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Interview With A Legend

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Barry Richards has a Test batting average of 72.57 but only represented his country four times. The politics of the South African government cost him the chance, that all who saw him bat have no doubt he would have taken, to show that his performance in the 4-0 hammering of Australia in 1970 was no flash in the pan.

It is more than forty years now since Barry Richards first graced English cricket, an era which coincides with my time at secondary school. Those days almost all seem an awfully long time ago now, the only exceptions being the all too few of them when I got to see Barry play cricket. Little did I dream then that one day I would spend half an hour or so of one of my, or more importantly his, Saturday mornings talking to the great man, and the opportunity to interview him for CricketWeb bright and early on the third day of the Lord’s Test was one I had no difficulty in grabbing with both hands.

In recent years I have had the pleasure of speaking to several distinguished former cricketers, all of whom of course I greatly admired, but none who made quite the impression on my formative years that Barry Richards did. Whether I would be struck dumb by the enormity of the privilege was my main concern. I have never forgotten a hugely embarrassing moment as a twelve year old when I briefly had Clive Lloyd to myself and was literally unable to speak. To be fair to my pre-teenage self I was mesmerised by the towering presence of a man whose bat looked a little like a toothpick as he strolled around the ground waiting to go into bat in a benefit match, but were Barry Richards not such a friendly and down to earth bloke I’m not convinced that I might not have had a similar problem.

But the point is I didn’t, and even though the new iphone app that I had bought just to record the precious conversation totally failed me, it ultimately didn’t matter, because I can remember all of it, and like a certain innings at Southport in 1973 I suspect I always will. I had a list of questions prepared, but like all the best cross-examinations it was impossible to stick to that, with the exception of the first on the list; How did Barry’s sometime teammate and legendary fielder Colin Bland compare with the superb cricketing athletes of the 21st century?

The standard of fielding generally has, as we all know, improved immeasurably since my day. You don’t get passengers in the field now whereas in the past bowlers in particular would rarely put too much effort into their fielding. But there have always been great fielders and Colin Bland was one of the very best. He probably wasn’t quite as quick across the ground as someone like Jonty Rhodes, but I have never seen anyone with the same accuracy in his throw as Colin. Graeme Pollock once told me a story that says all there is to say about Colin. The 1965 South African tourists were at Canterbury shooting some documentary footage with a few youngsters. The producers wanted a shot of the wicket being broken and asked Graeme to throw the stumps down from a few feet away. Despite being so close Graeme managed to miss, and the ball ended up with Colin thirty yards away. Moments later and Colin had given the crew exactly the shot they wanted.

What was the standard of cricket amongst non-white players in the early days of your career?

The problem that the non-whites had in my time was that they didn’t have the same opportunities that we had, whether in terms of coaching, equipment or facilities. When the isolation began and the authorities realised that multi-racial cricket had to come we had a few double wicket tournaments that featured the best non-white players, but they were some way short of international standard.

Two names I have noticed in the past are those of Winston Carelse and Howie Bergins, who have remarkable First Class records* – were they as good as their figures suggest?

They were two black medium pace bowlers from Western Province. They were good players of course, but their stats do flatter them. But had they had the same opportunities we had who knows how good they might have been.

A few months ago I was researching the issue of ‘mankading’ and noted that you had dismissed Ray Gripper that way in 1968/69, but I couldn’t find out anything more – what’s the story there?

I’m pleased this story is as low profile as it is. It’s a long way from being my proudest memory from my cricket career. I blame youth and being easily led. Ray was a decent batsman and a good guy but, at least in Natal, he had a bit of a reputation for taking easy runs in the fourth innings. This particular match was heading for a low key draw, as is obvious from the fact that I was given a long bowl. Ray was batting normally and playing rather more forward defensive shots than myself and some of the other Natal lads thought that he should and one or two of them suggested I should ‘mankad’ him. I didn’t take very much persuading and I have to confess I didn’t even issue the customary warning, but of course the umpire had no choice but to give him out. Trevor Goddard, who I used to play with at club level, was in the Natal side and afterwards he gave me a real roasting about it. I didn’t think it was sensible to mention it at the time, but I did wonder why, given Trevor clearly felt so strongly about it, he hadn’t sought to call Ray back at the time!

Whilst on the subject of your bowling might you have been an all-rounder?

I bowled a bit of off spin and took the occasional wicket, but I generally only came on to bowl when nothing much mattered or when the skipper was struggling for ideas. I never worked on my bowling and I never played for a side that didn’t contain several better bowlers than me.

