The bonafide great who never was
To Donald Bradman, he was as good as Jack Hobbs or Len Hutton. To John Arlott, he was "a batsman of staggering talent". To many who played with and against him, he was the most complete batsman they ever saw. To Robin Jackman, in his days as the heart of the Surrey attack, he was a reason to think about tennis.
"When the fixtures came out at the beginning of the season, one thing we always used to look at was whether we were playing Hampshire over the Wimbledon fortnight," Jackman said. "Because if we were, there was very little chance that Barry would be playing. He managed to find a groin injury when Wimbledon was on."
Along with Graeme Pollock, Barry Richards was the bonafide great who never was. Four Tests was all he had to prove himself before apartheid sentenced South Africa to 22 years of isolation. Richards, tall, wristy, implacable, possessed of feline grace and eyesight, took his chance, scoring 508 runs at 72.57 against the 1969-70 Australians. A surprise? Hardly. "Even before that series, everybody knew he was going to be a batting genius," said Ali Bacher, South Africa's captain in that famous rubber.
Richards scored a century before lunch nine times in his first-class career. That might have been 10 had Bacher not been bowled around his legs by Alan Connolly shortly before the interval on the first day against Australia at Kingsmead in 1970 as he tried to fangle a single to give the tyro the strike.
But Richards duly reached three figures in the first over after lunch, and he went on to score 140 in his most celebrated innings. In the first hour of that second session - perhaps the most storied 60 minutes in South Africa's cricket history - Richards shared 103 runs with Pollock, who made 274, a monument that stood as the highest Test innings by a South African until 1999. "I don't think this country has ever again seen batting like we saw that day," Bacher said.
Besides batting up a storm, Richards proved the keenness of his cricketing brain by demystifying the bowling of Johnny Gleeson, the Australian spinner who was able to deliver offbreaks and legbreaks with no discernible change in his action.
"Whenever one of our Test batsmen came in during the Aussies' matches against the provincial teams on that tour and Gleeson was bowling, he was immediately taken off," Bacher said. "We never got a chance to see him before the series." All would be revealed in the first Test in Cape Town.
"Trevor Goddard got out, and I came in, and immediately Gleeson was brought on from the Wynberg end. For the first two overs he made me look like a clown. When I thought it was the offbreak, it was the legbreak; when I was sure it was the legbreak, it was the offbreak."
Bacher resolved to plonk his front foot down the pitch and heave Gleason over midwicket, which served him well enough in his innings of 57.
"That night we had a team meeting, and Barry told us how to play him. He said if we could see a lot of fingers on top of the ball, it was the offbreak. If we could only see the thumb and one finger, it was the legbreak. He took one look at him and worked him out, and for the rest of the series he ran down the wicket to Gleeson. The rest of us were still a bit wary - even Graeme Pollock played him from the crease - but Barry went after him."
By the time Richards was done with first-class cricket, he owned 28,358 runs, 80 centuries and an average of 54.74 from 339 matches. If English bowlers didn't know what was about to hit them when he arrived to play for Hampshire in 1968, they were fully appraised by the end of that summer. Richards topped the first-class run-scoring charts with 2395 at 47.90. In 10 years with Hampshire, he went past 1000 runs in all but one. He passed that milestone in 15 seasons all told.
Richards averaged 109.86 in the 1970-71 Sheffield Shield, in which he played for South Australia and became only the second man after Bradman to register a century against all opponents. Against Western Australia he scored 325 of his 356 - 198 in boundaries - in a single day against an attack that bristled with the varying threats posed by Graham McKenzie, Dennis Lillee, Tony Lock, Tony Mann, John Inverarity and Ian Brayshaw. At the WACA!
Impressive though those numbers are, the sum of Richards added up to much more than his parts. "He was technically perfect, but he still had the ability to really hurt you, whereas others who were technically very good but not as good as Barry - say a Boycott - you never felt were going to hurt you that much," Jackman said. "They'd wear you down, hour after hour. But Barry could really turn it on when he felt like it. Sometimes he did it just because he felt like it."
As a fast bowler for Western Province and then Rhodesia, as well as for Surrey, Jackman crossed swords with Richards on the county circuit as well as in South Africa's Currie Cup.
"I used to regard it as an achievement if I bowled a maiden to him; that was my ultimate," Jackman said. "Most of the time when I bowled to him, I'd have the new ball and he'd be opening the batting. Of course you'd have the right number of catchers, and there were some gaps in the field. So if you got through a few overs to him with and he hadn't really scored, and you bowled a maiden to him, you felt like you were doing really well."
Praise for Richards isn't hard to come by. What sets Jackman's words apart is that he was the most successful bowler in the game against the South African. In their 25 first-class matches together, Jackman dismissed Richards 16 times. John Shepherd, the Barbados-born former Rhodesian, Gloucestershire and Kent seamer, is second on the list with 13, also in 25 matches. In county cricket exclusively, John Snow, the former Sussex and Warwickshire spearhead, was Richards' most lethal opponent, taking his wicket 10 times in 20 games.
Former Transvaal left-arm fast bowler Don Mackay-Coghill, one of the more successful South Africans against Richards, with eight first-class dismissals, had a habit of welcoming him to the crease by reminding him of the score in their personal duel: "Good morning, Barry. Six times now."
But it's the legends in which Richards was the good guy in the white hat that are better known. The story of him turning his bat sideways to play out an over with the edge - and that with a bat whose edges were much thinner than those of modern bats - is among the few South African cricket tales to have lived on into this era. He is also known to have imagined the ground as the face of a vast clock and hit six fours in an over, each of them scooting to a different part of the boundary in clockwise order.
Jackman: "When he played well, he didn't necessarily play better on one day than another. You were just very happy when you got him out. He was simply a fabulous batsman. He and Gordon Greenidge made a formidable opening pair, and it wasn't often you got an early breakthrough against Hampshire."
After he retired, Richards coached South Australia to a Sheffield Shield final before becoming Queensland's chief executive. They won the Sheffield Shield for the first time in their history on his watch. Richards has served as president of Hampshire and dabbled in international coaching on the Asian subcontinent.
All of which may make being Richards seem like the best job in the world. Not so, sometimes. He has known the searing pain of a son committing suicide, as well as the debilitating disintegration of a lengthy marriage. His truncated Test career "really hurts him", said Jackman, who has spent time with Richards as a commentator. "When you're that talented you want the world to see it, not a few guys watching at Southampton." The fact that he fell 20 short of 100 first-class centuries is another bleak point, particularly as he had a reputation in county games for losing focus after sating himself with runs. Too many 70s and 80s that should have been converted were marooned in double figures. Astonishingly for so poised a player, he suffered with flat feet.
But the world according to cricket won't remember Barry Richards for much of that. Instead, he will always be the man who might have been.
Telford Vice is a freelance cricket writer in South Africa