This article first appeared in Wisden Cricket Monthly in March 1986



Viv Richards: more than a batsman, a quicksilver fieldsman, a teasing bowler, a West Indies captain © Getty Images
In the pre-war Depression years, Don Bradman stood for the powers of endurance of the ordinary bloke. His triumphs brought pride and inspiration to masses of struggling Australians in town and bush. Through The Don they saw that life's difficulties were at least not totally universal. Spasmodically they too tasted success on a giant scale, if only vicariously. 'Our Don' took his admirers out of themselves, made their existences less wretched, gave them a kind of hope.

For ten years now Viv Richards has done something similar for the black man.

He has not been alone in this. Clive Lloyd gathered together one of the most powerful cricket teams of all time, with wonderful opening batsmen like Gordon Greenidge and Desmond Haynes, himself and Richards and the solid, phlegmatic Gomes to make runs, and Dujon to keep wickets and add artistry to the middle-order batting; and, most significantly, a brigade of ferocious fast bowlers to keep the opposition in an almost permanent state of submission. They came tumbling out of the pavilion, large and loose and eager: Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, Wayne Daniel, Colin Croft, Joel Garner, Malcolm Marshall, Courtney Walsh, with keen youngsters queuing up to replace them. For Viv Richards to stand towering above all these as the symbol of West Indian supremacy emphasizes the impact he has had on international cricket since the mid-1970s.

Springing from massive local celebrity in Antigua and polishing his game in county cricket with Somerset, Richards quickly made himself comfortable in Test cricket with an innings of 192 not out against India at Delhi in December 1974. There followed seventeen Test innings in which nothing startling took place, and then he recovered his poise with 101 against Australia at Adelaide and 98 in the Melbourne Test which followed. This was the springboard for a most remarkable year in which he established his own utter uniqueness with an unprecedented aggregate of 1710 runs in Test cricket during 1976.

The core of this batting extravaganza was the 1976 series in England, though the preface, West Indies' home series against India, had more than a touch of intimidation about it: he hit 142 in the Barbados Test, 130 in Trinidad, 177 in the third Test, and the same venue, and finished quietly with 64 in the Jamaica bloodbath when five Indians could not bat in the second innings, most of them injured by the speed assault.

Richards thus came to England for his first Test tour with more than just imposing forenames: Isaac Vivian Alexander. He began that 1976 series with innings of 232 and 63 in the Trent Bridge Test, over twice as many as young Bradman had made on that ground in his maiden English Test. Richards struck dread into countless hearts, and caused some analysts, in their desperation, to repeat the mistakes made by several almost half-a-century before, when they concluded that Bradman's technique would be found out on English pitches. He played across the line, they said. So did Richards. His pull shot was too risky, being used to punish balls only slightly short of a length. So was Richards's. Bradman showed them with 974 runs in that 1930 series, skipping to a triple-century, two double-centuries and a century in the five Test. Richards in the 1976 Test amassed 829 runs. But he played in only four Test.

I happen to believe that no batsman has ever approached Bradman for skill, concentration and appetite. And however we judge modern batsmen, we must never lose sight of the crucial fact that they are pampered with covered pitches, protective umpires' light-meters and tasty cash inducements. But to reflect on Viv Richards's performances in that 1976 series is to recall his total dominance over Snow and Hendrick and Old and Underwood and Selvey and Pocock and Willis and Ward and Miller and Greig. Especially Greig. The England captain's clumsy remark about West Indian's "grovelling" when they are in adversity fired up all of Clive Lloyd's men, but none more passionately than Richards. Never in sport has attempted propaganda backfired as surely as this.

The runs that sparked from Richards's hefty bat that summer came with the rifle-shot crack of the hook, rasping square-cuts as he stepped away to make room, booming drives through the covers, and, in the fashion that became his trademark, meaty persuasions through the leg side, often to respectable balls pitched on or even outside off stump. His attempt at 'art' came in the late-cut, when those heavyweight shoulders lined up square to the crease and the mahogany wrists chopped down on the poor unsuspecting ball: it ran away from him as fast as it could go, bruising the advertising hoarding at third man.

Ironically the one field he did not conquer that summer was Lord's. Illness kept him out of that match. But he could be back several times to entertain the St John's Wood folk in the summers to follow. Not that London missed out completely on the Viv Richards brilliance that season, for he signed off at grimy Kennington Oval with what seemed a certain triple-century, being bowled by Greig, of all people, for 291 after batting a shade short of eight hours. In the First Test series in England, his visiting card had dropped onto the table in the vestibule with a force that rocked the entire house.

Since then he has had his quieter moments, always to boom back with a large innings in which bowlers have been not so much taken for runs as flagellated. There have been memorable duels, such as that with Jeff Thomson, bowling probably as fast as man has ever done. Richards's method is never to withdraw discreetly. Between roaring bouncers which singed his hair he flat-batted the red blur of a cricket ball straight into the stand beyond square leg.

That noble head surmounts a powerful body which has been compared with Joe Frazier's. Richards might have made a fair fighter, form the flash of those eyes as the combatants exchange glares before the first bell to the evident athleticism, coiled in sinister reverse.

He is a conscious leader of the black people, nursing profound emotions, eternally aware of tortured history, injustice, battered pride. He may be as popular in Somerset as in Antigua, and one of his most meaningful friendships may be with Ian Botham, but he is a black man, as committed as Frank Worrell and Learie Constantine, if not with quite their natural grace and polish. He shrugs off his deeds with the cricket bat. It is just 'a piece of wood'. With equal modesty Garry Sobers acknowledged always that he was engaged in nothing more than a sport - to the point where he made a generous declaration against England and lost, bringing down heaps of rancour upon his head. Nor did Sir Garry think politics. His ingenuous visit to Rhodesia cost him dearly in Caribbean eyes. Richards, in contrast, has stated that no amount of money could get him to South Africa. (Sobers did not go for the money.)

So we have here more than a batsman, a quicksilver fieldsman, a teasing bowler, a West Indies captain. Viv Richards is proudly a man of his race, with an unalterable force of opinion which will have been conveyed to team-mates as well as to others in his orbit. Those colourful wristbands, beaming bright red, gold and green, are no mere convenience. When he finishes with cricket he will not finish with life. It could all just be beginning.

At that point what will he have left behind? Almost certainly he will have become the first West Indies player to register 100 centuries. His Test record will be top-shelf. One day in 1985, for Somerset, he slaughtered the Warwickshire bowling and put his name in the distinguished list of triple-centurions. His dominance at Lord's became legend, in Test matches, one-day county finals, and in the World Cup final of 1979. His was the wickets they always needed. When he fell in the 1983 World Cup final, India knew they had it won. And yet more often he seemed to be able to make runs just when he wanted to. His century in his beloved Antigua's maiden Test match in 1981 seemed predestined.

He walks with a swagger; he chews menacingly; he thumps that cricket ball as if it contained all the evils of a millennium of mankind. When he gets settled, the cricket pitch is his domain. Considered literally, there is no such thing as immortality, so Richards will have to leave that domain for good one day. But books and photos and film have a purpose; and if they convey to future generations just how this man's command affected cricket during these past years, they will have served those future generations admirably.