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The king is 70, long live the king

Viv Richards, lion in winter, talks T20 and whether he wishes he was playing in the modern era

Osman Samiuddin
Osman Samiuddin
Last week, as we mourned the tragic loss of one of the game's greats, so passed a significant life moment for another. Sir Viv Richards, who played his last Test five months before Shane Warne played his first, is now 70 years old.
Or, as he is quick to point out, "70 years young".
It's a bit of a dad-quip but are you not going to laugh when Viv Richards laughs, satisfied with the funny he's made? We're talking, as we do now, via Zoom, and Richards, proudly of Antigua, is sitting in a hotel room in Lahore, as a "mentor" for Quetta Gladiators in the Pakistan Super League, talking into a smartphone. This is a very 21st-century scene, although Richards, and those shoulders, bring a magisterial touch to the framing.
Nowadays this commitment is his most active involvement in the game. And while a T20 franchise mentor is totally the same energy as a company's Chief Happiness Officer, somehow Richards' role at Quetta has not only appeared organic, it has also been substantive.
His presence in the dugout at PSL games has often been the game to watch. Even now, there's little doubt he is - was - an athlete, the vibe he always brought, that there is nothing more serious in his life than that to which he is presently deployed. He chest-bumps, he fist-pumps, he high-fives, he grooves. In the first PSL, when Quetta reached the final, he charged on to the field to celebrate, with the same conviction with which he once celebrated a Rob Bailey dismissal. That was five years go, but he's still so clearly into each moment of a game, you can't help but wonder: 30 years from his last game, how much is he missing it?
"Not really," he says. "What I'm seeing is a lot of individuals who have done the game in itself proud. The magnificent players that you've seen, certainly the game has improved somewhat. The bats, the power-hitting, you know, most certainly the T20 stuff wasn't around when we were playing."
Surely, though, there have been times where you've sized up some poor bowler, clocked the boundary sizes, felt the heft of that bat and thought: pad me up now?
"Well, yes, I would say this, that sometimes there is a little urge… why the hell didn't T20 come a little earlier, you know?" There's a little shimmying of those shoulders as he says this, just one of the physical manifestations of that gold-dust swagger.
"One of the things I am pleased and very happy for is that the pioneers that graced the field over the years, they would've set the foundation for what's happening today. I'm just hoping that the individuals who are playing today and earning whatever, appreciate the fact that there were pioneers before who obviously led the way for what's happening today."
A wider theme can be parsed from these lines, in which, broadly speaking, the supremacy of red-ball cricket is paramount. T20s cannot be the judge of a cricketer, Richards says. Red-ball remains "the real baptism where cricket is concerned". Boundaries are too small. If helmets weren't around, neither would modern batting's derring-do be. "Suits of armour" makes an appearance, and he frets players are too readily forsaking national teams for franchises. In referring to T20s as "professional fun", moreover, he fairly harrumphs "professional", as might a man from a time when being a professional cricketer was not inevitable.
This is a generational cleft, although it doesn't come across as bitter as much as it does cautionary. It is to say that a world existed before yesterday, that people strived hard in it; in it people failed and excelled, in it people innovated, in it there were greats who were shaped by the circumstances of their time. It is to say that as we move ahead, we can only do so by remaining mindful of where we are coming from. Which is no bad plea.
And he does kind of have a point about bowlers in T20s.
"What I would say is that there are times when I think bowlers are taken advantage of." He pauses, then laughs at the words that are about to come: "And I say that mildly.
"You know, when you look at some of these T20 tournaments, you see the small boundaries, these huge hitters, the improvement in the bats, you know, as a batsman I shouldn't be saying this, but I believe that the bowlers sometimes have been taken for granted. Especially when you have batters making mistakes, top-edging stuff for sixes. I believe the boundary sometimes could be a little bit bigger. Just making the playing field on the whole much more enjoyable for everyone to participate and compete."
When asked what his one wish for the game would be, he asks for bigger boundaries. It is hardly a radical manifesto, but this note of sympathy from a batter who displayed little of it to bowlers when playing adds a little gravitas.
