August 16, 2010

Emperor, empowerer

Scyld Berry
With his magnetic presence and enormous talent, Richards instilled a sense of self-belief in every team he played for

Before anyone thought of the phrase, Viv Richards walked the walk. After a suitable pause, following the applause for Gordon Greenidge or Desmond Haynes, Richards took the field like an emperor returning to his domains. Head held high; nose aquiline; jaw working his gum; the maroon cap - never, never, a helmet, for that would have been an admission of fear; and brandishing his choice of weapon, normally a Slazenger, in his right hand. Nobody has walked to the crease as Richards did. No choreographer, equipped with spotlights and sound effects, could have improved upon his natural entrance.

Nobody has batted like Richards either. Sure, a few batsmen since his day have hit the ball as hard or harder, like Matthew Hayden or Adam Gilchrist. But nobody has proclaimed such a message as Richards did when he hit the ball. His batting was all power and dominance - his mental power, and the power of an awesomely muscular yet athletic 5' 10" body; and his dominance of the opposition, if not from the moment he made his grand entrance, then from the first ball, when he planted his front foot down the pitch and outside off stump and whipped it through midwicket for four. By the second ball of a Viv Richards innings, if not before, there were few teams who did not recognise that in their midst was a Master.

Richards has to rank among the half dozen greatest cricketers of all time. It is not a matter of statistics, although his Test average of 50 was fine enough. It is a matter of what he did with his power and dominance. He not only led West Indies' domination of Test and one-day cricket in the eighties, as invincible captain in the second half of the decade or as the vice-captain, No. 3 batsman and figurehead of Clive Lloyd's side, he also empowered the teams he played for to an extent that has not been sufficiently appreciated. Ask this question about every cricketer you admire: did he leave the teams he represented stronger than when he started? Richards did so, which is why he won my vote ahead of Sir Garfield Sobers as one of the Five Wisden Cricketers of the Century. Sobers was the finer cricketer, no doubt the finest all-round cricketer ever. But Richards had the greater impact, greater even than Lloyd or Sir Frank Worrell, who were his forerunners.

What were West Indies before 1976? "Easygoing Calypso cricketers" was the stock description. In that year, mostly in Australia and England, Richards scored more runs in Tests (1710 at an average of 90) than anybody had done in a calendar year before, and wouldn't for another 30 years. Andy Roberts was already knocking batsmen over, one way or another, but soon a whole platoon of fast bowlers gathered around the West Indian banner, which was - though it was Lloyd's side in name and fact - held aloft by Richards.

Thus were the world champions born.

Nobody has walked to the crease as Richards did. No choreographer, equipped with spotlights and sound effects, could have improved upon his natural entrance

He did the same for his other teams. When Richards made his first-class debut in 1971-72, the Combined Islands had just been allowed to participate in the West Indian first-class domestic tournament, the Shell Shield. Until then, any cricketer from outside Jamaica, Trinidad, Barbados and Guyana was powerless. Richards' own father was a decent player who represented Antigua but never got the opportunity to play a first-class match. When his son got going, the Combined Islands became too powerful, winning the tournament in 1980-81, and were split into the Leewards and Windwards: the outer islands became the dominant force in the Caribbean, as Worrell had predicted.

The same applied in Antigua itself. Richards and Roberts put their native island on the map as nobody else could have done. What was a backwater after 1950, when the brutal sugarcane plantations were finally abolished, was transformed into a highly desirable tourist destination and Test venue by 1981. Quite an advance for an island of 80,000 people.

Richards empowered Somerset and Glamorgan too, the two counties he represented. Somerset was the Antigua of English cricket until the 1970s: a backwater. They had never won anything in their history. Led by Richards (though Brian Rose was the actual captain), they became the one-day team of their era in English cricket, the Liverpool or Manchester United, winning five trophies in five seasons. Almost single-handedly he won Cup finals at Lord's, striding out and making a hundred, instilling self-belief into small-town players who had never possessed it before.

Glamorgan were the same, or even worse, by the time Richards joined them in 1990, famous only for internal bickerings and bad signings. Richards propelled them to the Sunday League title in 1993, in his final competitive season. In an innings of power and self-belief, if fading dominance, he had to ward off a young tearaway called Duncan Spencer to see Glamorgan home in their final match "after 23 seasons of often abject failure" as Wisden put it. Nobody has called the county a joke since.

It would be hyperbole to assert that Richards empowered Afro-Caribbeans everywhere. But by means of his cricket he gave those of them interested in cricket a pride and sense of responsibility - to themselves, to destiny - which they had never known before. "Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery" sang Bob Marley at the same time as Richards walked down pavilion steps and on to the field. "None but ourselves can free our minds." And Richards was the man who did exactly that.

Scyld Berry is the editor of the Wisden Cricketers' Almanack. This article was first published in the June 2004 issue of Wisden Asia Cricket magazine

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Arnab on August 17, 2010, 21:26 GMT

    ok, ok - did not meant to be disrespectful. Poor choice of words, agreed. But I was judging Richards by his own and his fans' standards.

    But, you gotta admit, even in the 70s and 80s, which is when I was growing up as an avid cricket fan, low 40s was very good, mid 40s was very, very good - Gower, Zaheer, Boycott, Gooch(?) - and above 50 was great. Higher than 55 was genius - Sobers.

    So, in that sense, only against England was he exceptional.

