<
>

The long, hot summer of Viv Richards

Viv Richards relaxes with a cold one after his 291 Getty Images

August 12, 1976. Mike Selvey runs in and delivers a full ball on off stump. Viv Richards moves his front foot across and flicks the ball to the right of square leg. By the time fine leg runs around to cut it off, Richards is already turning for his third run, which will take him to 51. "Applause from the England fielders," Jim Laker says. "Richards again in really cracking form here at The Oval, his fifty coming in just 87 minutes, five boundaries included."

Richards will bat another 385 minutes, score a further 240 runs, and hit a further 33 fours. But when you ask him which shot he remembers most clearly, it isn't a boundary.

"Yeah, the one I got out to [Tony] Greig," he says. "The ball I got out to, I can remember, I went to drive and maybe a little tiredness would have maybe set in, and I wasn't quite to the pitch. Got a little inside edge and got bowled. Tony behaved like he had got me out for nought, you know?"

Then he laughs his deep, rich, unfettered laugh. Forty years have passed and Richards is looking onto a lush St Lucian outfield that is growing more sodden with every second, as rain slowly washes out day three of the third Test between West Indies and India.

The weather at The Oval 40 years ago couldn't have been more different.

When you watch the highlights, the first thing that jumps out is how the ground looks. The square just about manages to look green, but the ground staff seem to have ignored the rest of the outfield. It is bare, parched, pockmarked, a consequence of one of the hottest, driest summers the UK has experienced. Temperatures have crossed 35°C in some parts, and the National Water Council has placed ads in newspapers urging readers to "think before you turn the tap on".

"What a nice sight," says Richie Benaud, when the broadcast cuts to a wide-angle shot. "The ground itself is on the brown side, which we can't complain about, lack of rain, but the outfield is very fast, and is in good condition, considering all the circumstances."

Richards remembers arriving, looking at the ground, and thinking to himself, "Wow, this can't be England."

"It's the shot that defined Richards. He even called his autobiography Hitting Across the Line. He keeps playing it through this innings, and it looks like the safest, most appropriate shot each time he plays it"

Greig, infamously, had turned the temperature up a couple more degrees before the series even began. Richards remembers exactly when the West Indies team first heard what Greig planned to make West Indies do.

"We were just about to go into our team meeting to discuss our strategies, and then all of a sudden it was ITN… or ITV, which was the other station which was rival to BBC and all that, and here was the news, bang! Breaking news, Tony Greig said all these things.

"So we walked into the meeting room, kept the television on, obviously wanted to hear what he said. We had all assembled, we had big Wayne Daniel, Vanburn Holder, Michael Holding, the whole lot, Gordon Greenidge, Roy Fredericks, everyone. I think Bernard Julien was part of that team as well.

"So everyone was basically on their seats, waiting to hear what was said, and there, up on the TV, was Tony Greig," - and here Richards does a remarkably accurate impression of Greig's South African accent, his jaw masticating each word like a stick of gum - 'We're going to make, with the help of Closey and a few of my mates, we're going to make the Windies grovel.'

"Wow. And I'll tell you, that was the team meeting. I think someone said to the skipper at the time, "Clive, are we gonna have the meeting?" He said, "No, the meeting's over". You could see the looks on everyone's face, and I knew we were going to have a good summer."

By the time the tour reached The Oval, West Indies had already wrapped up the series, and Richards had scored 232, 63, 4, 135, 66 and 38 in the first four Tests, and had already broken Bob Simpson's 1964 record of 1381 runs in a calendar year. Having averaged 31.40 at the start of the year, Richards now averaged over 57, and had made the leap to becoming one of the world's best batsmen. This innings was a celebration of all that.

Soon after Richards has reached his half-century, the highlights video cuts to another leg-side flick, this time off Bob Woolmer. "You can't allow anything round about leg stump at this man Richards," Jim Laker says. "Nonchalantly flicked that away through midwicket for four more."

You wonder if Laker might have seen it differently had Richards played the same shot at the start of the summer rather than in the last Test of a triumphant series. The ball isn't "round about leg stump"; it's on off stump, and, unlike Selvey's half-volley, is pitched on a good length. You wonder if Laker, not yet convinced of Richards' methods, might have cautioned him against hitting across the line and around his front pad.

It's the shot that defined Richards, of course. He even called his autobiography Hitting Across the Line. He keeps playing it through this innings, and it looks like the safest, most appropriate shot each time he plays it. You only realise its pitfalls when Lawrence Rowe, batting on 70, tries it against Derek Underwood and misses an arm ball. Did Richards ever get in trouble playing that shot?

"Yeah, you do," he says. "Sometimes you live by the sword, you die by the sword, you know? I've always felt Ian Chappell - he is a guy I have an enormous amount of respect for, as a cricketer, and the things that he'd bring, in terms of advice - he's one of the individuals who'll tell you that he would hook a lot, and because of his hooking there's a few times he got out, and for the few times that he got out, people would say things like, 'Oh, he should stop hooking', so he said, 'Naah, how am I going to stop hooking when my percentage is much greater for success than failure? So I'm going to continue.'

"So he said, you may look to flick one every now and again, and one seams, and swings, and you look a little ugly, but it's all part of the sport. You know, maybe next time you get a little closer [to the pitch of the ball]."

Decades before Kevin Pietersen explained why he played his flamingo shot from outside off stump, Richards was thinking along the same lines, that there were fewer fielders on the leg side, and more runs to be had.