That had everything to do with the bowlers he came across, the Lillees and Thommos, the Imrans and Hadlees, as well as his own team-mates. The one thing he couldn't dare give them was sympathy.
We are currently passing through an era that might, in time, be remembered even more favourably for fast bowling. Richards watched the Ashes - it is not clear why - and, unsurprisingly, liked what he saw from the hosts.
"When I looked at Australia, I felt that was the perfect example. You have four guys coming at you all day and you've got to survive that, your technique on the line. Testing times. The leaving of deliveries outside off stump. The concentration factor.
"Yes, you look at even Shaheen [Shah Afridi], he has come on in leaps and bounds. Ever since I've been coming here to Pakistan, this is one of the things I have noted - the finds in terms of fast bowlers. Guys are clicking at 145-150kph on a regular basis, which means that it is healthy in that category.
"As I said, some of the things that have not changed, in my opinion, is proper fast bowling. I could call on a few from yesterday, you know, who were fine exponents. I could give you four who I played with. And the count could go on and on. But in a big way, I believe that never changes."
The fastest bowler he says he faced was Jeff Thomson, which is not surprising. The fastest ball he ever faced is, but also isn't: a bouncer from Wasim Akram in an ODI in Hobart in late 1988. It could be recency bias of one kind - on the morning of this interview, Richards had inducted Akram into the PCB's hall of fame. But everyone knows that though Akram operated as a sculptor, he could be a wrecking ball when the mood gripped him.
"One of the quickest deliveries I have ever, ever encountered, and I believe there was someone upstairs looking after me," he recalls. "I had some hair left then, somewhat of a mini-Afro and this one went by so quickly, I could hear it hitting the wicketkeeper's gloves and I said, 'Wow, wow.' Wasim was a young man, coming on to the scene, and I was heading towards the exit door so I was glad that while he was coming then, I was going.
"I can remember also that I did say to the individuals, the batsmen in the West Indies team at the time, I said, 'Hey man, good luck to you guys, having to encounter that guy on a regular basis man.' Wasim, he was very, very special. Up to this day, I still see that particular delivery. I have nightmares about it every now and again."
It is from a great contemporary of Richards' that we have heard on racism over the last couple of years, since the murder of George Floyd and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. Michael Holding has become a prominent and powerful voice on racism. For those who followed the great West Indies sides of that era, it might seem an unexpected development; even Holding himself admitted in 2020 that Richards was more politically active than he was during their playing days.
There would appear to be no specific reason why we have not heard Richards as much. It could be visibility - the pandemic has meant that the first time he travelled outside the Caribbean in recent years was for the T20 World Cup last year. It's definitely not because he has suddenly not been subject to racist behaviour anymore. In fact, he was, as recently as when returning from the T20 World Cup, on a flight in the Caribbean. It should be getting better, he says, but it isn't.
And he is exactly as you imagine he might be on the issue.
"Well, what I know for sure is, the way it should be is that all lives should matter. You know, that's the way I look at it. All lives should matter. But in some cases, take, for instance, America, the racism we have seen on a regular basis, innocent folks being gunned down by the police, it doesn't seem like that is the case.
"So this is why I will always be an advocate in a big way. Why is it that it just keeps happening to this particular colour?" He points to his forearm. "Because I myself have gone through that sort of stuff, the racism, at some point. I'm a pretty conscious guy. I've always believed in my colour, my race. And anyone, in my opinion, who wants to shoot you down, to stamp on you because of your colour, he doesn't have a divine right to do that.
"This is why I would always believe in the Malcolm X factor: by any means necessary, if you need to survive some of the thinking of individuals around the world, like the National Front, the Klan. I'm for anyone of this colour, whoever is being persecuted, whoever is facing race issues, anyone on this earth who is going to say to me as a human being that I haven't got any right to survive because of my colour - wow, I will do what it takes, what is necessary, in order to survive."
The only sour note, really, is that we've lost Richards to golf. That's how he now spends his days, hanging on courses with Richie Richardson and Eldine Baptiste. Playing a fair bit too, as a handicap of seven indicates. Not bad, he says, for a 70-year-old.

Osman Samiuddin is a senior editor at ESPNcricinfo