  • Gaurav on August 17, 2010, 17:14 GMT

    @KiwiRocker, you are saying Sachin saved himself from facing Wasim and Waqar. using same logic, any similar minded fool can say waqar saved himself from bowling to Sachin and strong Indian batting lineup. Waqar anyway played only 4 tests and had a very poor test record against India and also very ordinary record against Australia and SA. will that make Waqar an ordinary bowler? if you follow cricket properly, you'll understand most good or great players will have better stats against the teams they play most during their peak years. Its generally not in their hand to "save" themself from facing another player. There can be few exceptions however like when some players shy away from taking field in the name of injury etc. like Shoaib Akhtar did a few years ago and Inzi was furious at him.

  • Roshan on August 17, 2010, 17:09 GMT

    I see that there are very loose comments coming from people who obviously never saw the great Viv play in full and not just highlights to be seen in compilations. He excelled in an era of much more difficult batting conditions against better bowlers than any seen in the past 15 years. For sure there were featherbeds put out occasionally in India and Pakistan but everywhere else it was a lot tougher. That is why not many averaged in the 50s. Besides it would have been obvious to anyone who ever saw Viv play that he did not care two figs about averages but set about dismantling nay destroying bowlers from the word go long before anyone ever thought of doing that. Today's batters have better bats and certainly much more benign pitches not to mention a decidedly lack of quality bowlers to contend with. So for all those who say otherwise, I say, GET THIS - there isn't a batsman today nor has there been any during the past twenty years who can come near the master that was Viv Richards.

  • Krishnan on August 17, 2010, 15:27 GMT

    @olepolice, let's forget about the counties and focus on West Indies. Your email does not address my point that Richards did not leave West Indies stronger than they were when he joined. Moreover, it is wrong for Berry to imply that the powerful teams of the late 1970s and 1980s were to a large part due to Richards - even if he were not there the Windies would still have been champions due to the sheer quantity of talent, especially in pace bowling, that they unearthed then. My point on pitches concerned the period from 1986 onwards. As Garner and Holding were aging, Richards seemed desperate to prove that he could match Lloyd's record. It is no coincidence to say that West Indian pitches deteriorated significantly during that era. Of course, the emergence of Ambrose and Bishop in the late 1980s could not have been predicted then and the attack once again became top class. But the pitches were not corrected and served to damage West Indian cricket in the longer term.

  • eddy on August 17, 2010, 13:47 GMT

    During the recent all time XI WI selection some people suggested that Viv's stats werent as good as Weekes, Walcott and Worrell. They said he had weak results against some nations and that in general he stayed on too long and just managed to keep his avg above 50. These points are all statistically true and right. HOWEVER,when you have a long career you will have dips in form and perform better against some teams than others. I suggested that it was VIV circa 1976-1986 is what i had in mind when i picked him, not 1975 or 1990. People suggested that i could not just pick his good years but also his bad as that gave a fairer picture. I have given it some thought but remain firm on my view that the all time XI would be my memory of the best players playing at there best. Remember, that is exactly how G Pollocks and B Richards inflated Test persona has been viewed for over 30 years!

  • Neil on August 17, 2010, 13:27 GMT

    Of course the word "Best" carries a lot of connotations. Simply because someone "swaggers", or "has a presence" or is "nice to watch" or "destructive" etc etc etc is essentially meaningless in determining if a particular batsman was the "Best". Thing is Viv was really,really good AND all of the above. Which is what adds to his appeal. And as regards comparing between eras, forget it. That's simply a waste of time since there is no way we can normalize the infinite variables...So comparing Viv to Bradman and later to Tendulkar/Lara is a meaningless excercise. All greats in their own way.

  • Sam` on August 17, 2010, 6:10 GMT

    And KiwiRocker, what in blazes do Wasim and Waqar have to do with Tendulkar allegedly not proving himself? Geez, he has destroyed every other great bowler of his era and thrived against them in all conditions but because he didn't really play much cricket against two of them, it doesn't count? That's like saying that a boxer who has knocked out every heavyweight champ for the last 50 years can't be considered great because he never fought two others who had retired a few years earlier or something.

  • Sam` on August 17, 2010, 6:05 GMT

    KAIRAVA, all his cricket against a Pakistan attack containing all the bowlers you just listed came in the last 3 years of his career. In fact he only played two matches that I can find against Waqar (and averaged 91 what's more), and Sarfraz was long gone by then anyway. The most of those bowlers he ever played against in one match was three - and that only happend a couple of times when a very young Wasim played alongside Imran and Qadir. So basically you might as well have just said that for some reason Richards struggled against the Pakistan ODI side even though it generally contained no higher amount of gun bowlers than any other team of the era.

  • Kairavan on August 17, 2010, 5:23 GMT

    In ODI's of the 1980's, Richards averaged more than 47 (his career ODI average) against sides which had average fast bowling lineups (Eng, Aus, Ind, NZ, SL) save for a Lillee in Australia, a Botham in England & a Hadlee in NZ. But against Pakistan, which had its own pace quartet (Sarfaraz, Imran, Wasim, Waqar) & not too forget the guile of Abdul Qadir, he averaged only a lowly 30.When performance is a measurement of greatness, then the quality of the opposition attack is a major factor. That is why Gavaskar in Tests, is held in a greater esteem than his contemporaries because he was more successful than any other batsman of his time, against the mighty West Indian fast bowlers.

  • Kush on August 17, 2010, 5:20 GMT

    Stats can be misleading if taken in isolation. Sir Viv's contemporary Larry Gomes averaged 56 against Australia and 39 overall ( a good career average and a great one against Australia for his era). Larry Gomes was a very good batsman indeed but nobody, no Aussie nor Larry Gomes himself would consider him a better player than Sir Viv.

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