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Vivian Richards: The most feared and devastating batsman in history

Vivian Richards — the most feared and devastating batsman in history © Getty Images
Vivian Richards — the most feared and devastating batsman in history © Getty Images

March 7, 1952.The birth of the most devastating and feared batsman of all time, one who took the meaning of swagger to a different level. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the life and career of Sir Isaac Vivian Alexander Richards.

Reverting to the sterile confines most rigorous analytical approach, stretching scientific perusal of numbers to limits, we can perhaps come up with a handful of names who were arguably better batsmen than him.

Yet, no one in the history of the game has had the effect of Sir Isaac Vivian Alexander Richards walking out to bat.

There would be eyes on when he was slated to come in — No 3, 4 and later in career at No 5 or 6. The fall of that West Indian wicket heralding his arrival would result in a hush descending around the ground. The exit of the departing player would be followed by an electric pause.

And then the form of the great man would emerge, with that inimitable unhurried swagger. The maroon cap perched on the head, the tilt of the face slightly upward — underlining his stamp of superiority, well ahead of the first ball. The three colour Rastafarian wrist-band would conspicuously add to the effect. The eyes would be looking at nothing in particular but yet manage to project an air of very justified condescension. The jaws would work single-mindedly on that ever-present gum, even the act of mastication somehow coming off as majestic. The shoulders would warm up with quiet rotations — innocuous callisthenics indulged in by every other batsman, but none of the others would manage the overpowering menace it carried when the Antiguan made his way to the wicket.

Finally, the feared bat would come down on the pitch, asking for guard. Regardless of the situation, the field would spread — often involuntarily — following an unwritten edict of cricket. No one can field that close when The King is at the wicket. The most courageous silly-point would step back a yard, the mid-on and mid-wicket would adjust their positions, ready for long fruitless pursuits. There would be a saunter down the pitch, a dab or two on imaginary spots and then a look at the bowler’s eyes that often won the duel before it had begun. He would make his way back to the crease, pause a moment, raising the bat to his shoulders, adjusting his grip, and get down to assume his stance.

There were few bowlers in the world who were not intimidated by the routine. Viv Richards incredibly induced the fear in bowlers that a hostile fast bowler would plant in the fluttering heart of an uncertain batsman. No batsman in history has been as devastatingly destructive.

Then he would proceed to tear the bowling apart, turn the match within an hour. More often than not, the front foot would be planted down outside the off stump, and balls of varying speed, swing, length and turn would disappear between cover and mid-off or blaze away through mid-on and mid-wicket. The drives thundered, often disappearing to curious leg side angles from well outside the off-stump. If the ball was short, a swivel followed by a hook or pull could send it into orbit. And if it was too quick to transfer the weight back on to the right foot, Viv Richards did not worry. He was among that rare breed of batsmen who could nonchalantly pull fastest of bowlers off the front foot. There is a reason why his autobiography was titled Hitting Across the Line.

It is not that he never faltered with his attitude. Rodney Hogg once struck him on the face with a searing quick delivery. The jaw swelled up in an instant, but Richards did not flinch. The gum was chomped with the same unhurried poise. And the next bouncer landed far back into the middle of the crowd seated way behind the square-leg boundary.

Richards was gilt edged talent garnished with the arrogance associated with the greatest. If questioned, his bat provided the answers — loud and eloquent.

Cow-corner — hitting across the line

There have been many attempts to decipher the Don Bradman code of batsmanship. Most analysts agree that his freakish numbers were a result of a boyhood spent hitting a golf ball relentlessly with a cricket stump as it rebounded off a water tank. There have been aspiring batsmen who have followed this training routine, but none have approached the exploits of the Australian great.

The Viv Richards secret formula, on the other hand, is way too dangerous to be used as a training regime. It was a product of ingenious methods in the small Antiguan Island without too many facilities for budding cricketers.

