Windies' slump exasperates Master Blaster


Watching West Indies suffer their heaviest ever Test defeat at Headingley recently was a chastening experience for Viv Richards, who was once the game's most devastating batsman. Vic Marks relives the glory days with his old Somerset team-mate and finds hope for the future amid frustration at what has gone wrong for Caribbean cricket.

At Headingley, West Indies were running out of batsmen; Shivnarine Chanderpaul had withdrawn with tendonitis; their captain, Ramnaresh Sarwan, had just damaged his shoulder diving over the rope while trying to save a boundary.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 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 80s. 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 to 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 gum shield. 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 gum shield."

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 scars 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 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 chairman of selectors there were even complaints from some of the players about Richards' 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.

"My first captain was an inspiration to me. I knew all about him from the 1963 series. How he kept walking down the pitch to Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith in the Lord's Test. Several times Wes had to stop in his run-up to check out what was happening.

"I think I was pretty tough as a youngster. But Closey was tougher still. He reinforced the message that you yield to no one. He thought I could play and took a bit of a shine to me. At first I kept getting quick thirties and forties and he drummed into me the need to keep going and to watch the ball for longer on English pitches.

"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.

"Man, he was brave. I remember playing against Gloucestershire and Closey was fielding at silly point. Mike Procter leant back and cracked a square cut. The ball hit Closey on the head and ballooned towards Dennis Breakwell. But Dennis watched the man rather than the ball and joined the rush to see if the captain was OK. Close's first words were `Did we get him?' He was none too pleased to hear that Dennis had failed to complete the catch."

Somerset also owed a lot to Tom Cartwright, their player-coach when Richards began his county career. Richards recalls: "He came up to me once soon after I had started and said, `I've never seen anyone keep their head quite so still.' It was just an observation, but I always remembered it and always checked that out if I was struggling with the bat. Keep that head still."

In the excellent biography of Cartwright that was published just before his death in April, Richards' first county coach is quoted: "You could have put a pint of bitter on his (Viv's) head and he wouldn't have spilled a drop."

Back in 1973, when Richards was qualifying by playing club cricket in Bath, Cartwright told him: "Go back to Lansdown with Mr Creed (the bookmaker who paid Richards' passage to England). Play as often as you can and never get out."

"Yes, sir."

"Get as many hundreds as you can. We want to persuade the committee you should be here."

"Yes, sir." He kept saying: "Yes, sir."

I'm not sure the word `sir' is in the modern overseas player's vocabulary. Richards acknowledges the benefit of playing in county cricket as a young man, which is a rare event for a West Indian cricketer now, for two reasons: their international season often overlaps with England's domestic schedule and there are not many West Indian cricketers good enough to attract the counties.

The opposite was true in the 1970s and 80s. "We learnt a lot from county cricket — even if we did not earn stacks of money from it. Everyone wanted to play here and we identified with our counties in a way that doesn't happen now. Clive (Lloyd) was Lancashire through and through; Andy (Roberts) and Gordon (Greenidge) and then Malcolm (Marshall) were Hampshire. For more than 10 years I was a Somerset man. I think the approach is more casual now and has lost respect. We would never have wandered on to the pitch in a county match with a mobile phone to our ears (a reference to Brian Lara, who once did this when playing for Warwickshire... though admittedly the mobile had not been invented when Richards was playing county cricket)."

Richards will not castigate Lara publicly. Indeed he is quick to recognise a batting genius, but his frustration comes out as he compares the attitude of two eras of West Indian cricket.

"The next generation did not seem to be smart enough to realise that you have to work to be at the top and to stay at the top. You can have talent, but if you do not work hard it's not going to happen. We were no way the finished product when we set off for India in 1974 (Richards and Greenidge made their debut on that tour). But that was when the great side was forged. Garry Sobers and Rohan Kanhai had retired and Clive Lloyd was embarking on his first tour as captain.

