Couch Talk

'Not playing Test cricket isn't a tragedy, losing a son is'

Legendary South African batsman Barry Richards puts his shortened Test career in perspective, and talks about facing Bedi and batting with Pollock and Viv

Subash Jayaraman: You published your autobiography in 1978 - The Barry Richards Story - and now your biography, written by your Hampshire team-mate Andrew Murtagh, Sundial in the Shade is out. What were you trying to accomplish with this book?
Barry Richards: I will give you some background. I had no intention of writing the book. Andrew played cricket with me in the early '70s but he realised he wasn't going to make it, so he went and taught for 30 years. His actual passion was to write books, because he had an English degree. So when he finished teaching, he said he was going to write books. He wrote one about the Mr Chips of the school he was at - Malvern College - that got published. Then he wrote a book about Tom Graveney - that also got published. He was looking for a third book. He looked me up and asked me if I would mind being the subject of his third book. I said no, that is fine with me. That is how it came about. It wasn't something I initiated at all.
SJ: How do you compare those two books?
BR: One was written at the height of frustration. I was playing a lot of cricket at that time with players like Gordon Greenidge and Andy Roberts and Viv Richards and [Mike] Gatting in county cricket and I couldn't play Test cricket. I think there was a lot of anger that came out in that book. Whereas this book is a bit mellow. It is easy to say that I am a bit happy with my life. I am in a good space and I thought I will help Andrew out. I should have given the first book a year or two and been more mature about it. But that was 35 years ago.
SJ: Let's talk about some of the subject material covered in the book. First of all, you had a very strict father.
BR: I think in those days that is how parents were. It is very different from today, where you are given opportunities. He was relatively poor. It was a case of fending for yourself from a very early age. When I was 21, he said, "Welcome to the world!" He gave me a pen and said, "You are on your own now." I don't think that happens too much today.
SJ: How much of that shaped you as a young man, as a cricketer, and later as a parent?
BR: It wasn't the best way to go about it. The other thing is, I was the only child and I was what they call the "latchkey kid". My mom and dad both worked and I had to amuse myself until they got home. It was very much learning to cope on your own, which I don't think is a good role model for a family environment. That means because you are always on your own, you are used to doing things on your own. From a role model point of view of being a parent, having a relatively big family - it is not an excuse - it is just a different way of doing it for me. It was the only way I knew at that time.
"Graeme Pollock was a wonderful player. He was one of those who really liked to dominate for long periods of time. Once I dominated, I would lose interest"
SJ: You have made it abundantly clear in the previous book and in this book that the way your international cricket career ended for South Africa - and you were very disappointed with it - was because of the political climate of the time. But, as you said, reflecting on things, do you think whatever has happened in South Africa since is for the betterment of society on the whole?
BR: Democratic society is always going to be better when everyone has got a voice. A few people enriching themselves at the expense of the poor is always a concern. But I guess that happens in a lot for countries, not just South Africa. You always have stars in your eyes about democracy. There isn't another alternative. But democracy doesn't always work in the best interest of everybody. And that applies to a lot of countries, not just South Africa.
SJ: As a whole, are you okay with what has happened for your country?
BR: Yes, absolutely. I have talked to a lot of people, lots of poor people. I have been to India, to Bangladesh, and here in South Africa there are many poor people who have a much harder life than I have ever had. I have been blessed with the life that I have had. To put the cricketing things in perspective, nothing is worse than losing my son [Mark, who committed suicide in 2009] - that is what I call a tragedy. Losing your cricket career - it happens, it happens to other people who might have done it through injury or other means and lost careers. But losing a son just puts everything into perspective.
SJ: Not many people are aware that you and Mike Procter were instrumental in raising a protest in South Africa against apartheid in 1971. Could you talk a bit about this?
BR: That is a sad thing. I don't think we have been embraced. You can understand it. The people that were oppressed in those times felt that the other people had a huge advantage. And we, the people who were playing county cricket, realised we had to make some sort of stand. It was huge at that time because the government used to rule with an iron fist. That night there was supposed to be a sort of garden party for both teams at the minister of sport's house and that was immediately cancelled. There was a big hoo-ha at that time, but I don't think many people know about it post Mandela getting out. It has been swept under the carpet a bit. The initiation was through Peter Pollock and Mike Procter. All the players agreed to make the stand, which was massive at that time.
SJ: The book begins with you facing Andy Roberts in the Hampshire nets. Which was the fastest spell of bowling that you ever faced?
BR: When the guy is 22 yards away and bowling at nearly 100mph, and there are a lot of guys [like that], you can't tell who is the fastest. [Dennis] Lillee was quick, [Jeff] Thomson was quick, Andy Roberts was quick, Sylvester Clarke was quick, Wayne Daniels was quick on his day, Mike Procter was quick on his day. You have half a second to make up your mind. Whether one is bowling at 98 or 97 or 96mph over 22 yards, there is not a lot of difference. You can't really tell what was the fastest that you played. They were all magnificent bowlers who were difficult to overcome.
"What disappoints me is that Cricket South Africa lobbied the MCC to have the fact that we played expunged from the records"
SJ: How much spin bowling did you face in your career?
BR: Don't forget that in the early part of my county career they had uncovered wickets. You only covered the ends where the bowlers delivered from. You had a five-metre cover at each end and the middle of the wicket was left to the elements. If you had rain during the day, you could play on three different pitches in a day. The cricketers today wouldn't know what you were talking about. You could play a little bit before lunch, it would rain over lunch or just after, and then you would play a little bit before tea. You could have three different rain delays during a day and you could be playing on three completely different pitches. When playing someone like [Derek] Underwood on a wet wicket, 20 was a good score.
SJ: You mention how you could see the rotation of the seam and tell where the ball was going and how that was your thing against fast bowlers. And your theory against the spinners was: "Don't let the ball bounce."
BR: I always felt that using your feet gave you an advantage. A lot of bowlers would rely on length to entice a batsman just plodding forward. If you can use feet, both back and forward - it is not just letting the ball bounce, it is also about going deep in the crease and getting it past point. If you are dictating the length of the bowler more than he can dictate to you then you have a much better chance of succeeding and scoring a lot of runs. Once you score runs, he loses confidence.
SJ: You must have faced Bishan Bedi in county cricket. He was considered the finest left-arm spinner of the game. Could you talk a bit about your encounters with him?
BR: He was a beautiful bowler. The most prominent one was when we had one really dusty wicket. It was spinning a lot. We needed 110 or so to win. I ended up batting for a long time to him and got just about 50 not out to get us over the line. It was six or seven wickets down at that time. That was one of the most difficult times because the ball was spinning and jumping and you had to pay real attention to stay in. Even though the knock was not a big one, it took a long time, it was a challenging one.
SJ: In the book at various times you mention how you got bored with cricket unless the challenge facing you was substantial, in terms of the players or the occasion. Was it primarily because the ultimate motivation of playing Test cricket was shut for you?
BR: Absolutely. We had to entertain ourselves because there was nothing to be gained by that game. You won't get a Test cap. All you could do was get another hundred. I suppose in the end it did cost me - I got 80 [first-class] hundreds. For every fifty Graeme Hick got, he got a hundred. Mine is absolutely double that. I have got twice as many fifties than he's got in terms of hundreds. I could have got a hundred hundreds. There is no doubt about that. That is probably a bit of a regret when I look back.
"One book was written at the height of frustration. Whereas this book is a bit mellow"
SJ: Was there any batsman, in your time or since, that has reminded you of your way of playing?
BR: There are probably guys like VVS Laxman. I don't think he did enough, he was out of the side for his fielding, but he was an elegant type of player. That is the sort of player who reminded me of myself. I don't think South Africans play a lot with their wrist. It is mostly Indians and other Asian countries. The only South African who does it is Hashim Amla. Australians are very strong on the leg side - they have a very strong grip with the top hand. When you think of Greg Chappell, it is just magnificent. We have more off-side players. Jacques Kallis hits beautifully through the off side. I used to play mainly through the off side. Mike Procter, who has 50 [48] first-class centuries, which people forget sometimes, was a beautiful off-side player. It just seems that there are certain methods in certain countries. Alan Lamb and Robin Smith were very strong through the off side.
SJ: In the book you mention how you moved to the leg side when people started attacking your body.