Richards and his cricketing cronies did their own rolling, and the pitch was sometimes prepared from nothing. To have a game, often a strip of waste ground was watered on the previous evening, with the fervent hope that cows would not venture into the chosen area during the night. Often the cows did make their way to the ‘pitch’ and had to be pushed away physically. The hoof marks would make the balls bounce anywhere. And the boys often played without protective equipment of any sort. To survive, the batsman had to pick the ball early and hit across the line. According to the man himself, it was the best training that one could hope to get and the most beautiful cricket he ever played.

In 1972, Richards was sent to England along with another promising Antiguan by the name of Andy Roberts. A voluntary committee of cricket lovers had paid for their trip and coaching fees, enabling the two youngsters to attend the Alf Gover Cricket School. It was a struggle against the weather, conditions and several brutal attempts to modify his batting technique into the stiff upper lipped English correctness. Thankfully, other than some adjustments to his stance, the Richards method remained unchanged.

It is a little known fact, but at that stage of his career, Richards was toying with a career in football as well. He had played in the World Cup qualifying rounds for the Antigua national team. It was his father who pointed out that he had never heard of a West Indian soccer team on the radio, but everyone knew about Garry Sobers and Everton Weekes. So, it was cricket for this young Antiguan – and even as his family migrated to New York, he stayed on in the island, working in a bar and dreaming of becoming a West Indian cricketer.

Early steps

It was on his return from the Alf Gover School that he caught important eyes while representing his island against touring sides. Against a Kent team, he batted well enough for Colin Cowdrey to remark that Richards would go ahead to represent West Indies. And then he was spotted by the Somerset Vice Chairman, Len Creed, visiting Antigua with an international touring side, the Mendip Acorns. Soon, Richards was back in England playing for Lansdown Cricket Club in Bath, coming across another interesting young man with whom he would forge a lifelong friendship — Ian Botham.

His initiation into the Somerset county side took place under the leadership of Brian Close. According to Richards, he is indebted to Close for a number of lessons. Perhaps the most important was the art of the disdainful stare when hit by the fastest deliveries.

The West Indian call up came from Clive Lloyd in 1974-75. It was a tour to the far shores of India. In the first Test match at Bangalore, two youthful men were handed their Caribbean caps for the first time. Viv Richards and Gordon Greenidge.

Greenidge made a glorious entry, with knocks of 93 and 107. Richards, however, was foxed by the guile of Bhagwat Chandrasekhar in both innings, managing just four and three.

It did not take the Antiguan too long to make his mark, though. In the very next Test at Delhi, he hammered the Indian spinners for 20 fours and six sixes to remain unbeaten on 192.

By the end of the series he was touted to be one of the best young batsmen of the world.

His contributions with the bat in the West Indian triumph in the inaugural World Cup was minimal, but his brilliance in the field was crucial to the victory in the final. He ran out three Australians, including the Chappell brothers, as the vibrant side coasted to a happy win.

The soaring successes were brought down to earth with a cruel thud when West Indies visited Australia later that year. Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson unleashed their furious brand of fast bowling and intimidation. The Australian thoroughbreds used every opportunity to humiliate the tourists physically and mentally. The jovial band of West Indians broke down quickly. They did not know cricket could be that ruthless. Richards did manage a hundred in the fifth Test match, after being pushed into opening the innings. But overall, his performance reflected the total surrender of the side. The 5-1 verdict stung. Clive Lloyd would never forget it. West Indian cricket would changesoon.

The start of the Windies wins

It was the beginning of the formula of pace dominance –with four strapping, hostile fast men sending down an unending barrage of lightning quick offerings at ducking, weaving and hopping batsmen. At the top of the order, Greenidge and Desmond Haynes moved in to form one of the most successful opening partnerships of all time. Clive Lloyd, with his giant hulking frame, pursued wins like no West Indian skipper had done before. And in the middle order, there was the great man from Antigua, making giant strides towards the top of the world of batsmanship, complementing the hostility of the fast men with his willow.

The machinery was unveiled in the blood bath of Jamaica, when Bishan Bedi declared the innings twice, not willing to risk injuries to his players. Richards plundered three hundreds in the series.

