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When an outburst of petulance led him to do things he regretted years later
October 6, 2012
Sir Viv Richards is rightly regarded as one of the game's greatest batsman, and yet his career was almost stillborn after he was banned for two years as a result of an incident during a Leeward Islands Tournament match in Antigua when he was 17.
As a teenager Richards had captured the imagination of the small island with his batting. "It was clear from his school days that Vivian possessed something special as a natural ball player," Wisden recorded. "He was chosen for Antigua in cricket and soccer when still in his teens and was the idol of the crowds."
At the start of the 1969-70 season the precocious youngster was included in the Antigua national side for the first time for a game against the neighbouring island of St Kitts. Although the match was not first-class, around 6000 gathered inside the compact St John's Recreation Ground, many just to see Richards.
Antigua batted first and Richards came out at the fall of the first wicket. Before he had faced a ball he admitted he "began verbally assaulting the St Kitts' bowlers … I [was] very cocky indeed". His first delivery went to short leg who appealed for the catch and the umpire gave him out. Richards was insistent he had not touched it.
In 2006 my colleague Siddhartha Vaidyanathan caught up with the St Kitts bowler, John Bowry, who had a different take on things. "I bowled a straighter one and it bounced," he said. "He pushed forward and it came off his glove and the guy at leg-slip took it. He stood up as if he had not played the ball, but in my opinion he had played and in the umpires opinion he played it and the umpire raised his finger."
"I was outraged," Richards recalled. "For a while I just stared. Then I stamped my foot and, very slowly, thumped my bat on the turf." After a delay of several minutes he started to head, very slowly, back to the pavilion giving the umpire "a few very pointed words" on the way. The crowd had by now sensed what was happening and started to come onto the playing area to make clear their feelings.
As the protests went on - and within a few minutes someone had made a placards reading "NO VIV - NO MATCH" - Richards sat contemplating his situation in the pavilion. He kept glancing to the left at the jail which borders one side of the ground and where his father worked as a warden. "I knew damn well that he'd be there and would know something had gone wrong."
After almost two hours came an extraordinary about-turn by the authorities. Instead of standing behind the on-field umpire and insisting the game continue or even abandon it - as Richards admitted they should have done - they approached Richards and asked him to go back out and bat again to try to appease the crowd.
In an interview years later Richards' mother, Grathel, said that her husband made his way to the ground and told the administrators: "Don't put him back in, leave it at that. Over is over."
Looking back, Richards said he felt he had been set up while admitting complete blame for starting the incident. "I behaved very badly and I am not proud of it. But those in authority, who were advising me, didn't do themselves very proud either. I was told to restore peace I should go back out to bat. I did not want to and was not very happy about it. Had I been a more experienced player then I think I would have refused. But go back I did. I was made to look a fool for the convenience of the local cricket authorities."
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The crowd returned to their seats and the game resumed. "It was bad for cricket because the umpire had given him out," Bowry said. "He should have walked; he stood his ground and that provoked the crowd. And, I was told by a broadcaster that his father beat him the same night saying that when the umpire gave him out he should have walked." Richards claimed his father was actually angrier because he had allowed himself to be manipulated by the authorities.
As it was, the reprieve mattered little. He was stumped off the first ball he faced. "I was young, immature and confused," he said. "I think I wanted to be out as quickly as possible."
The rest of the match was played out in a sour atmosphere both on and off the pitch. In the second innings Richards was out for yet another duck, his third of the match, caught in the covers. "My mental approach was still bad. I was in no condition to make runs."
It was those same authorities, the ones who had urged him to resume his innings, who laid into Richards in the days that followed and eventually slapped a two-year ban on him, effective from the end of the season.
"They didn't even tell me," he said. "I first learned of the ban when I switched on the radio. Then the local newspapers took it up with headlines and editorials. Soon everyone on the island knew I was in so-called disgrace."
What hurt more was that the same fans who had started idolising him before the St Kitts match now turned on him during the rest of the season. "They started booing and cat-calling me when I was at the wicket. They weren't going to let me forget it. Some of the remarks were hurtful." His family were also targeted and people shouted abuse at their house from the street. Things got so bad that for a while Richards refused to go out.
The ban started the following season and Richards filled his time by taking up boxing, which he said helped his strength and his reactions, as well as playing football and keeping his eye in with regular net sessions.
There was no appeal and even had that been an option Richards would not have taken it. "My father said I was wrong and had to take my punishment, and he washed his hands of the entire thing."
What happened next?
Martin Williamson is executive editor of ESPNcricinfo and managing editor of ESPN Digital Media in Europe, the Middle East and AfricaFeeds: Martin Williamson
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