For the followers of cricket who cut their teeth during the heady days of 1970s and 1980s, there was was one issue that was beyond all debate. This pertained as to who was the best batsman in the world during those times. In a sport where each action was subject to relentless scrutiny and abilities of players analysed threadbare repeatedly, it was surprising that the matter regarding the best in the key area of batsmanship did not evoke any dispute. This was also a recognition of the brilliance of the cricketer involved and his overwhelming superiority over all other contenders for this slot that no-one even dared to suggest any other batsman as even capable of being better than him during the 15 years that he played international cricket since coming of age in 1976.
Issac Vivian Alexander Richards, who was born on March 7, 1952, made his debut against India at Bangalore in 1974 as a member of the Clive Lloyd-led West Indies side. He was not slated to be part of the playing eleven when the squad to tour India was announced but a slot opened up in the middle order when Lawrence Rowe was found to be suffering from a disease of his eyes that warranted urgent medical attention. Richards did not make many runs on his first appearance in international cricket as B S Chandrasekhar (Chandra), the Indian leg-spinner, had him in tangles, before dismissing him cheaply in both innings. However, the Indian selectors chose to drop Chandra for the next Test at Delhi and Richards grabbed the opportunity with both hands to hit a brilliant 192 that cemented his place in the side. He hit half-centuries in all the remaining Test matches of the tour, but the Indian bowlers could capitalise upon his impetuosity to deny him another tall three figure score.
After this good beginning came the trough, which happened during the first half of the tour of Australia in 1975-76. This series was titled as the clash between the two top sides in international cricket and the six Tests promised plenty of excitement and closely fought matches. However, the West Indies could not get going after the first two Tests and went down meekly in the last four games. Richards started the series with a run of low scores but managed to overcome this initial setback and ended on a high, with scores of 101, 50 and 98 in the last three innings.
Richards continued his magnificent form right through the year 1976. He scored runs by the tons. The Indians, who toured the West Indies in 1976, faced the fury of his onslaught during the four-Test series when he scored 556 runs, which included three centuries as well. He followed this up with a stupendous run against England during the series in the summer of 1976. In seven completed innings during this series, Richards scored 829 runs with two double hundreds at an average of 118.43. He started with 232 in the first innings of the first Test at Nottingham, struck a century (135) in the third match and topped it with a superlative knock of 291 in the last game at The Oval. In all, he scored 1,710 runs during the year 1976, at an average of 90, which was a record and was bettered only in 2006 by Mohamed Yousuf of Pakistan.
When Kerry Packer launched his World Series Cricket (WSC) in 1977, Richards was one of the first cricketers to be contracted for playing in it. The gladiator like arena of WSC where battles were fought hard by sides without yielding any quarter brought out the best in Richards. He was at the peak of his career and the challenges thrown at him by top quality fast bowlers spurred him to take his batsmanship to a higher plane altogether. He finished WSC with an aggregate of 1,281 runs at an average of near 60, which was highest among all players who took part in it.
The 1980s was the decade of Richards as he was universally recognised as the only batsman in the world who could dominate and decimate all types of bowling, irrespective of ground, weather and other conditions. He was at his best while battling with the Aussie pace bowlers where his duels with the great Dennis Lille became the stuff of legend. Lillee had managed to get the better of Richards when the two clashed for the first time during 1975-76, but the latter managed to turn the tables on the former during the WSC matches. During the early part of the 1980s, when Lillee used more brain than brawn, the tussle between the two was keenly watched by followers from across the globe. Lillee himself was forced to concede Richards’s awesome ability by stating that he was “ a supreme player on account of his ability to rip an attack apart with brutality”.
Richards was the top performer in a star-studded West India batting line-up that boasted greats such as Gordon Greenidge, Desmond Haynes, Clive Lloyd and Alvin Kallicharran. He could stamp his presence on the game like no one else could; such was the power of his personality. The manner in which he sauntered to the crease, the casual chewing of the gum with menace in his eyes and swagger demonstrated in ample measure, was sufficient to put the fear of God in the minds of the hapless bowler waiting to send down the next delivery. His unbeaten 189 in a One-Day International (ODI) against England at Old Trafford, Manchester, in 1984, wherein he added 102 runs for the last wicket with Mike Holding, is considered as the most destructive display of batting in limited overs cricket till date. The manner in which he toyed with an England attack comprising Bob Willis, Ian Botham, Neil Foster and Derek Pringle demonstrated both his supreme skill with the willow and the imperiousness of character.
Another characteristic of Richards was his ability to place his stamp on the game through fielding and bowling. Though he failed with the bat on his Test debut, he contributed substantially to his team’s cause by coming up with two amazing catches to dismiss openers Sunil Gavaskar and Farokh Engineer, which threw the .Indian reply into disarray. Richards also played his part in the final of the 1975 World Cup by running out three Aussie batsmen in a closely fought match. He was also a useful bowler, especially in limited overs cricket, where his seemingly innocuous off-spin could break a crucial partnership or fetch wickets.
Richards was the natural successor to Lloyd when the latter announced his decision to retire from the game. He led the West Indies in 50 Tests between 1985 and 1991, during which time they did not lose a series. However, he was not successful in leading the side to any major championship victory as the side failed to make it to the last four stage in the 1987 World Cup and lost in the final of the MRF World Series for the Nehru Cup held in 1989. He was a tough competitor, always played to win and never forgot a slight. He swore revenge when India prepared a rank turner for the last Test of the series at Chennai in 1987-88 and kept his word by insisting that groundsmen prepare hard and bouncy tracks when the West Indies hosted the Indians in 1989.
Richards was supremely confident about his abilities and strode to the wicket with an authority that has not been seen in any batsman since. In an age when bowlers used to intimidate batsmen by hurling fast short-pitched balls aimed at the body, Richards was the only willow-wielder who could invoke fear in the minds of those given the task of hurling the red cherry. He never felt the need to wear the helmet and could play the most amazing shots against fast bowlers without even breaking into a sweat. He played mostly off the front foot but could rock back in a split second to unleash a fierce hook shot which would take the ball outside the ground! Such was the power of his eye that he could effortlessly flick balls pitched outside the off stump to midwicket fence and drive those landing outside the leg towards the boundary at cover. No bowler could stop him when he was in full flow; they could only pray to Almighty that he became complacent and threw away his wicket, as happened during the final of the 1983 World Cup.
After retirement, Richards became a member of the commentary team of the BBC and also served as batting coach of Delhi daredevils franchise in the Indian Premier League. He has a special attachment to and affection for India as he fathered a daughter with Neena Gupta, the celebrated Bollywood actress, with whom he had a relationship. He remains hugely popular with the crowds in all parts of the world where cricket is played and remains the gold standard for batting excellence.
Let us wish the Master Blaster good health and long life as he enters the second year of the eighth decade of his existence on this planet. Belated birthday greetings, King Viv!
(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a senior bureaucrat)