Tony Greig, with his ill-advised use of the word ‘grovel’ was the next to suffer. West Indies routed England 3-0, and Richards amassed 829 runs in four Tests including 232 at Nottingham and 291 at The Oval.

In 1976, Richards scored 1710 runs in Tests with 11 hundreds – at a Bradmanesque average of 90.

And in the following summer he amassed 2161 runs for Somerset with seven hundreds, three of them double tons.

The Kerry Packer Circus was the next defining eventfor West Indian cricket. Richards and the other West Indians were wooed during the home series against Pakistan in 1976-77. Eyebrows were raised and unhappy voices clamoured, but the financial independence offered by Packer was way too important at that stage to the great West Indian stars.

Richards says that he liked Packer immediately. The onus was on performance and professionalism. The cricket was of high quality and intense, with the greatest vying against each other. With a line-up of Andy Roberts, Joel Garner, Michael Holding, Colin Croft, Dennis Lillee, Len Pascoe, Imran Khan, Mike Procter, Garth le Roux and others, it spurred the batsmen into their most inspired performances. Viv Richards was one of the stars of the SuperTests, alongside Greg Chappell and Barry Richards.

At Gloucester Park, Perth, the world saw the two Richards perform an enthralling batting duet — the likes of which has seldom been witnessed. Barry Richards scored 207 and Viv 177. It was remarkable for another reason – an incident which saw the great advocate of hitting across the line resort to painstaking grammatical correctness. When he completed his century, and was acknowledging cheers, the fielders pointed out that there was an autograph hunter on the field. Richards turned around to find an Australian beauty in her birthday suit, politely offering her breast – “Can you please sign here Mr. Richards.” According to Richards,this was perhaps the only time he dotted all his i’s diligently.

It was also during the World Series that the West Indian cricket team was introduced to Dennis Waite, the physio who transformed the group of fabulous cricketers into a super-fit team of athletes. When the team reassembled on the stage of conventional international cricket, they had been turned into an invincible unit.

Vivian Richards: The most feared and devastating batsman in history

Viv Richards at his belligerent best in the 1979 World Cup final against England at Lord’s © Getty Images

The years at the top

Revenge was extracted in the 1979-80 series Down Under, with the Australians buckling to the pace quartet and Richards smacking their bowlers to end up with an average of 96.50.

Then the 1979 World Cup was won with a Viv Richards masterclass in the final.

There ensued a phase when opponents were blown away, first with the thunderbolts of the fast men and then with the willows of the formidable batsmen.

All through this period Viv Richards strode the world as the undisputed batting champion, without a challenger in vicinity.

The bat continued to hammer balls across the ground, the jaws continued to work on the gum, the beard lent majesty to his accepted image as the King of Cricket and on the field some spectators were treated to stunning slip catches, extraordinary work in the outfield, and the delightful, heart-warming Carribean celebration of the fall of a wicket. Sometimes, his canny off-breaks got important breakthroughs as well.

Frontiers were conquered and records were shattered. From 1979-80, the West Indies remained undefeated in a series through to the end of his career. The world saw miracles scripted by the men from the islands and the great man in particular. Englishmen were vanquished again and again, the side revelling in 5-0 blackwashes. Richards kept plundering runs, in both formats of the game, beguiling the world with that incredible 189 not out at Manchester with the last ball six off Bob Willis that defies belief even after three decades.

He took over captaincy as Clive Lloyd hung up his huge boots after a stint like no other. It was not an easy transition. The Rastafarian links were dug out to question his suitability. The Island politics within the Caribbean also played its part, and Antigua being one of the smallest, it did not help the new skipper.

“There were critics who wanted to immediately test my ability as a captain. Boy, did they leap on to my back? All of a sudden I found myself being measured against Clive, which was totally unfair. However, rising above such nonsense is part of the captain’s job.”

There was no problem with the players, who settled under his leadership. But, critics came from beyond borders. Geoff Boycott claimed that the days of Viv Richards the hard-hitter were over.

