The flight from St Maarten in the Netherlands Antilles to Antigua was among the shortest I’ve ever taken, and the azure blue waters that wash the island with a beach for every day of the year came into view within half an hour of taking off. With Air France having managed to leave one of my bags behind in Paris, the first few minutes on the island that spawned one of cricket’s most iconic heroes weren’t pleasant ones.
“First time in Antigua?” asked the woman at immigration. I said yes, adding that it meant a lot to me to finally be on his island. Growing up a brown boy in the UK of the early 1980s, that swagger, the success and those red-yellow-and-green wristbands meant everything to me. There were others too, like the magnificent Michael Holding and Liverpool legend John Barnes (with roots in Jamaica), but if you ever needed one good reason to not be ashamed of your colour, it was him.
The CARICOM visa went through without a hitch and by the time I crossed over to the check-in counter for the flight to Kingston, his image was ubiquitous. He was everywhere, like Chè in Kerala’s Marxist strongholds – on the cover of tourist information pamphlets, on posters adorning little souvenir shops, and on the book and DVD shelves. Then again, how many islands can boast that Isaac Vivian Alexander Richards was born there?
As I waited in the queue to check in, one of the baggage handlers came and plonked a golf bag next to me. When I turned back to see who it was that could be traveling to Jamaica with clubs, it was the man himself, as regal as ever in white shirt and grey trousers. I hesitantly reached out my hand and mentioned the fact that I had interviewed him in Colombo during the 2002 Champions Trophy. He obviously didn’t remember, but the “Good to see you again” wasn’t the cursory one you get from most celebrities.
In fact, as you watched the king in his own environment, what struck you most was his rootedness and humility. Everyone from baggage handler to check-in clerk was acknowledged, there was back and forth banter, and sometimes a vigorous handshake. When we walked into the terminal, the first place I checked out was the book shop. Obviously, the autobiography was there. I picked it up and took it over, and he scrawled out his signature. The young man running the store then played him some of the lilting Calypso tunes used to promote this World Cup, but when he was offered the CD, he declined politely, saying that he’d prefer to pick it up on his way back.
All was not right in the Richards world though. It was an appalling oversight that the greatest batsman that most of us will ever see wasn’t invited to the opening ceremony in his own backyard. He didn’t criticise anyone in so many words, but the sense of hurt was palpable. Whoever’s responsible, and somebody must have been, should do the decent thing and resign, for having organised cricket’s equivalent of Braveheart without William Wallace.
The pain of missing out was undoubtedly exacerbated by the fact that it was Jamaica that hosted the showpiece occasion. In the book, Richards talks of his special bond with the island, and how he rated his 36-ball 61 against India [first Test, 1983] as the most memorable innings he ever played. “Jamaica in particular created the same sort of sporting atmosphere I had experienced when I watched England play football at Wembley or Liverpool at Anfield. I had always felt their love for me, and for years I tried hard – maybe too hard – to thank them for their support and to fulfil what they felt about me.”
But rather than gripe about what’s now in the past, he preferred to talk about what West Indies needed to do to bring back the halcyon years. “This is a massive opportunity,” he said. “If the team does well here, it’ll give the game a much-needed boost.” The opposite doesn’t even bear thinking about, in a region where most young men seem to walk around imitating their idols from the NBA – baggy shorts, impossibly loose T-shirts and all.
He laughed when you asked him about the difference between them and now. The first World Cup in 1975 barely spanned three weeks. This one will encompass seven. “I suppose they want to give exposure to some of the lesser teams,” he said, perhaps forgetting that the likes of East Africa and Canada were around in the ’70s as well.
“Australia are wobbling a little, aren’t they,” he said. “England aren’t even considered a very good one-day team. And New Zealand beat them too. Quite a few teams have a chance.” Back in his day, that was never the case, with West Indies first and then daylight.
The bookstore clerk then put on a DVD with footage from those glory years. “Does this bring back memories?” he asked with a grin. “Makes me feel old, man” was the reply. In the eyes of many though, he, like Peter Pan, will never grow old. And despite the slight from those that should have known better, he’ll forever be the king.
Dileep Premachandran is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo