1990 March 15, 2014

'Write anything bad and I'll whack you'

When Viv Richards took exception to a front-page report and marched up to the press box to have words with the journalist

In the last Rewind column we dealt with an incident in the 1989-90 Barbados Test. After a number of requests, this week we look at what happened when the teams travelled to Antigua for the fifth and final Test with the series still in the balance.

Tensions were high both on and off the field as the series reached a climax. England, surprise winners of the first Test and only narrowly denied victory in the third, had come back down to earth with a bump in Bridgetown. West Indies had rediscovered their swagger, and given the rumpus over Viv Richards' celebrations, which had marred the Barbados Test, his home crowd in Antigua were sure to be at their most vocal.

At the airport, Richards and fellow Antiguan Curtly Ambrose received an ecstatic welcome. Arms aloft, Richards told the crowd they were now going for the series win. A few yards away, Geoffrey Boycott, who had upset many in the Carribean with comments about the umpiring in Barbados, was jostled and had to be escorted to his car.

The match itself was an anti-climax. England appeared to lack self belief, batting poorly and bowling without any conviction. "West Indies won before tea on the fourth day," Wisden noted. "England finished bruised and deflated, harshly beaten in a series in which they had boldly made much of the running." What happened off the pitch once more dominated the headlines.

After reaching 101 for 1 in the first innings, England meekly folded to excellent fast bowling and poor shot selection. Allan Lamb, standing in for the injured Graham Gooch as England captain, was caught by Richards, who appeared to give him a fairly basic send-off. In the light of a combative series, it was a low-key incident barely worth a mention.

But the English press were on Richards' back after Barbados, and Richards was equally hostile towards them. In that hate-hate environment, all that was needed was a tiny spark to re-ignite the open antipathy. That spark came from the Daily Express reporter, James Lawton.

Unusually, because the second day was Good Friday, it was the scheduled rest day. Around lunchtime the West Indies squad assembled for a team meeting at their beach hotel.

Lawton, meanwhile, had been contacted by Charlie Sale, then the sports news editor in London. "Sale said that on a quiet news day it might be an idea to track down King Viv and ask him for an explanation for some rather extreme behaviour, which included very aggressive appeals, whipping up the island fans and the band when the West Indian pace attack launched a series of bouncers, and giving Lamb the V-sign when he was dismissed. Trying to curb my enthusiasm for the idea of disrupting the volatile island chief's day of rest, I said the chances were obviously very remote. He said, 'Give it a go, mate'."

Richards, who was staying at his home on the island, arrived and Lawton asked him if they could have a chat, specifically mentioning the Lamb send-off. According to Lawton, Richards then let rip.

"What gesture? It's none of your business. It's nobody's business. Why don't you ask players like Daffy [English allrounder Phil DeFreitas] about his gestures? "

At that, Richards went into the meeting. Lawton, perhaps unwisely, remained outside and was again targeted when Richards emerged a few minutes later. "You write anything bad about me and I'll come and whack you," Richards told him." A lot of crap is being written about me and it is time someone was sorted out. I'll start with you."

Although at least some of the incident had been witnessed, Lawton said some other journalists believed it was a private conversation which should have stayed at that. He countered that as captain of West Indies and a famous sportsman, it deserved a wider audience. He called London.

"Sale spoke with the editor of the Express, Sir Nicholas Lloyd, who said that I should write a news story for possible use on the front page and a sports column reporting both the demeanour and the behaviour of the great sportsman."

The next morning the story made the newspaper's front page. "The leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union were meeting in an attempt to pull the world back from nuclear oblivion," Lawton observed years later. "The paper front page noted this with a small headline, 'Gorby tells Bush Back Off' beneath the splash, Captain Viv Blows His Top'."

England resumed the second day on 203 for 6 but Richards did not lead his side out onto the field. According to Alan Lee in the Times the players and management did not know where he was. Desmond Haynes had to take over.

Shortly before the resumption Richards' agent in England had faxed him the front page of the Daily Express and he angrily made his way up to the press box. Lawton, who knew he had stirred up a hornet's nest, said he felt a "clammy dread" as the players came on to the field and a colleague exclaimed, "Christ, Haynes is leading the Windies ... Viv hasn't come out." He added: "Nobody needed to tell me whose footsteps were beating such a fierce tattoo on that perilous staircase."

He burst in, chillingly asking: "Where's James Lawton?" and then confronted Lawton ("He had not changed into his whites, was sweating profusely, and was speaking to me, most disconcertingly, partly in the third person") and for almost ten minutes made very clear his displeasure. If anyone thought there was a plot to deliberately rile Richards, Lawton years later said that was not the case "as was quite evident from my expression".

According to Lawton's account, published the next day and again on the front page, Richards made a number of threats to him in particular and the press corp in general.

"Vivvy leaves things to fate but I will take things into my own hands if you hurt me enough," Richards was quoted as saying. "If you were a younger man I might do something here and now. Somebody is going to get it. Anybody who gets in my way in this mood now had better watch out. I tell you, man, I am bubbling. Vivvy is angry." At that Richards left.

"He told me to stop looking at his eyes. I consider that a sort of triumph"
James Lawton

In his autobiography, Richards maintained confronting Lawton was right "but the timing was all wrong... it was a stupid thing to do, especially as I should have been leading the team out. As a result I was late and had to apologise to the board."

Richards resumed his captaincy and West Indies went on to win the Test by an innings, although he was dismissed for 1.

The distinguished journalist Matthew Engel wrote in the Guardian: "I was next to Lawton and about 12 inches from Richards while he conducted his philippic. That might suddenly have become a claim to fame if Richards, who insisted he would have hit a younger man and demanded that no one write anything, had switched his gaze inches to his left and seen this younger man scribbling on an airline ticket, the only bit of paper to hand.

"[Richards] marched into the press box, eyeballed Lawton at close quarters for fully 20 seconds and then walked out. As a stunned silence turned to nervous chatter, he suddenly returned and launched himself. If I understand the thrust of his logic, it was that if Lawton wanted to write anything he should ask Richards, but under no circumstances should he ask anything. There was an edginess to all this, and no one was entirely sure where Richards was driving."

Clive Lloyd, shortly after the face-off, had visited the press box to ask what had happened. " Viv is a winner and like all great competitors he does get very involved," he told Lawton. "At heart, he is not a vulgar man." Lloyd later said that Richards had apologised to both team and board.

At the post-match press conference, Richards was slightly more conciliatory. "Enough has been said by both sides about the incident and perhaps we are all a little guilty," he said. "I want to let sleeping dogs lie." But asked about the apology, he replied: "I don't know much about that topic. Next question please."

What happened next?

  • In 2000, Richards wrote he had no problems with Lawton. "We recently exchanged pleasantries in Langan's Brasserie in London."
  • Richards played another ten Tests over the following 16 months before retiring. He did not make a hundred in that time but bowed out with five half-centuries in England in 1991.
  • Lawton continued to write for the Daily Express until 2000 when he moved to the Independent. In 2009 he wrote that, on reflection, he realised "that a magnificent competitor was approaching the end of his powers and that this fact, along with the pressures of a job which he turned into a crusade, had brought him to a brittle edge. A little ironically, from the previous Test in Barbados, I had written about the glory of Richards' defiance of the dying of his light as the great batsman, smiting England's fastest bowler, Devon Malcolm, for a six which, astonishingly, crept over the boundary fence by the sheer force of his will."

Martin Williamson is executive editor of ESPNcricinfo and managing editor of ESPN Digital Media in Europe, the Middle East and Africa

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Vats on March 19, 2014, 4:53 GMT

    Another great article in an enjoyable series. To Insightful2013's comment, plenty of people are interested in this series, sir, because historical value and anecdotage are what test cricket thrive on . If you're not, just keep away...simple!

  • Dummy4 on March 17, 2014, 22:45 GMT

    mukesh_LOVE.cricket... stats, stats, stats. Mohammed Ali is considered by many as the greatest ever yet his stats isn't as great as many of the boxers that followed after him. I would take an inform Lara or Dravid over an inform Tendulkar, yet Tendulkar is the leading run-making batsman. My point, stats isn't always enough. If you want to talk about stats, look at the stats of the WI bowlers from the 70's, 80's early nineties. There was rarely a place to hide for the opposition. If one didn't get you, one of the other three would. McGrath and Warne share a lot wickets and rightly so because they are true greats of the game... however they are only two. WI had 4, many of which with superior strike rates. Steve Waughs Aussies against Lloyds or Richards West Indies, that would have been an epic battle with a WI victory. Many greats including Khan, Bothan, Chappell, Dev, have said the WI team of the late 70's 80's was the best side in the modern game. What say you to that?

