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Richie Richardson’s trademark hat against the most fearsome of fast bowlers was a typical representation of the West Indian bravado at their peak. On April 8, 1995 he shocked the world by emerging in a helmet at St John’s. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at the incident that marked — albeit symbolically — the beginning of the decline of West Indian cricket.
They were a tremendous pack, the West Indians of the 1980s: the terrifying foursome of fast bowlers, the pomp of Viv Richards, an exciting yet vastly contrasting opening pair, a gang of athletic fielders, an acrobatic man behind the stumps, and a grand daddy in the form of Clive Lloyd.
They went, one by one, at the turn of the decade. As Richards, Malcolm Marshall, and Jeff Dujon bowed out at the same time, a huge void was created in West Indies cricket. Men like Brian Lara, Ian Bishop, and Curtly Ambrose had come up to fill the chasm, but it was evident that there was a decline, however slow, in the quality of the overall team.
With Desmond Haynes also quitting and Carl Hooper making only sporadic appearances, the only survivors of the heydays of the 1980s were Courtney Walsh and, of course, their captain: Richie Richardson. They had been unbeaten since 1979-80 and had still held on to that, but for how long?
Richardson had acted as the bridge between the two eras of West Indies cricket: he had seen it all. He had witnessed the pomp and the decline, the glory and the slide, the immortals and the mortals, the ageing and the young. It was the dusk of the golden days, but there was still light. Still.
There was still no helmet, either. Offering Richardson a helmet would have been blasphemy. The white hat (he later changed it to maroon) that was wrapped tightly around his skull in an era when batsmen were seldom witnessed without helmets against quality pace bowling.
It was not required at Kensington Oval, either: in Paul Reiffel, Brendon Julian, and Glenn McGrath Australia had a relatively inexperienced pace attack — but they were good enough to reduce the hosts to six for three on the first morning; Richardson was caught-behind by Julian for three attempting a horribly rash stroke.
He pushed himself down to five, below Hooper, in the second; this time he counterattacked, but it was clear that he was not the same batsman anymore. The confidence was somehow not there. He still managed 36 before Reiffel ran through his defence, and McGrath, coming on as the fourth bowler, finished with five wickets in the innings and eight in the match. Australia went one-up in the series.
West Indies had trailed in a series during their 15-year run, so a single defeat must not have rattled Richardson significantly. What did rattle him, however, was his confidence to handle pace: the Australians had managed to dent the West Indians more effectively than even they had imagined.
Richardson put the tourists in, and Mark Taylor and Michael Slater added 82 for the opening stand before the Australian captain played an inexplicably uncharacteristic pull off Ambrose; the top-edge landed into the waiting hands of Walsh at deep fine-leg. Then all hell broke loose, and Walsh picked up six for 54 to rout the tourists for 216.
West Indies had dropped Sherwin Campbell to bring in Keith Arthurton and strengthen the middle-order. The crowd knew that the local hero, their captain, the man who had been a part of many a glory day of West Indies cricket, would take on replace Campbell at the top of the order.
What was supposed to be a tumultuous applause turned out to be a collective gasp as Richardson appeared in a helmet. Geoff Boycott commented on air: “Not often do you see Richie (Richardson) in a helmet; and a grille as well.” Michael Holding, accompanying Boycott, informed that Richardson had been using the helmet in that season’s Red Stripe Cup and even in the net-practice sessions at Kensington Oval; but for Boycott, as well as anyone watching the match at the ground or on television, it was an unthinkable spectacle.
Richardson was even booed at his home ground for his new headgear, and when West Indies returned home that afternoon he was yet to open his account. It took him 40 balls to get off the mark, and he eventually fell for a 108-ball 37. Taylor placed David Boon at short mid-on where he leapt “like a Tasmanian salmon” to his left to stop a rampant Lara.
West Indies managed a 44-run lead and Walsh added three more wickets to his tally, but Boon and the Waugh twins batted grittily, enabling Taylor to set a target of 257 from 36 overs. Richardson was bowled by Reiffel for two, and Lara entertained the crowd before the match ended in a draw.
Cricket in West Indies was never the same again. Seldom has a cricket gear brought about a psychological impact of this order. Richardson was still a hero, but not the demigod. Even he had that emotion that one usually associates with mortals: fear.
Australia 216 (Michael Slater 41; Courtney Walsh 6 for 54) and 300 for 7 decl. (David Boon 67, Steve Waugh 65*, Mark Waugh 61; Courtney Walsh 3 for 92) drew with West Indies 260 (Brian Lara 88; Paul Reiffel 3 for 53, Shane Warne 3 for 83) and 80 for 2 (Brian Lara 43).
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