Legends: Viv Richards

Vivian Richards was a magnificent cricketer. A fine physical specimen, he was regarded by many as the greatest batsman of his generation. Adored in his homeland – the tiny island of Antigua, with a population not much greater than the town of Taunton – he was also revered in Somerset and feted around the world. His adoptive county was blessed by his commanding presence for thirteen seasons before his departure rent the club asunder.

Viv browbeat opponents into submission by sustained, controlled aggression. When the mood took him, he could happily batter a fielding side to the point that they were utterly dispirited (as he did, for example, with his 322 against Warwickshire). Seemingly nerveless, he would doze while awaiting his turn to bat. He would then delay his entrance into the playing arena at the fall of a wicket and once he came down the steps would own the field through the sheer force of his personality. He would walk to the wicket with an imperious expression and real swagger that had many opponents already on the back foot as they saw those impressive shoulders – all this at odds with his quiet and understated self-assurance in everyday life. Viv would take guard before tapping his bat handle and then pulling away to ensure that the bowler had to wait for him to be ready. He asserted his dominance in the gladiatorial confrontation. When opponents tried to sledge Viv, they only deepened his resolve. His belief was that the bowler must by definition be the one to relent, as he is obliged at some point to make his way back to his mark. It helps if you have the skill and strength to humiliate the bowler. On one occasion, as reported in his autobiography, Sir Vivian, he had played and missed the ball with a couple of airy shots at the start of his innings at Cardiff, when Glamorgan’s Greg Thomas made the cardinal error of eyeballing him and telling him, ‘For your information, it’s red, it’s round and it weighs five and a half ounces.’  Viv smote the next ball out of the ground and into the River Taff, informing Thomas, without sparing the expletives, that since he knew what it looked like, he could now go and fetch it. Hugh Morris, fielding at first slip, was heard to say to his bowler, ‘What have you done, my son?’ Viv went on to score a brutal 136 in seventy minutes before being run out, arguably the only means of dismissal open to the opposition in such circumstances. It was a pity, from a Somerset perspective, that Viv was not sledged more often.

Born in St John’s on 7 March 1952, he was the son of a prison officer, Malcolm Richards, and his wife, Gretel. Malcolm was very much an alpha male, a strict disciplinarian who put religion first and sport a close second and from whom the son inherited a will to win. Viv’s cricket developed with improvised games of beach cricket in the free-spirited West Indian tradition, where defensive shots are anathema and have to be coached at a later stage. His fielding was honed not by a slip cradle but by hurling stones at the stems of mangoes and catching the fruit as it fell. He attended Antigua Grammar School and it was clear from a young age that here was an exceptional talent – a fine footballer and a brilliant batsman – although not everything would go swimmingly. Having shown dissent as a seventeen-year-old, when he was incorrectly given out caught without having scored in his first match for Antigua, his actions sparked a near-riot. Reinstated, he proceeded to record two further ducks and suffered a two-year ban from competitive cricket. Things could only get better and indeed they did. In the interim, he did not lie idle, but developed his famed physique by engaging in boxing bouts with a measure of success.

Viv had started out his working life while a fourteen-year-old, serving in D’Arcy’s Bar in St. John’s and given every encouragement by the owner, D’Arcy Williams, who paid for his employee’s cricket kit. The wider population of Antigua then clubbed together in 1972 to fund winter coaching for their two outstanding youngsters – their ‘Vivi’ and pace-bowler Andy Roberts – at the Alf Gover School, in London. It was a miserable experience, cold and wet, and ended with the two attending a trial with Surrey, who informed the young hopefuls that neither of them had what it takes to make it in the first-class game, a decision arguably as ill-judged as that of Dick Rowe of Decca Records, who told The Beatles that they weren’t up to it.

Back in Antigua, Viv continued to make waves and word of his prowess reached Len Creed, a turf accountant and a member of the Somerset Committee, who was touring with the Mendip Acorns. Len proved to be the bookie who took a punt of his own and hit the jackpot. Having seen the extent of Viv’s talent he offered him there and then the chance to forge a first-class career at Somerset. Viv leapt at the opportunity, withstanding the fury of his father. What he did not know was that Len had neither the know-how to make the necessary arrangements nor the influence to guarantee the promises he had made. Viv admits to misgivings when he arrived at Heathrow to find that, in the absence of the necessary work permit, he was in danger of being sent back home. Fortunately, Len was able to oil the wheels when it became apparent that the customs official was, like him, a freemason. Viv then saw out his residential qualification playing for Lansdown CC in Bath and impressed observers with his brilliance. He would later relate that he knew he would feel at home in Somerset when he was seated in a queue to get into a car park and became aware that the twenty-minute wait was triggered not by congestion but by the attendant’s habit of spending five minutes greeting each driver as they arrived. Apart from the atrocious weather, it was as if he had never left Antigua. Making appearances for Somerset Under-25s, he played alongside a young Ian Botham. Their first game together went not quite according to plan with Ian scoring freely and proving ineffectual with the ball while Viv registered a duck and took 5 for 25 with his off-spin. The two enjoyed instant rapport and theirs became an unshakeable and celebrated friendship.

