Viv Richards relaxes with a cool drink on the balcony at The Oval after his innings of 291 in the final Test against England in 1976. To Richards’s left is Michael Holding, who took 14 wickets in the Test © Getty Images
August 13, 1976. Viv Richards pulverised the England bowling with a stupendous knock of 291, an innings that has gone down as among the best-ever played in Test cricket. Arunabha Sengupta remembers the majestic exhibition of strokeplay at The Oval as West Indies won the famous series 3-0.
It was not just any double hundred. It was an ominous one. It was a double hundred full of menace that sapped whatever morale remained in a battered and bruised England side. It did as much damage to the soul and spirit of England as Michael Holding’s fierce barrage of bouncers had done to the ageing torso of Brian Close two Tests ago at Manchester. Perhaps it was symbolic that Viv Richards innings marked the 111th double century in Test cricket. The Nelson had struck its dreaded blow yet again, and this time for the batsmen.
Tony Greig had done everything wrong in the series. First he had uttered that singularly ill-advised word ‘grovel’. Next, he had sent in a 45-year-old Close and a 39-year-old John Edrich at the top of the innings to take on the fearsome West Indian pace battery. England were already down 2-0 by the time the fifth Test at The Oval got underway.
Yet, when this match started, Greig seemed to have played his cards with perfection. The pitch was dry, dusty and docile enough to blunt the edge of West Indian pace. While Clive Lloyd raised a lot of eyebrows and set off some murmurs by going in with Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, Wayne Daniel and Vanburn Holder without any specialist spinner, England opted for an altogether different strategy. Bob Willis and Mike Selvey were the only fast men in the line-up, and the team had been loaded with spinners. Derek Underwood was joined by debutant Geoff Miller. Greig himself sent down over after over of off-breaks. And Chris Balderstone, the Carlisle United mid-fielder in the team as a middle-order batsman, was asked to bowl 16 overs of left-arm orthodox spin.
The England captain did not win the toss, but the start could not have been better. Willis trapped the prolific Gordon Greenidge leg-before before he had scored. At long last the portents looked favourable for the home side.
Viv Richards on his way to a masterly 291 © Getty Images
However, Viv Richards, who had started the series with 232 and 63 at Nottingham and had proceeded to score 135 at Manchester and 66 at Leeds, had little regard for analytical and logical deductions. Even as the score reading five for one, Richards walked in with his inimitable swagger. By the end of the day the scoreboard flaunted exactly 200 against his name. The majestic willow thundered, and the England bowling wilted against the assault.
It was incredible batting. When the ball was pitched up, drives were essayed with a mix of elegance and power unmatched in the saga of the game. Some of the half-volleys on the off-stump were disdainfully dispatched past square leg with the bat perfectly straight. Anything marginally short was cut away with unnerving ferocity. When the ball geared for his body, he pulled with nonchalance. And just hitch his arrogance up by a couple of notches, he even lofted Willis straight back over his head for four.
At the other end, after a fantastic innings of controlled aggression, Roy Fredericks was out to a brilliant diving catch by Balderstone to give Miller his first Test wicket. But, it was a minor hiccup as Lawrence Rowe settled down and flourished. And soon Richards swept Miller to fine-leg to bring up his hundred. It had taken just 124 balls, and had come in just a minute shy of three hours.
The century was the signal for him to open his shoulders. Liberties were taken with unrestrained bravado. Balls were now driven against the spin, cut off the backfoot from in front of the stumps. Few batsmen took the risk of stepping out to the brisk fastish left-arm spin of Underwood, but Richards had no time for reputation or pace. He danced down the track and lofted him over extra cover. And with a superb square-cut off Greig, he passed 150. Balderstone was brought on, and Richards greeted him with an imperious pull to mid-wicket to bring up the 300 of the innings.
Towards the end of the day, Underwood turned a ball from the middle stump past Rowe’s bat, and behind the wicket his Kent mate Alan Knott whipped off the bails. The third West Indian wicket went down for 350 and it took Knott past the world record of Godfrey Evans for the highest number of wicketkeeping dismissals. At last the England supporters had something to cheer about.
However, the dismissal had little effect on Richards. Flicking Greig away with casual ease he reached his double hundred in 263 balls in 340 minutes. Out streamed a sea of delighted West Indian supporters and Viv Richards was embraced by dozens of admiring arms. For a while the great batsman was hidden from view as hordes of fans surrounded him to pay homage, his cap was snatched away and held aloft before being returned.
West Indies ended the day at 373 for three with Richards on 200. At the other end Clive Lloyd was on 15 and looking ready to cut loose from the superlative platform.
The second morning produced an exhibition of regal ruthlessness. England sent down 32 overs during the first session. Richards pummelled 83 and Lloyd helped himself to 48. At lunch, West Indies stood at 514 for three.
It was a display of supreme brilliance by the best batsman of the world. Underwood was caressed past the mid-wicket, against the spin with a gentle turn of the wrist. Richards stepped out to the left-armer again, was beaten in flight but went through with the stroke anyway, and the ball reached the extra- cover fence on the first bounce. This was followed by a blistering drive which streaked between the bowler and the umpire Dickie Bird that went like a rifle-shot. Underwood could react only after the ball had gone well past him. Luckily Bird just about managed to get out of the way and avert serious injury.
When Willis came on, Richards swivelled on his backfoot and pulled him to the deep mid-wicket. And twice he drove the bowler past mid-wicket by planting his left foot outside the line of the off-stump. He passed Frank Worrell’s 261 at Trent Bridge in 1950, the previous best for West Indies in England. The outlines of the world record 365 of Garry Sobers were becoming more distinct with each reverberating stroke.
After lunch he drove Greig high towards the Vauxhall end, carrying on the tale of absolute dominance. But, off the next ball he tried to repeat the stroke and it hit the stumps off his inside edge. The young master walked back to thundering ovation for one of the greatest innings ever witnessed, 291 runs off 386 balls in 472 minutes with 38 boundaries.
With Lloyd and Collis King getting into the act, West Indies piled up 687. And a stunned and shell-shocked England did well to respond with 435, riding on a 203 by Denis Amiss.
Finally on the fourth morning Holding demonstrated that if the ball travelled fast enough through the air, the pitch was rendered largely redundant. His eight first innings wickets were either bowled or leg before.
Though leading by 252, Lloyd decided not to enforce the follow-on. Holding needed a breather, and Wayne Daniel was injured. Roy Fredericks and Gordon Greenidge seized the opportunity to flog the English bowlers yet again, with merciless brutality despairingly lacking in compassion, adding 182 in just 32 overs. The innings was closed more out of humane rather than cricketing considerations. That was the famed period of play when Tony Greig approached the biggest West Indian section of the crowd, crawled on his hands and knees, and with a gesture famously captured on camera, tendered an apology for his pre-series statement.
In the second innings, Holding finished with six for 57 — of the 14 wickets in the match, nine were bowled and three leg before.
For the first time since Don Bradman’s men had toured in 1948, England lost a home series 0-3.
West Indies 687 for 8 decl. (Roy Frederciks 71, Viv Richards 291, Lawrence Rowe 70, Clive Lloyd 84, Collis King 63) and 182 for no loss decl. (Roy Fredericks 86*, Gordon Greenidge 85*) beat England 435 (Denis Amiss 203, David Steele 44, Alan Knott 50; Michael Holding 8 for 92) and 203 (David Steele 42, Alan Knott 57; Michael Holding 6 for 57) by 231 runs.
(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twiter.com/senantix)