Viv Richards: “a man whose strut alone could turn bowlers to quivering wrecks”

Frank Keating, Courtesy of The Guardian, 6 Tuesday 2012

Antigua’s cricketing knight celebrates with a round of golf on the island’s blissful Cedar Valley course while the cricketing world wishes happy returns to one of its most imperishable monarchs. Can it really be 21 years since that cathartic Test match finale at The Oval when an enraptured full house rose in farewell as, at the pavilion gate, Sir Viv Richards turned to doff his faded old maroon cap to all sides in courtly acknowledgement?The landmark birthdays of heroes always serve to underline our own mortality and with Wednesday’s three-score anniversary comes the stark personal realisation that it is more than half my lifetime ago since the eye-popping double-take that day I first set eyes on Richards 38 midsummers ago at Somerset’s dear old Bath Festival in 1974 when the gangly young smiler, glistening with gaiety and adventure, clocked Yorkshire’s Test bowlers Chris Old and Geoff Cope all over in a festive flurry of sixes. A new star had risen in the west.Mind you, I had gone prepared as fully a month before, in Viv’s third first-class innings for the county, against Sussex and England’s full-lick John Snow at Hove in May, in the Daily Telegraph EW Swanton, of all people, had enthused: “Seeing the fondness of the young Antiguan for the hook, Snow now posted a second long-leg to him. Richards’ answer was to hit him for 14 in an over including two of the sweetest hooks you ever saw dissecting the space between the two. He sees the ball very early and hits it mighty hard.”

I have been lucky: a few times I dined with and laughed into the night with Lord Learie Constantine. I once watched the cricket from high in the bleachers at Sabina Park, sharing boiled sweets with a chuckling George Headley. The glorious cricket of those two was a prophecy for the sheer luck of my generation which has been able not only to marvel at all of Richards’ narrative from that joyous youth of Bath to potentate’s full global pomp but fore and aft of him, those two peerless lefties of history, Sir Garfield Sobers and Brian Lara. And, glory be, I am of an age to be even more fortunate, for I saw bat, too, that trio of titans forever inseparably enjoined as the three Ws – each also knights of their realm – Sir Frank Worrell, Sir Clyde Walcott and (still with us and 87 last week) Everton Weekes. The three Barbadian amigos were born within 18 months and less than a couple of miles of each other but at the crease they were three of a wholly distinctive style: Worrell silkily assured and subtle; Walcott the great bear, hairy of arm and bludgeon for bat; Weekes the restless welterweight, light on his feet, fiercely ebullient for the fight.

I was just a 12-year old gaping in wonder on the boundary grass when Walcott and Weekes fashioned a century stand of blazing grandeur together in 1950 at the Cheltenham College ground. All of three decades later I took them both to lunch in Barbados. Might they just remember that Cheltenham day in 1950 which so beguiled a child? A heap of hints and no reaction till, all of a sudden, Walcott’s face broke into a wide grin of recollection: “Oh yes, Cheltenham: as we went out to bat after tea, this good fellow” – and he leant across to put a huge ham of an arm around Weekes’s shoulder – “nodded towards the stately College buildings and said: ‘This is a famous academic establishment, man, so why don’t we give them a display of some famous academic batting, eh?'”

“Academic batting”: not quite what you think of with birthday-boy Richards. Vengefully scary, more like. Isaac Vivian Alexander. What Christian names for an emperor. Well, he batted like one. His very strut to the wicket intimidated even the most certain of bowlers. By the time he had taken guard, then fixed them with an eye, many were already quivering wrecks. For Viv it was all about nobility and pride; most of all it was burning self-belief. Last week BBC4 screened Fire In Babylon, a watchable but vividly over-egged documentary on Caribbean cricket’s dominance of a few decades ago. Viv overwhelmingly stole the show: “My bat was my sword. I’d take it up, put a piece of chewing gum in my mouth and back myself every time.”

The scattergun film showed a few clips from England’s 1981 West Indies tour. One of my enduring memories on that trip was of lolling on a deckchair on a beach in Antigua alongside the witty and shrewd Terry Brindle of the Yorkshire Post.

In the sun-hazy half-distance the squat little BBC radio man Don Mosey was earnestly interviewing the god-like Richards as they strolled along the edge of the surf. Mighty, muscled Viv glowing with health in his swimming trunks and dark shades looked an Adonis all right as he looked down to answer Don – comic personification of the Englishman abroad in his untailored, baggy elastic-waisted shorts, his rumpled grey socks, scuffed old Woolworths plimsolls and his arms and legs covered in mosquito bites. And Terry turns to me to say: “Have you ever thought it slightly odd, ol’ boy, how a nation of Moseys managed to conquer and subjugate a whole nation of Richardses for over 400 years?”

ADDENDUM: The West Indies Cricket Board will stream the Antigua Broadcasting Service’s live video feed of the State Banquet in celebration of Sir Vivian Richards’ 60th birthday anniversary this evening. The stream will be available via the WICB’s official website

The function, being held at Sandals Grande in Antigua is hosted by the government of Antigua and Barbuda in honour of the country’s only living national hero. World record holder for the most runs in a Test innings, Brian Lara, will deliver the feature address. A host of West Indian cricketing icons including Sir Garfield Sobers, Sir Everton Weekes, Rev Wes Hall, Michael Holding and Joel Garner among others will be in attendance.

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