  • narbavi on March 17, 2014, 2:03 GMT

    Well done Cricinfo, nice to see you guys bring up these moments which happened 25 years ago.

  • Master on March 16, 2014, 22:57 GMT

    No need to speculate about hayden langer. They were horribly exposed by curtly and courtney at start of their careers. They cleaned up once those guys retired but then faced Harmison in 05. In 30 mins langer got banged on the elbow hayden in the head and ponting got his cheek cut. Michael clarke gets hit so often the board of control probably wouldn't give him a licence to play. If they had to face WI at sabina park under 80s rules there would be 5 in hospital by lunch steve waugh 12 not out (couldnt hook) and warnie chain smoking in terror next man in.

    In Greenidge Haynes Richards you are talking about 3 of the best hookers ever, while Lara Lloyd and Richardson could all bat a bit too. Australia's only chance play the game at Sydney under modern rules get warne on early and hope malcolm marshalls leg cutters arent firing.

  • David on March 16, 2014, 22:19 GMT

    Richards was, and remains, almost godlike. The most exciting batsman to watch of all - Tendulkar, Ponting, or Kallis just look dull compared with him - and he had a presence that made even Lara look like a school boy. I still find the richness of his voice as a commentator, and his swagger entrancing and fascinating. But I also remember watching him in my teens and twenties, and thinking that he came across as something of an unpleasant bully, and he was not always blessed with the best of sportsmanship when things did not go his way. His behaviour in this incident was clearly awful, but somehow forgivable. Anger in lesser men - KP springs to mind - just comes across as borish petulance. Somehow - and this is probably unfair - it seems excusable with Sir Viv.

  • mukesh on March 16, 2014, 20:21 GMT

    @AjayB - cant agree with you there , i haven't seen the gr8 WI side but i have seen the Aussies and they were pretty damn good , and i sincerely believe Aussies have done it at a time when world cricket was much more competitive than the late 70's and early 80's when WI dominated.

    Also when you claim WI forced a rule change , another way to see that would be to ask 'will they be still that good with the flatter pitches , helmets and bouncer restriction rules ?' , i don't think they would have been

    And finally just check at the team stats - best win ratio , most consecutive test wins , most consecutive ODI wins , most no. of World cups .. Aussies are better in all that counts

  • Dummy4 on March 16, 2014, 18:56 GMT

    The West Indies team of the late 70's early 80's was the best team to ever play test cricket period!

  • R on March 16, 2014, 17:09 GMT

    @AjayB: Spot on mate, couldn't agree with you more. Especially liked the line about forcing rule changes...

  • R on March 16, 2014, 17:06 GMT

    ...contd... Warne too would be an automatic selection though I don't know which player to drop. Logie was a fantastic fielder, especially up-close at forward short leg; Gomes, you could rely on to hang in there with your life on the line (and could be useful with his part-time off-spin). Gilly, maybe even Healy, would be the winner head-over-heels against Dujon. Have your pick....

  • R on March 16, 2014, 17:00 GMT

    @electric_loco_WAP4: Think again mate. If you were to ask anyone with a little bit of knowledge about cricket, Hayden-Langer don't stand a chance against Greenidge-Haynes, McGill wasn't even an automatic choice in the Aussie side (though I reckon, that was due to reasons other than cricket) while Marshall, Roberts, Holding, Garner & Ambrose would be automatic choices in any side. Though I agree Healy might hold his own against Jeff Dujon, I ain't so sure regarding his chances against Murray. Steve Waugh though would walk into any side for his sheer guts, probably also lead the side. Greenidge, Haynes, Richards, Lloyd, Gomes, Logie/Richardson/Bacchus, Dujon, Marshall, Roberts/Croft, Holding & Garner was a formidable outfit striking terror in every heart (just ask the England side of the 80's who were whitewashed twice in 5 Test series). The only positions which are under threat here are No.s 5, 6 & 7, where Steve Waugh, Ponting/Mark Waugh & Healy/Gilly would walk in...contd..

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