Richards responded in style, with a 56-ball hundred on his home ground. And when harangued about his side not reaching the semi-finals of the 1987 World Cup in the sub-continent, he played one of the best innings of his life — a match-winning fourth innings hundred on a queer low scoring Delhi wicket, clinching one of the most fascinating Test matches ever played.

The one small hiccup the West Indies had during his reign was when Pakistan beat them in the first Test match of the 1987-88 series at Guyana. An injured Richards had opted out of the game, and the team had been led by Des Haynes.

In the following Test, Richards was back at helm, rescuing the team from a series loss with 49 and 123 against Imran Khan, Wasim Akram and Abdul Qadir. A 67 and a crucial wicket in the third Test match managed to ensure victory and keep the unbeaten record intact.

The last years

That was perhaps the last great series. The last phase was a rather painful drag for a brilliant career. The runs dried up, the flashes of genius became sporadic. There were hundreds, but only two spread across 27 Test matches. There were just four half-centuries in the last 46 ODIs, in which he scored less than thousand at 27.19.

The audacity of stroke-play had refused to be tempered by the advancing years, and often the very balls that would have thudded into the advertising boards off the middle of the bat found their ways to the inglorious edges. The swagger and arrogance were undiminished, the jaw kept grinding on the chewing gum. But, the end result did not reach anywhere near the highs of his heydays.

In 1989-90, England led 1-0 after three Tests, and Richards — having missed the third Test — blasted his way to 70 in a win at Barbados. West Indies won the fifth Test as well, to take the series, but the contribution by Richards was negligible. Ugly voices were raised questioning the advisability of his carrying on.

West Indies still thrived under him. Against the Australians, they took the series by the fourth Test with wins in Guyana and Barbados. However, when the Aussies pulled one back on the very home ground of Richards, and the great bat could show only zero and two as results, the voices grew louder.

The last straw was when England, the side that they had trampled thoroughly in the 1980s, came back to hold them 2-2 in an exciting series in the summer of 1991. Richards managed five half centuries on the tour, but it was evident that he no longer ruled the bowlers with the same undisputed supremacy as earlier. He scored a patient 60 in the final Test at The Oval. But when England won that match — made famous by the leg-over incident — to square the series, it was obvious that time had come to hand the reigns over to a younger man.

Richards called it a day after 121 Test matches which produced 8540 runs at 50.23 with 24 hundreds. At the time of his retirement he was the highest run getter for West Indies. He enjoyed it when he went past the aggregate of Garry Sobers, but just because it gave the paying public at Sabina Park something to cheer about on a desultory day in 1991. He played to thrill and delight, seldom for milestones.

As a captain he led 50 Tests and won 27 while losing just eight. He held on to the distinction of not losing a single series as captain.

In One-Day Internationals, his figures are equally phenomenal. The 187 matches gave him 6721 runs at 47 with a strike rate of 90.

The new meaning of swagger

The numbers do tell the tale of greatness of Richards the batsman. Yet, they cannot echo the thudding hearts of the spectators as he approached the crease, the quiver of the bowlers as they walked back to the mark. Viv Richards carried an aura of invincibility as few mortal men have ever done, the superstar who virtually walks on red carpet every day in Antigua.

The oft-told anecdote about the Glamorgan-Somerset encounter tells us much about the way the bat of the great man did the talking. Greg Thomas, honest, hardworking and genuinely fast, had his tail up and beat the edge of the most famous willow of the world in successive deliveries. He strode up to the great West Indian and famously uttered the unfortunate words, “It’s round and red, weighs about five ounces.” Viv Richards patted the imaginary spots on the pitch and waited for the next ball. Thomas charged in and the Stuart Surridge bat swung in full flow. Bat connected with ball producing a magnificent clunk and necks craned to watch the flight of the cherry. The round, red, five ounce object sailed across the ground, over the stands, crossing the streets and landed some furlongs into the river Tone behind the Taunton ground. Richards looked at Thomas and said, “You know what it looks like, now go find it.”

That was Sir Isaac Vivian Alexander Richards. On the cricket field, he had the copyright on swagger.

Sir Vivian Richards — life in pictures

(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://twitter.com/senantix)

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