"We trained harder than the rest. After Packer, we kept the physio, Dennis Waight, and he put us through our paces. Clive Lloyd supported Waight in everything he wanted to do. And we followed Clive. We were fitter than the others and less prone to injury. We would fly into Sydney and be running within the hour. They used to come and watch us train on the days before the Tests. What we were doing was an unusual sight in those days. We had some good athletes in the side, but we had the discipline to keep working on the physical side of our game."

Richards goes on to point out that when he became captain Lara soon got rid of Waight, the implication being that the new leader did not relish the hard work required by the physio. That decision might not have affected Lara himself greatly, but the message it sent the rest of the squad was significant. The captain sets the tone. Now the hope is that, with a fresh regime, West Indies have a team of players hungry to work even if they are not as gifted as their predecessors.

Richards' role in all this is no longer hands-on as it was when he was chairman of selectors from 2002 to 2004. Now he is more of an ambassador. He was around during the World Cup, especially in Antigua at the magnificent, if remote, new stadium that bears his name. He instinctively defends the Caribbean input into that tournament.

"I'm happy to answer critics who said the Caribbean could not organise such a showcase event. The logistics worked and there weren't so many problems getting from A to B. The competition was hampered by the loss of India and Pakistan and the expensive ticket prices, but a lot of those things were taken out of the hands of the people in the Caribbean. So we lost some of the Caribbean flavour, which was a shame, but I don't think it was the fault of the folks in the Caribbean."

Now he is chairman of the Antigua and Barbuda Sports Tourist Alliance — Richie Richardson, who succeeded him as West Indies captain, is the CEO — which is funded by the Ministry of Tourism. Their goal is to encourage clubs and schools to come to Antigua to play sports, not just cricket, against local sides and to enjoy the delights of the island.

He is also on the Stanford 20/20 Cup board, which could have a more significant effect on West Indian cricket. Allen Stanford is a Texan billionaire, based in Antigua. He has financed the building of an elegant stadium by the airport, where the inaugural Stanford 20/20 took place in July 2006 involving 19 Caribbean nations and offering $1million as prize money for the winners. Stanford is prepared to plough major funds into Caribbean cricket so there is now the challenge for the West Indies Board to harness that generosity.

Here Richards and all the other greats of the recent past can help — Stanford has them all in ambassadorial roles. If this academy system, now destined for Antigua, could be replicated around the Caribbean, then hopes for a revival in West Indian cricket are less flimsy. Money can, no doubt, help a floundering national team, but an infusion of the sort of pride and passion that Richards brought to the side almost 30 years ago is just as vital and even more elusive.

@ Guardian Newspapers Limited 2007 THE MAN & HIS MIGHT BORN

Isaac Vivian Alexander Richards, on 7 March 1952 at St John's, Antigua.


West Indies debut v India, 1974; scored unbeaten 192 in the second Test; Highest score — 291 v England at The Oval in 1976.

Hit 8,540 runs in 121 Tests at an average of 50.23, with 24 centuries and 86 sixes.

Scored the fastest Test century, from 56 balls against England in Antigua, 1986.

Made 6,721 one-day international runs, with 11 centuries and 45 fifties, including unbeaten 139 in the 1979 World Cup final.

Highest first-class score: 322 for Somerset against Warwickshire at Taunton 1985.


The only West Indies captain never to lose a Test series (14 series, from 1980-91).

ALL-ROUNDER Off-spinner took 32 Test and 118 ODI wickets.

Ran out three Australians in the inaugural World Cup final in 1975.

Played football for Antigua in the qualifiers for the 1974 World Cup.


Refused a `blank cheque' to play for a rebel West Indies side in apartheid South Africa.

Never wore a helmet while batting. GREATNESS RECOGNISED Depicted on an Antiguan stamp in 1975. Wisden Cricketer of the Year in 1977.

One of Wisden's five Cricketers of the Century in 2000, along with Sir Donald Bradman, Sir Garry Sobers, Sir Jack Hobbs and Shane Warne

Knighted for services to cricket in 2000.