The vivid imagination of Sir Vivian Richards

Chris Ryan

May 1, 2003

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It must be a hoot inside Viv Richards's head. Joel Garner, as we speak, is heading up the rebuilding operation in Iraq. Ricardo Powell, the US Secretary of State, is fixing himself a stiff drink. Faoud Bacchus, that randy old Greek god, is fixing himself several. Oh, and Dennis Lillee is a cowardly, cream-puff crybaby who stopped bowling bouncers because he was afraid he might cop a couple back.

Welcome to the wacky world of Sir Isaac Vivian Alexander Richards. In case you missed the news, the Master Blaster has been indulging in a scurrilous spot of Master Bluster. Now chairman of West Indian selectors - and that's in the real world, not just his own - Richards has accused Lillee of watering down his ferocity once the likes of Andy Roberts and Michael Holding gatecrashed the Test arena in the late-1970s.

Lillee, so the story goes, was terrified that if he pitched short at the West Indians they'd headhunt him back. "Lillee realised what would be coming at him," said Richards. "He was all huff and puff, but he wasn't quite the same later on."

Lillee, in typically swashbuckling style, has dismissed Richards's taunts as "a heap of bulldust". "If Viv actually made that comment," Lillee went on, "then he must have forgotten a fair bit."

And there you have it. The two most watchable and inspirational cricketers of the 1970s and 80s, the defining players of their generation, are at loggerheads.

Now, this is all decidedly odd. Cricket is about forgiving and forgetting, letting sleeping dogs lie, what happens on the field stays on the field, and all that. Especially when the events in question occurred a quarter of a century ago. Especially when the two adversaries are revered warriors. And especially when one of them is the great, the one, the only DK Lillee.

For Lillee had grace. Pore over the old videotapes and you still marvel at his fluency, his fluidity. He was like a giant gathering willy-willy, slowly uncoiling then scattering all in his wake. He'd reach the top of his run-up and turn, with not a flicker of hesitation. He'd begin with a couple of quickish trots before slipping into rhythm, back arched and arms horizontal, picking up speed as he hurtled creasewards. Then he'd launch into one almighty leap and, for a moment or two, the world stood still. His right arm high. His feet almost kissing the stumps. His torso classically side-on. For all the science in fast bowling these days, nobody has come close to devising so majestic an action.

Lillee had charisma. Bucketloads of it, in fact. He made green-and-yellow headbands and chunky gold jewellery look cool. When he got hot and bothered he used to slide a lanky index finger across his forehead and flick away droplets of sweat. Then he'd lope down to fine-leg, shirt unbuttoned to his nipples, gold chain bobbing in a forest of black hair, his pelvis thrust out in the direction of Bay 13. Lillee was sex on legs and the MCG was his favourite tabletop.

And yes, Viv, Lillee had guts. He never flinched, never shirked a challenge, never blanched at the sight of yet another flat pudding of a pitch. Ian Chappell always says wresting the ball from Lillee was like taking a bone off a Doberman. If he didn't get you first time he'd roar back for a second spell, then a third. Then there was the way he kept fighting back from crippling injuries - to his back, his knees and most other vital joints. Lillee was brave, and crazily so.

These attributes, what's more, were widely accepted as fact. Back in the days when glossy magazines used to print long, rambling Q&As with all the star players, Lillee's name cropped up repeatedly. Most Feared Opponent. Hardest Man To Face. "He had everything," Bob Willis once wrote. "Courage, variety, high morale, arrogance, supreme fitness and aggression."

To Don Bradman, Lillee was "capable of the most devastation" of any fast bowler in history. "He had so much intelligence," gushed Sunil Gavaskar. For Richard Hadlee, Lillee was "my idol, my role model ... I copied Lillee. I studied him and analysed everything he did, asking myself why he did it and whether there were aspects of his approach I could build into my own game."

Now here comes the really curious bit. Richards, until this week, seemed to agree. In his latest book Sir Vivian - "The Definitive Autobiography", whatever that means - Richards calls Lillee "the most dangerous fast bowler I have ever faced". Curiouser still, he notes that Lillee "never bowled a short ball without a reason".

He even recounts, almost fearfully, an occasion when Lillee struck him under the heart. Richards couldn't breathe or speak. Lillee offered not a jot of sympathy. "When I looked up," said Richards, "he was back at his mark. In fact there wasn't one Lillee ready to come snorting in at me again - I could see two ... The crowd was chanting: Kill! Kill! Kill! Kill! One Lillee is bad enough, but this was one too many."

Sir Vivian came out in 2000. Three years ago. How could so much change so soon?

It's history that Richards, at the turn of the millennium, was voted Wisden's fifth greatest player of the 20th century. Lillee polled six votes fewer to finish equal-sixth. And yet Lillee's place in the pantheon is secure. Parts of the Richards legend demand closer scrutiny.

Take his fixation with bouncers, for instance. It lives on today, as demonstrated by his gibe at Lillee, but first emerged when he was a brash young batsman. Richards's refusal to wear a helmet always had more to do with macho breast-beating than commonsense. And was he really so fearless? There were times, Australians with long memories might recall, when Richards looked distinctly unnerved by a young Steve Waugh and even younger Craig McDermott.

His greatest slice of luck was to be born West Indian. He only had to face Garner, Holding and Co in the nets. Richards claims Lillee went soft in his old age, yet he is on shaky footing here himself. Richards was dismissed for 15 or under nine times in his last 10 Tests on Australian soil. He remained a thunderous strokemaker once set. But by the age of 30, particularly on bouncy wickets, he could be a clunky starter.

By the time Lillee hit his thirties it's true, of course, that he had eased his foot off the pedal. Quite deliberately. Throat-ticklers were out. Indigestible leg-cutters and indecipherable variations in pace were in. Instead of terrorising batsmen Lillee outfoxed them. Richards is still being outfoxed 25 years later.

His bouncer obsession filtered through most pointedly as captain. Under Clive Lloyd's command the West Indian quicks tended not to waste bouncers on batsmen who could handle them. Bruce Laird, one of the gutsiest of all Australian openers, tells how he endured relatively few short deliveries. Instead they would aim to swing the ball at high speed on a good length. Bouncers remained something of a delicacy. Under Richards they were served up for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Four an over. Five an over. Too much was never enough. Richards, by the end, was a boring captain of a boring team.

Boring is something Lillee could never be. He showed it again during a rare TV appearance on Monday night. He was interviewed by Andrew Denton, normally a witty and astute interrogator, who was reduced to shameless sycophancy in the presence of the great moustachioed wonder.

No matter. Lillee was as engaging as ever. He told tall stories. He spoke warmly about Shane Warne, regretfully about his own on-field misdemeanours. He did a neat line in modesty too. "I can only remember three or four wickets I ever got - maybe 10," said Lillee. "It's gone. Not that I want to get rid of it. It's those red wines."

Lillee's memory might be scratchy but one thing's for sure - it's better than Viv's. Unless Carl Hooper really is the old bloke who used to run the grocers shop on Sesame Street.

Chris Ryan is a former managing editor of Wisden Cricket Monthly and a former Darwin correspondent of the Melbourne Age.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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