CRICKETER OF THE YEAR - 1977

Viv Richards

The modern generation of cricket followers were provided with an ample illustration of what the legendary Don Bradman's domination of the game must have been like in the 1930's by the exploits of ISAAC VIVIAN ALEXANDER RICHARDS, the West Indian batsman, during the first eight months of 1976.

In the eleven Tests he managed to cram into that period, Richards accumulated 1,710 runs with the style and consistency of a great player. No other batsman in the history of the game had scored nearly so many in a calendar year although, it must be admitted, Bradman and others before the recent expansion of Test cricket never had the opportunity to bat as frequently.

Even so, the fact that Richards maintained his phenomenal form in three separate series in three different parts of the world enhanced the excellence of his feat. His sequence started with scores of 44, 2, 40, 101, 50 and 98 against the "lethal" Australian fast bowling in the final three Tests of a series which, otherwise proved disastrous for the West Indies. It continued in the Caribbean, in the four-Test series against India, with scores of 142, 130, 20 run out, 177, 23 and 64 against the best spinners in the game. It culminated in the English summer when, in the sunshine against bowling of no outstanding merit, he helped himself to 829 runs in seven innings - including scores of 291, 232 and 135.

His aggregate in the Tests in England was the highest by any West Indian in a single series and, yet, he was forced to miss the second Test through illness.

If he fails to make another run in Test cricket, Richards' performances in 1976 will always be a source of conversation for the enthusiasts - and inspiration to young batsmen. Indications are, however, that Richards has only just started on what should be a prolific career.

Born on March 7, 1952 on the island of Antigua, Richards was only 24 when he was plundering the beleaguered English bowlers in the summer. Strong and fit and possessing an obvious passion for the game, he must have many years ahead of him.

His advance to the heights which he has already achieved reflects the changing structure of West Indian - and, indeed, world- cricket in the past decade or so. It has only been in that period that teams from the Windward and Leeward Islands have been included in the mainstream of first-class cricket in the West Indies, joining the four more developed territories of Barbados, Guyana, Jamaica and Trinidad which for years, exclusively provided players for the Test team.

Nevertheless cricket has always been played and followed with no less fervour in the smaller islands of the English-speaking Caribbean than it has been in the larger ones and opportunity was all their players lacked. That has now been provided with the Windwards and Leewards competing in the annual Shell Shield (senior) and Benson and Hedges Trophy (junior) championships as well as playing against touring teams.

Richards and others of his generation had no obstacles as those before them did. One such had been Richards' father, Malcolm, Antigua's leading fast bowler for many years, for whom first-class cricket could only be a dream. At least he has the satisfaction of three of his sons reaching that level. In addition to Vivian, Donald, a fast-medium bowler, and Mervyn, a batsman, have represented the Leeward islands.

It was clear from his school days that Vivian possessed something special as a natural ball player. He was chosen for Antigua in cricket and soccer when still in his teens and was the idol of the crowds. It was this which probably delayed his entry into first-class cricket for an incident, involving his home crowd during an inter-island match, brought him a two-year suspension in 1969.

Given out caught, Richards indicated to the umpire and his adoring spectators that he had not hit the ball and stamped off in obvious annoyance. The result was a chain reaction among the crowd, which stopped play and chanted "No Vivi, no match". Shockingly, the officials bowed to the mob, overruled the decision and allowed Richards to continue. Even though he allowed himself to be stumped immediately on resumption, Richards had to shoulder the blame and was banned.

It was not until the 1972 season, at the age of 20, that he could be chosen for the Leeward and Combined Islands teams in the domestic West Indian competitions and he quickly attracted attention with an innings of 82 against the touring New Zealanders. His natural ability was unmistakable, both with the bat and in the field. Yet he lacked application and he regularly got himself out when seemingly well set.

Two developments early in 1973 had a beneficial effect on his future. The first was a spell at Alf Gover's Cricket School in London, financed by public subscription which sent him and another promising young Antiguan, Andy Roberts by name, for the summer. In that time, Richards played club cricket mainly for Lansdown C. C., Bath, Roberts in Southampton and, by the following year, both were making their presence felt in county cricket for Somerset and Hampshire respectively.

Richards' association with Somerset began when he was spotted playing for Antigua against a touring English club team, the Acorns, which included several Somerset members. His stint in the day-to-day atmosphere of county cricket has unquestionably benefited Richards and he pays glowing tribute to the advice and guidance offered him by his county captain, Brian Close.

In fact, before he had played a first-class match for Somerset, Richards had not been able to discipline himself sufficiently to score his maiden first-class century in the Caribbean. It was, therefore, an inspired choice by the West Indian selectors when they picked him, with no convincing statistical background, for the tour of India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan in 1974-75. That Rohan Kanhai might have been given the place that eventually went to Richards represented a courageous selection.

Since then, Richards has gone from strength to strength. He gained a place in the Test team in the first instance only because Lawrence Rowe was unavailable with eyesight problems but, since making his debut at Bangalore in 1974, he has missed only one Test - and that through illness.

After two failures against Chadrasekhar in that first Test, Richards revealed an ideal temperament with an undefeated 192 in his next innings at New Delhi. Even when he has failed to score many, his value in the field, in any position, is inestimable. His run out of three batsmen in the 1975 Prudential Cup Final at Lord's was as decisive as Clive Lloyd's memorable century.

In Australia, during the 1975-76 series, Richards always appeared the most comfortable of the West Indian batsmen, but he seemed to be slipping into his old habit of needlessly giving his wicket away when set. The decision was taken for him to open the batting, mainly because the position was a selectorial problem, partly because it was felt that the responsibility would encourage Richards to concentrate more.

It proved an astute move, for it started Richards on his succession of big scores. Ideally, however he is a number three and, after the experiment in Australia, it is in that position that he has batted since.

Self-confidence, without arrogance, is one of Richards' hallmarks. Another is the unconfined enjoyment he gets out of the game. Both will be tested when he is forced to endure the barren periods which are the lot of all cricketers, great and humble alike. For the year 1976, however, Vivian Richards stood on top of the cricketing world and enjoyed it. -T.C.

© John Wisden & Co