last Test match for the West Indies 16 years ago. He is now 55, but he doesn’t look it. His torso retains that amazing triangular shape. Not an ounce of fat is visible on his immaculately clad body—even though he has never yet entered a gymnasium.

Even today, he would probably score as many runs as Sylvester Joseph. The eyes still look sharp—these were the eyes that subjugated every bowler in the 1970s and 1980s. One moment they allowed him to see the ball that millisecond faster than anyone else, the next they could stare down the pitch with such intensity that bowlers shrivelled in his presence.

“I won the glare with the bowler every time,” Richards says, “because I knew that at some time he was going to have to turn around and go back to his mark.”

But it was more than that: Richards prevailed because he had an aura beyond that of any cricketer of his generation. Several bowlers could intimidate, but he was the one batsman who could scare the living daylights out of opponents from the moment he entered the arena.

He would wait a little for his stage to be cleared, then the languid swagger, the banging of the bat handle with the palm of his hand, the cap—no helmet for Vivian Richards—and the gum.

His recall of those entrances is matter-of-fact compared with the impact they had on those who witnessed them.

“I felt I was good enough to deal with the bowlers without using a helmet. I just didn’t want to give them any encouragement.”

In that era, Richards alone eschewed the helmet. “I used to pat the top of the bat handle to make sure the rubber wasn’t sticking out. As for the gum, well, a dentist once tried to tell me to wear a gumshield. But, for me, going out to bat without chewing gum was like going out without a box. And you can’t chew gum with a gumshield.”

Bump into any bowler who played against Richards and they have never forgotten the experience: they all remember the time he smashed them; some are fortunate to recall the time he was dismissed by them. Today, only one cricketer possesses that kind of aura—Shane Warne. Has he faced Warne? “Only in a benefit game.” How would he have played him? “Oh, I would have tried to hit him.”

Richards never sought survival against the best bowlers, he sought domination—and was rarely denied. Against England this meant putting Bob Willis and Derek Underwood to the sword. After John Emburey received a mauling in Antigua in 1986 I tried to console the Middlesex man that this was something of a compliment, but the wounds were still too raw.

So when Richards makes one of his visits back to the Test circuit, he commands attention. Indeed, when he was working with Geoffrey Boycott on radio, there was the odd moment detectable when even Boycott yielded centre stage.

Richards might not possess the verbal dexterity of, say, Stephen Fry, but when the rain came down at Leeds his recollections of his playing days and his views on a West Indies side that was about to endure their biggest ever defeat were fascinating.

At Headingley he went to the visitors’ dressing room a few times. The passion for West Indian cricket remains and defeat hurts, though there is not much a brief visit to the dressing room can do—except to show this generation of players that he cares.

When he was chairperson of selectors there were even complaints from some of the players about Richards’s presence in the dressing room. He was too overpowering. Not for the first time he was intimidating his own team. Now he is careful about being too specific in any criticisms of the current side.

“This team has a serious responsibility to continue the legacy,” he says. “They are still passionate about cricket in the Caribbean. It is a bit of a myth that basketball has taken over. I sometimes listen to the ‘call-in’ programmes and, I tell you, those lines are hot, not just with old folk and not just from one island. If the national side could provide the region with some success then cricket would be buzzing again.”

But the decline of West Indian cricket exasperates him and rather than articulate a learned thesis about coaching structures or technical expertise, the answer for him is always about passion and discipline. These were the key elements of Richards the cricketer. Refinements to technique might happen along the way, but they were incidental.

Somehow Richards, with that burning inner passion, just willed himself to succeed. Discipline was certainly imposed by his father, a prison officer in St John’s, Antigua, who permitted no nonsense from any of his sons.

However, he was wise enough not to put too much additional pressure on the prodigy. “He used to hide behind a tree when he came to watch me as a kid,” recalls Richards, “just in case his presence put me off. But then sometimes I would hear his voice from behind the tree booming with some advice.”

To suggest that Brian Close, Somerset’s captain in 1974, took on the paternal duties when Richards arrived in Taunton aged 22 might be stretching the truth a little, but Richards is quick to acknowledge the debt he owes the bald old blighter.

“I travelled miles with him. I’m not sure the rest of the side were that keen to go in his car—he had a habit of reading the Sporting Life as he was driving along and he was known to nod off just towards the end of the trip. I learnt so much from him—not necessarily about technique, but about attitude.”—Â

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