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

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