The emperor in winter
Viv Richards is 60. It happened on March 7th and you would have to see it to believe it. He looks 50, or better. The Master Blaster is in England, adding muscle to Test Match Special's coverage of the series.
You would think he lived life on a cross-trainer but he doesn't, just keeps an eye on himself. Standing on the square before play the other day, we pushed him to say how he thought he would cope if he strapped them on now for a hit against England. He rocked back and laughed. Teeth are perfect. Nose ever more Roman, set beneath those killer eyes. We tried again; he relented. "Thirty maybe, or even 50." Said without a hint of malice to the modern game but with a great dollop of the old defiance. Of course, 50! I cannot be beaten. Why not more? Maybe more. Such unconditional self-belief. The court of King Viv is barely less absorbing now than it was then.
He started Test cricket in 1974 and finished in 1991, playing many of the most remarkable innings of the age. He is a shoo-in for just about everybody's all-time team - five-day and one-day. Had there been an IPL auction sometime then, the bids would have bust the bank: in modern speak, imagine the "maximums" and imagine the brand! At The Oval in the heat-strewn glory of 1976, when he made 291, John Snow bowled a short ball. Jim Laker, in his yeoman Yorkshire drawl, described it thus: "Not really a bouncer from John Snow, more a long hop, and suffice to say, Viv Richards simply crucified it."
The summer of '76, Viv's Kingdom of Days. Eight months around the world that year brought him 1710 runs at an average of 90. John Arlott wrote, "He exerted a headlong mastery even more considerable than Don Bradman at the same age." The bats were balsa wood compared to now, and the boundaries bigger. His leg-side play became legend but it was the power of the riposte, the sense of vengeance for a people suppressed that rang out. Unsurprisingly Bob Marley's "Redemption Song" is a favourite.
Richards' presence at the wicket was almost frightening. No, not almost, it was frightening. Opponents looked upon him with awe and he upon them with scorn. The eye of a hawk, the speed to strike of a snake, the pride of a lion. Wherever he went, he could part the sea. In that time, only Seve Ballesteros had such aura. They were cut from the same cloth, playing their games with a similarly irresistible mix of brooding venom and unbridled joy.
After dazzling Taunton, Richards moved briefly to Wales to light up Glamorgan days. On strike to Malcolm Marshall in a county match in Swansea, something disturbed him. He pulled away with a regal sense of theatre and then walked - if we can call it that with Viv - down the pitch, past Marshall, past the umpire and towards the many steep and famous steps that brought pain or pleasure to the climb of returning batsmen. Suddenly, in no man's land, he stopped. "Hey you, you, yes you," he shouted with withering accusation to an alarmed spectator above the sightscreen, who was idly thumbing the pages of the Daily Telegraph. "You got David Gower at slip, Robin Smith in the gully, Malcolm Marshall is bowling to Vivian Richards, and you reading the effing newspaper!"
He played the greatest county innings we ever saw, again for Glamorgan, oddly enough, at the old Southampton ground in 1990. On a flat deck we set Glamorgan 364 on the last afternoon and had them quickly five down for not many.
Viv blocked in disgust at the ruin around him. Until the last over before tea, when he followed through on one of those forward defensives and hit the thing into Northlands Road. That shut us up at tea time. After that, it was carnage. We came to the last over of the game, Glamorgan seven down, needing 14 to win, Viv 150 not out and on strike once again to the best bowler on the planet, Malcolm Marshall.
We placed every man on the boundary. "Give him the single, Macko, you can bowl at Metson and then knock over Dennis and Watkin to win us the game, easy," said the Hampshire captain. Off stump, good-length ball. Four, before either fielder at extra cover or deep point had broken stride. "Er, a single, Marshy boy, bowl at Metson, knock him over, then Dennis and Watkin etc" Bouncer. Six, lost ball over the flats at midwicket. I kid you not.
Four to win, four balls left. "Macko! Give him a damn single, bowl at Metson, then Dennis and Watkin, then we win, get it?!" Attempted yorker, gun barrel straight. Drilled wide of mid-on, like a shell from a gun. Four. Game over. He whipped off his gloves, shook a few hands and said, "Great declaration, man. Let's go have a beer." Yes sir, of course, sir. Ye gods! There can never have been so destructive a batsman and so dominant a personality.
Briefly, the captaincy of West Indies gave him gip. Clive Lloyd rode roughshod over all-comers for so long that the act was hard to follow. Moreover, big names had hung up boots and young faces kowtowed. In 1988, England won all three preamble one-day games and this on the back of West Indies failing to win any of the previous four Test series under Richards' command. The smile had turned scowl. Not for long, though. Not only did West Indies tear England apart and win 4-0, they crushed the notion of leadership - a supposed British specialty - watching in glee as Mike Gatting, John Emburey, Chris Cowdrey and Graham Gooch all had a crack and failed. Viv silenced everybody with that one.
Back to pitchside at Trent Bridge. Is there a secret, Viv? "Keep it simple, stay still, watch the ball. These fellas these days, they want to over-complicate this thing which is batting. Come forward, come at the face of the man against you and spring back if you must, to show him who's boss. Be the boss, man, because if you don't think you are, no one else will, true huh true." And off he goes upright, strong and defiant, to Aggers and Co in the commentary box. Emperors, kings, they always have the last word.
Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK