Jon Hotten

Barry Richards, sporting tragedy and human suffering

Although he only played in four Tests prior to the sporting boycott of South Africa, Barry Richards still managed to confirm his greatness. However, the tragedy of his lost international career must be set in the context of a far greater struggle

Jon Hotten
Barry Richards bats during the Courage Challenge cup, The Oval, London, September 1979

Barry Richards had to settle for expressing his batting genius outside the international arena  •  Adrian Murrell  /  Getty Images

As the great Charles Bukowski once wrote, the days run away like wild horses over the hills. Barry Richards is 67 years old now. His last professional appearance came in 1983, his fourth and final Test match was played 43 years ago, and yet for those of us who saw him bat, however fleetingly, he lives indelibly in the mind's eye: a legend, a wizard, a true star.
Tales of his talent are legion. Mine is this. When I was a young blade - Under-13 or so - Richards came to our club with Hampshire for a benefit game. It was a golden summer's afternoon. He drove down the laneway in a sponsored car, and from the boot he drew his shimmering Excalibur, a slender Gray-Nicolls with its deep red stripe down the spine.
Hampshire went in first. Barry took guard. Opening the bowling was Dinger Bell, a PE teacher at the nearby school, biblically bearded and in off his long run, a sight that had terrified many a local bat. Richards left the first ball. "Blimey," I thought. "Maybe even Barry Richards thinks Dinger Bell is quick…"
Dinger ran in again. This one was shorter and on a good line. Richards adjusted his cap and fiddled with his thigh pad - well, he might have done, he certainly had enough time to. He moved easily to the leg side as he waited for the ball to arrive and, then lifting the Nicolls horizontally, he caressed it over the wicketkeeper's head. It was still going up when it crossed the freshly painted boundary line. When Sachin started playing the shot and everyone marvelled at it, I thought, "I saw Barry Richards do that in 1977."
He made about 60 before retiring to the pavilion. I still recall one that he hit over the trees, out of the ground and on to the first hole of the pitch-and-putt course. And I still recall the only words he ever spoke to me: "Not now I'm having my sandwich," uttered gently as we hassled him for an autograph during tea.
Forget Richard Dawkins, God walked among us that day. Everyone has a moment like this; one that binds us to the game and brings it alive in a magical way. Mine was Barry Richards.
Last month, he made a rare return to the news. "They keep talking about disadvantaged people - no-one's more disadvantaged than Graeme [Pollock] and me," he said. "We couldn't have Test cricket and we're not recognised now."
His words seemed intemperate and grouchy at best, self-absorbed at worst. It was evidently still a raw subject too. And yet it asks an important question about that old construct 'the sporting tragedy', and its validity in the context of suffering far beyond it.
"Richards made a place for himself at the game's highest table with the sheer ridiculousness of what he could do in the arenas still available to him"
The sporting boycott of South Africa meant that Richards played his Tests in a home series against Australia in which he averaged 72, made two centuries and generally batted as if to the manor born. He was 24 years old. When he retired at the age of 37, Nelson Mandela was still seven years from freedom. Uniquely, Richards made a place for himself at the game's highest table with the sheer ridiculousness of what he could do in the arenas still available to him.
At Hampshire, to the joy of new-ball bowlers across the land, he opened with Gordon Greenidge. "It was not unusual for me to be in single figures as applause rang around the ground for his fifty," Greenidge wrote in his autobiography. Nine of his 80 first-class hundreds were made before lunch. For South Australia came 325 in a day against Western Australia and an attack that contained Dennis Lillee, Graham McKenzie, John Iverarity and Tony Lock. Between lunch and tea in that game he went from 79 to 216. World Series Cricket arrived when he was in his 30s and by his own admission "on the decline". Yet playing for the World XI against Australia in the second 'supertest' of 1978 he got 207, and for ninety minutes of that innings he batted with Viv Richards. Barry made 93 to Viv's 41.
He once imagined the ground as a clock-face and hit each ball of the over for four to a different point, in clockwise order. He played out an over in a club match using the edge of his bat, and made a half-century for David English's Bunburys having just stepped off a plane and wearing his golf shoes. He hadn't batted for 12 years.
Don Bradman said Richards was as good as Jack Hobbs. John Arlott wrote of him as "a batsman of staggering talent". His reputation became such that stories of him getting bored and giving his wicket away, or, as Robin Jackman told ESPNcricinfo, acquiring a convenient groin strain in the last week of June so that he could watch Wimbledon, added to the idea that what was left of the game could not tax him. That is what was lost to Test match cricket. "It really hurts him," Jackman said. "When you're that talented you want the world to see it, not a few guys watching at Southampton."
A fluke of birth gave Richards his ability, and another ensured that he was born out of time. We can never know what would have happened had he played more Tests. We will never know how many people of similar ability were born in townships and never had the chance to lift a bat. There is simply no equivalency to any of it. Barry Richards missed out on some games of cricket in a struggle that was infinitely wider and more significant than any one person, or any sport. He had no choice in his sacrifice, either. Had he made it himself, it might have felt easier for him.
But that leaves a question: how do we weigh it up? How should it be acknowledged, this tiny thing set against the vast evil of apartheid? Perhaps the way to look at it is to see the struggle as one big story made up of millions of smaller ones. Barry's is one of those stories. Given that context, it can be considered more readily as part of a whole, rather than in isolation as it often is.
There was another context to Richards' remarks too. They came when the South Africa side opted not to wear black armbands to mark the deaths of former internationals Neil Adcock and Peter van der Merwe, a decision made out of sensitivity to the past.
"It's time to forgive and forget," Richards said. "We can't keep up this pretence that there was no cricket before 1992. It was a sad part of our history, but let's acknowledge that the guys who were good in that era were good, and when they die we respect them. It would be nice if the team did that."
Both sides here walk a precarious path. Last week, Time magazine published a cover story on Oscar Pistorius. In it, they reported that "aside from the Seychelles, the Comoros Islands and Namibia, South Africa is the most inequitable country on earth". The broader struggle is not over.
Barry Richards has been called "the world's most romanticised cricketer" and it's true. Into the space where his Test career should have been has gone myth and imagination. In a fashion, this has conferred the greatness that might have arrived another way. He is entwined with South Africa's past, and they cannot be unwound. His is one story of very many. It's okay to acknowledge the joy and sadness his batting brought, and that will always arouse difficult and very human emotions. His days ran away from him, but the legend remains.

Jon Hotten blogs here and tweets here