Viv announced his arrival in the Benson & Hedges Cup match at Swansea, days before his first-class debut for Somerset. He had hit 81 not out in his own inimitable style and would soon follow it up in the cup match against Gloucestershire at Taunton where the supporters were treated to a foretaste of what was to come. Facing a bouncer from Mike Proctor early in his innings he hooked the ball out of the ground. The crowd gasped and Proctor stopped short in open-mouthed astonishment. Anyone who watched cricket in the 1970s or the 1980s will be able to regale the younger generation with their own stories of how they witnessed his genius, because he was without equal among his contemporaries. Others have been greater accumulators of runs or have batted with thrilling aggression. Some, such as Barry Richards or Graeme Pollock, were denied the opportunity to prove their worth on the international stage, making comparisons difficult, but a substantial number of bowlers and opposing captains agree that Vivian Richards was the man whose presence on the opposition team sheet they most feared. Even fans of other countries or counties were enthralled by him and wanted his innings to last. At times his greatness eclipsed all around him.

The statistics underline his genius. In 121 Tests for the West Indies (fifty of them as captain), he averaged 50.23, accumulating more than 15,500 runs when his ODI appearances are included. If there were ever the slightest doubts about his ability to perform at the highest level, these evaporated when he scored an unbeaten 191 in only his second Test. In 1976, he was imperious, with 1710 runs during the calendar year in just eleven Tests. He would score 114 first-class centuries in an outstanding career, twenty-four of those for Somerset, for whom he averaged 49.82 in 191 appearances. His off-spin yielded ninety-six wickets for the county at 44.15 apiece and his fielding was on a higher plain to ordinary mortals (most startlingly in evidence with the three run-outs he conjured in the 1975 World Cup Final). Twice he won the Walter Lawrence Trophy for the fastest century of the season, but it was his ability to perform on the big stage, to take events by the scruff of the neck, that took the breath away. As well as his century in the World Cup Final of 1979, there were his match-winning performances for Somerset, with Lord’s proving a particularly happy hunting ground. After leaving Somerset, he turned out for Rishton CC, lit up the scene and repaid their investment in full. He then enjoyed a successful four-season swansong in first-class cricket with Glamorgan, bowing out by helping them to secure the AXA Sunday League title in 1993. Reports of his waning powers had been greatly exaggerated. In 2000, he was one of five players named Wisden Cricketers of the Century.

Viv after his record-breaking knock, achieved in one day

He expected others around him to give of their best. In the context of the peerless West Indian teams he led, he was rarely disappointed and any anger was directed at himself, if he threw his wicket away. In humbler surroundings he perhaps failed at times to see the gulf between him and the run-of-the-mill pros and thought that they were not trying, when in truth they were simply less capable than he was. It was surely his intimidating presence that cowed those who were expected to manage him. Peter Roebuck admits with great honesty in his unpublished diary of events in 1986 that he was frightened of Viv. The West Indies selectors responded negatively to his request to step down from the captaincy and concentrate on his batting. They thought he would be a disruptive team member. Viv was stung by what he saw as rejection by Lilliputians.

As for his personal life, he was married to Miriam (née Lewis), a bank clerk with whom he had a son and daughter. Although they grew apart, the retention of cordial relations remained important to them. Viv would also have a daughter with Neena Gupta, an actress, whom he met in India. He remains proud of all three of his children.

Since retiring as a player he has never had to go seeking work. He was employed by the Antiguan Tourist Board to promote the island and later became an ambassador-at-large. He has also enjoyed a number of coaching appointments, including a four-year stint at the invitation of Prince Hakeem of Brunei. He led the Antigua team at the Commonwealth Games and has also been mentor to teams in India and Pakistan. He has toured with Ian Botham as a raconteur and publishers have beaten a path to his door. Money has never been a problem, but nor has it ever corrupted a man who adheres to the tenets drilled into him in his youth. This, after all, is the man who turned down a fortune, refusing to join the Rebel Tour to South Africa. His revulsion with the apartheid regime counted for more than any financial inducements and in recognition of his principles as much as his cricketing achievements, the two nations now compete for the Sir Vivian Richards Trophy. Viv still gains most pleasure from his work with his foundation, encouraging young Antiguans to take up sport, although the honours that have been bestowed on him are inevitably also a source of pride. They include the gates that bear his name at Taunton, the stadium named after him in Antigua, the doctorate from Exeter University, among others, and any number of awards. He is now Sir Vivian, although only in formal settings.

Forget about the knighthood, though. To West Indians, Somerset supporters and fans of cricket in far-flung places, he was and still is ‘The King’.

Taken from the book Somerset Cricketer’s 1971-2000 by Stephen Hill, including additional research from Julian Wyatt. Published by Halsgrove you can buy this book for £16.99 at Somerset County Sports at the Cooper Associates County Ground or Brendon Books in Bath Place, Taunton.