I think you may be being a little self-deprecating there Barry. I appreciate you only ever got one five-fer, but 7-63 against good quality opposition looks pretty impressive to me.

Sometimes things just go right for you. That Rest of the World XI had just arrived in the country and some of them were pretty ring rusty. I used to spin the ball quite a bit and final day wickets at Bournemouth always helped the spinners.**

Whilst we’re talking about spinners who is the best South African whirlyman you have seen?

Our wickets encourage swing and seam bowling which is why we tend not to produce top class spinners. Hugh Tayfield has the biggest reputation but was before my time. I would put forward the name of Denys Hobson. Imran Tahir is a pretty good wrist spinner but Hobson would improve the current team.

We never saw him in England, although I’ve always remembered his name simply because there were so few leggies around anywhere at the time. I also remember his as the only unfamiliar name amongst those signing for World Series Cricket, although I recall he barely played in that.

Denys was an attacking leg spinner who bowled plenty of wicket-taking deliveries. Most South African specialist spinners are pretty defensive so he was unusual for that reason alone. As for World Series Cricket he didn’t play much because the Jamaican Prime Minister Michael Manley asked Kerry Packer to leave him and Graeme Pollock out of the side that went to West Indies. Manley wasn’t so concerned about the South Africans like me being included, those who had made their careers in English cricket, but he didn’t want those who were solely products of the South African system being selected. Packer had so many great players under contract that he was content to agree Manley’s request.

Did World Series Cricket give you back some of the edge that the inability to represent your country took away?

Not playing Test cricket was difficult. Being at Hampshire made it worse because Gordon Greenidge and Andy Roberts would go off and play before full houses at Lord’s and the other Test grounds and it would bring home to me what I was missing. World Series Cricket did go some way towards replicating that and was a very challenging arena in which to bat. I was in my early 30s before I got that chance and I wasn’t the player I had been a few years earlier. I naturally had a good deal more guile than in my early days, but that didn’t make up for the hands, eyes and feet not being quite as fast as they had been.***

You also came back, after a bit of a lay-off, for the rebel tours in the early 1980s – how did those compare to genuine Tests?

The England side in 1981/82 was a strong one. Some of them may have been veterans but then I was too by then, nearer 40 than 30. I enjoyed those matches, although I was nothing like the player I had been a decade previously. The following year we entertained Sri Lankan and West Indian sides. The Sri Lankans were not strong, and I asked Ali (Bacher) not to consider me for the “Tests” and to give someone else a chance. The West Indians were different and although the guys I had played World Series Cricket with weren’t involved there were some very good players in their side.

One of the West Indies rebels was Sylvester Clarke. If I’m looking to start an argument, and sometimes even when I’m not, I’ll express the view that Sylvers was the best of all of the West Indies pacemen of that era. Given that you’re in an infinitely better position to make a judgment than me what was your view of Sylvers?

He was a superb bowler. He deserved to play many more Test matches and I can understand better than anyone his frustration at not doing so. He didn’t always bowl as fast as he could in county cricket, but then it simply wouldn’t be possible in those days for a real pace bowler to last long in the English game unless he played well within himself most of the time. But Sylvers really slipped himself when he had the best players to bowl at, particularly his fellow West Indians, and then he was as quick as anyone. He gave the impression of being mean and nasty, but despite the fear and unease he caused to batsmen he was good company off the field.

Are there any particular individuals who you felt during your playing career were underrated?

Not an easy question to answer but Trevor Jesty at Hampshire was a batsman I rated very highly. The way Ian Bell bats now reminds me very much of Trevor. He made his share of big scores, but he had a bad habit of getting to 20 or 30 in excellent style and then getting out, and I think it was that which prevented him getting a Test cap.

And currently?

I have seen very little of some of the Test playing nations of late so I can’t comment from a position of great knowledge, but Kane Williamson impresses me.

Bit of a hoary old chestnut here Barry, but if you could select a single innings from your career to relive which would it be?

It’s very difficult to choose just one. There are three in particular that stand out in my memory. One is the 325 for South Australia against Western Australia in 1972. It was my highest innings and 300 in a day in Australia is something even Bradman didn’t manage, so it’s special for that reason alone. It was only a five and a half hour day as well.

Is the story about Rod Marsh’s comment true?

Yes. Graham McKenzie bowled the first over of the day and got one past me and Rod said to John Inverarity, who was standing at slip, words to the effect of “I thought you said this bloke could play”. After I hit the last ball of the day for yet another four Invers turned to Marsh and said “See, I told you he could play”

But it isn’t always the number of runs that make an innings memorable. I have vivid memories of and take great pride in my only innings in my second County Championship match for Hampshire in 1968. Yorkshire were the reigning champions and retained the title at the end of the summer. Neither the weather conditions nor the wicket at Harrogate were good for batting and the attack that wanted to show a young overseas batsman how difficult life could be included Ray Illingworth, Brian Close, Don Wilson, Fred Trueman and Tony Nicholson. The 70 runs I scored in the only completed innings of the match were as hard earned as any in my career.****

And the last of the three?

The final one I would put forward was the occasion I just missed joining Bradman in the record books. It was the first day of the second Test at Kingsmead in February 1970. Ali (Bacher) won the toss and chose to bat. At lunch we were 126-2 and I had 94 of them. I should have had the century before lunch but the Australians took 20 minutes to bowl the last three overs and despite Ali getting himself out in an effort to give me the strike I couldn’t do it. Bill Lawry was not happy, something to do with the way the wicket had been prepared, so he slowed the game right down. I got my century straight after lunch.

Remarkable that such an innings should be overshadowed, but the 274 that Graeme Pollock went on to score is the one that immediately leaps out from the pages of Wisden in that match. What is your opinion of Graeme?

I don’t believe it’s possible to single one individual out as the best batsman I have seen, but I will say that I’ve never seen a better one than Graeme Pollock.

Speaking of the Pollock family I recently read a biography of an England batsman of the 1960s that commented on how “competitive” Peter Pollock was, and mentioned an occasion when he bowled a number of beamers at Geoffrey Boycott – that doesn’t sit too easily with the man of religion that Peter now is.

Peter was like every other fast bowler – they all have their moments of aggression – it goes with the territory. Peter is a man of great integrity and withdrew from his role as a national selector as soon as Shaun came into contention for a place.

Andy Murtagh’s book makes the sad point that the cricketing deeds of yourself and all the other Springboks are rarely recognised in South Africa now – to an outsider looking in that seems very wrong, particularly when a number of you have played significant roles in the development of the Proteas.

Yes, pre 1992 South African Test cricketers don’t have numbers allocated to them like other nations’ players. Did you know that for a time after re-admission there was even a school of thought that believed our matches should be expunged from the records?

No I didn’t Barry. That’s really quite appalling, although nothing could ever take away the legacy for those of us who saw you all play – thanks for taking time out for the interview, but most of all for the memories.

*Carelse played eight times in 1975/76 in which he took 22 wickets at 12.86. He was already 30. Bergins debuted the same season at 21. He played the last of his 22 First Class matches 11 years later – his 48 wickets cost him 19.41 runs each.

**When I actually spoke to Barry in a further attempt to devalue this performance he only mentioned Clive Lloyd and Graeme Pollock and suggested their being left-handers on a wicket that greatly assisted him were the only reasons he dismissed them. It was only afterwards when I checked the scorecard that I realised his other five victims were all right handers, Eddie Barlow, Seymour Nurse, Basil Butcher, Saeed Ahmed and Wes Hall, established Test match players all. In “The Cricketer” Irving Rosenwater wrote of the Rest side that Barry “spun them to destruction”.

***Barry averaged an impressive 77.60 in the ‘Supertests’ – given what he says it makes you wonder how many more runs he would have scored a decade earlier.

**** Wisden’s take was “Hampshire were redeemed from abject failure only by the determination and skill of Richards who came in when the score was 5 and was eighth out, for 70, at 114. Both watchful in defence and readily seizing scoring opportunities his display served as the outstanding feature of the ruined match”

 

For anyone who wants to read more of Barry’s thoughts and memories a biography by former teammate Andy Murtagh, to which Barry lent his full co-operation, Sundial in the Shade, was published earlier this year and is a recommended purchase. That said if you don’t have the readies to buy a copy do not despair, as you may not have to because the publishers, Pitch Publishing, have kindly provided us with a couple of signed copies to give away. The questions for the competition are not too taxing, and require only the identities of the man who opened the batting with Barry in his first Test, and of the batsman who gave him his one wicket in Test cricket. The two winners will be drawn at random in a week’s time – entries by email to info@cricketweb.net please.

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