BR: They had more fielders in the leg side then. When I started playing one-day internationals, there was no restriction on the number of people in the leg side. You could have eight on the leg side if you wanted to. There was no restriction on wides either. Underwood would bowl two feet down the leg side and that wouldn't be called a wide. To counteract that you had to do things differently. You have the help of the rules and umpires to call that today, but before, you didn't and so you had to manufacture [shots].
SJ: Can you talk about batting with Graeme Pollock against Australia in Durban in 1970 and Viv Richards in the World Series?
BR: Graeme's [partnership] just evolved. He came in when Ali [Bacher] got out just at lunch time. Bill Lawry was very annoyed about the toss and was very intent on me not getting a hundred before lunch. He bowled three overs in about 18-20 minutes. In those days there was no "overs in a day", it was just time. I, in the end, just hit the ball up in the air and got out. I was trying to do stupid things. Graeme was a wonderful player. He was one of those who really liked to dominate for long periods of time. Once I dominated, I would lose interest. He could dominate for a long time. He went and dominated their attack.
With Viv, that was in Perth but not at the WACA, because we weren't allowed to play on the major cricket surfaces. Gordon [Greenidge] and I had a good opening partnership, and it was just one of those things when you were just playing normally - play as you would in any other situation.
I enjoyed both partnerships in different ways. I was much older when I batted with Viv. He was then the kingpin; he was probably the No. 1 batsman of that time. I was 34 then, just about to go over the hill. I really enjoyed the experience. I wish I had been able to do it more.
SJ: There is a question from listener, Aashish, about you being selected by both Don Bradman and umpire Dickie Bird in their dream teams. Your thoughts?
"I don't think South Africans play a lot with their wrist. It is mostly Indians and other Asian countries. The only South African who does it is Hashim Amla"
BR: Obviously it is a great honour. That goes some way to making up for the fact that you didn't play a lot of Test cricket. When people are talking about batsmen of the past, they look at the stats first of all. It is very seldom that you get a mention. But it is nice that your peers, who played the game, people revered in the game, have chosen you even though you had played so few Tests. It compensates in some way for the fact that I didn't play 100 Test matches like Gordon Greenidge, with whom I opened a lot.
SJ: Cricket South Africa have pretty much ignored you as if there was no cricket in South Africa before 1990. There were 245 players who played Test matches for South Africa [before readmission] but they are not acknowledged at all. How do you suggest Cricket South Africa addresses this?
BR: It would be nice to acknowledge that you are in the Hall of Fame. To be acknowledged in the Hall of Fame is an acknowledgement of world cricket, not just South African cricket - that you are someone who added to the value of the game. Maybe Graeme Pollock is not financially well off. The huge TV revenue that they get now, they could easily make him an ambassador for South Africa and give him a small retainer each month, which will help him enormously. I am in a slightly different situation. Mike Procter is someone who is not well off either.
I was quite lucky in my early days. I did some investment. I would be struggling as well, because I would not have made much money out of cricket. But I made money out of investments, so I can survive.
Cricket South Africa would go a long way towards cementing and saying, "We acknowledge you guys. That thing was wrong." Let's make sure that they get a small retainer each month to be ambassadors for South African cricket. What disappoints me is that they lobbied the MCC to have the fact that we played expunged from the records. They lobbied for two years to get that done, but they couldn't.
Another thing that disappointed me was that at Kingsmead they formed a club called the Kingsmead Mynahs Club after I had a great season in Australia, to get me back to play for Natal. That still exists today. They wanted to name a room after me, with my name on the door, which wouldn't be on television, which wouldn't face the ground. But the authorities at the ground at Natal Cricket said, "If you do that we will throw you off the ground because we have got the lease from the council." And yet they have a Basil D'Oliveira room, which I don't have any problem with, except that Basil never played in Natal. He played all his games at Cape Town and at Worcester. Those are the kind of things that are sometimes a problem.
SJ: You had to deal with a lot of disappointment, unfulfilled potential in your professional life, and sadness in your personal life. How do you reckon your life has gone?
BR: I live in a nice part of the world in South Africa. My passion is now golf. I now play golf with a lot of friends here. I have nothing to be sad about except for my son. That obviously is massive. That dwarfs anything that has happened to me in my career. There are obviously people who say you are unlucky to have done this, but my life is a good one. There is only one tragedy in my life - it is my son. Not playing Test cricket is not a tragedy, it is a disappointment. Losing your son is tragedy.