"Batsmanship, I've always felt, it isn't about hitting the fieldsman," he says. "One of the guys who I felt would find the gaps as good as anyone else would be BC, Brian Lara, and that's what batsmanship is about. You find the gaps. If you hit a fieldsman two or three times in that over, you can't afford to do that, you find a way of avoiding that fieldsman, that's what batsmanship is about."

Batsmanship. Light feet, the stillest head of them all, shots all around the wicket. Richards hits Bob Willis over his head, improvising a topspin whip after realising he isn't quite to the pitch of the ball. Then he cuts Underwood behind point, bat meeting ball inches wide of off stump. A swept two off Geoff Miller brings up his hundred. Richards moves like a boxer when he skips back and makes room to hammer a slightly short ball, no width on it, to the cover-point boundary. Each time, his bat sounds like… it simply sounds like a Viv Richards bat.

"To be fair, I'm not lying to you, I always had good bats," he says. "Because I always made sure I went to the factory, and picked my personal bats, and to be fair, Duncan Fearnley, even the Jumbo we had then, the Jumbos - huge. A huge bat. You know, it had a huge hump at the back.

"My bats were always very thick, similar to, well, people were saying, wow, they were illegal then, but it's the same sort of bats that you're getting now, which may be a little bigger as well too, but all around. My bats were basically two-ten. I started at 2.7 ounces, then two-ten. They were making them with good balance. You wouldn't feel the two-ten."

"Over the years, man, I used to give the chewing gum, and no one ever knew, I used to give the chewing gum a serious workout, man"

With the first day nearing its close, Richards reaches 200 with an ambled single through square leg, off Greig's medium pace, playing another flick around his front pad. The crowd pours onto the field.

"There were a lot of West Indian supporters," Richards says. "One man wanted to take my bat and run, that kind of thing, you know? One guy was holding on to my bat, and I'm holding on, trying to [tell him], 'You can't take this bat, I've just got 200 with it, you know?' So just, people were looking for souvenirs, I guess. I had to hold on to my cap and all that."

Weather apart, the sheer numbers of West Indian fans at the grounds added to how at home Richards felt on that England tour.

"Yeah, it's… because the West Indies team, I guess, what we had was such an attraction that it brought folks from all departments," he says. "People would take their vacations when West Indies were touring, make sure that they didn't want to miss it.

"You'd pass, the [team] coach would pass coaches of West Indians going to the ground, and when they'd see the name of the West Indies team on it, you could see everybody was so pleased. And I guess it was sort of enlightening for them, being in that part of the world, to have a successful unit, [from the] country they were from, and it was a sense of proudness, they felt rather proud to be part of that, and you yourself, in terms of contribution, it was pleasing to you, seeing the satisfaction that they got."

When Richards resumed his innings, he was chewing the same piece of gum he had been chomping at all through the first day.

"Well, I stuck it, I wanted to have it for the next day, so I made sure I put it under the little seat [in the dressing room], so I could come back to it. Even though it was tasteless, you know? It didn't have any taste in the mouth."

Isaac Vivian Alexander Richards, latterly Sir Isaac Vivian Alexander Richards, perhaps the most famous chewer of gum there has ever been, reveals now that he never had a chewing-gum sponsor.

"You wouldn't believe, I'm pissed with that, you know? Over the years, right? Over the years, man, I used to give the chewing gum, and no one ever knew, I used to give the chewing gum a serious workout, man. It never had to be any special Wrigley's spearmint or whatever, but, wow, my agent must have been rubbish then, you know? My agent? He wasn't any good."

On the second day, Richards races away, jumping out to Underwood at every chance, hitting him over extra cover, and then straight at him, offering what isn't a half-chance but probably one-eighth of a chance. The ball hits the palm of his right hand and still blazes away to the boundary. "That's the sort of catch you don't really want to see coming back at you," Benaud says, spin bowler empathising with spin bowler.

Another flicked four, off Willis, prompts this observation from Laker. "So a hundred and twenty of his runs now coming in fours, as he moves on to 239." This means 32 of Richards' next 52 will come in fours. Landmarks await him - there is 300, there is Garfield Sobers' 365 - but he says he wasn't thinking of them.

"You won't believe, but maybe I wasn't too smart then to think about that. You know, because my game was all about, maybe, playing, and landmarks never quite played a role, and whether or not [I got them]. It was just about if you need to go out and score some quick runs and whether it's a Test match or not, to have a declaration, and I'm prepared to do all that, you know. It's about what contribution you can make for the team, and that has always been high on my list."

The shot that gets Richards out doesn't look like the shot of a man thinking he's nine runs from 300. He reaches for an offbreak, he's nowhere near the pitch of the ball, and he overbalances as he tries to drive against the turn.

Greig's celebration is rather more muted than Richards remembers. He jumps, arms aloft, but drops them as soon as he lands, as if the effort is too much, and walks slowly down the pitch towards Alan Knott, the wicketkeeper. It is the last we will see of Greig in this video, which cuts to Richards walking off, looking tired himself, eyes looking down rather than straight ahead as he raises his bat to the crowd.

With the passing of time, Richards' assessment of Greig has mellowed.

"I remember that when he was finally beaten, I think he was man enough, he went on his knees, and Tony, to be fair to him, regardless of what you may have thought at the time, he was a competitive person. And anyone in sport would know that and understand that.

"He was just trying to gee his team up as best as he can, you know, and obviously, maybe like Donald Trump today, words sometimes get used in a way where you may have to come and say I'm sorry, you know? That's how it is."