Just How Good Was Barry Richards?Martin Chandler |
As I get older I increasingly find that sporting memories have a tendency to become detached from reality. As an example I can still clearly remember being spellbound by a session of Test match cricket for the first time, as Derek Underwood spun England to victory against at Australia at the Oval in 1968. And then I remind myself that the Vietnam War was still seven years away from its conclusion, and that that conflict ended the best part of forty years ago, and suddenly I realise that Underwood’s legendary spell was delivered a very long time ago.
In much the same vein I can vividly recall the treat that FA Cup Final day was in the 1970s, when it was the only club match that was ever shown live on television. The coverage lasted all day, and despite the fact that my team never got within a bull’s roar of the Final my brother and my father and I would still sit in front of the screen all day, our excitement building as the three o’clock kick off approached. 1976 is a very special memory – the final was between my brother’s team – for reasons I could never work out other than being a “fair weather” supporter he was a Manchester United fan – and my Dad’s team, little Southampton from the old Second Division. I can and do still replay in my mind at will the Saints winning goal, scored by the late Bobby Stokes. I will never forget the nationwide ripple of amazement that the upset caused, as well as the delight for my father and dismay for my brother – and the fortieth anniversary of that day is rapidly approaching, two decades after Stokes’ untimely death. Like Underwood’s spell at the Oval it was a couple of generations ago.
But it doesn’t always work like that. As will be clear from my Cup Final day memories my Dad was a Hampshire man. In 1973 he decided we would make the short trip to Southport to watch his county play my team, Lancashire. Initially he had ignored my pleas to go to the game, but changed his mind after a first day which ended with the Red Rose all out for a modest 214, and Hampshire sitting pretty on 74-0. I have never enjoyed seeing Lancashire bested, but the prospect of watching Barry Richards and Gordon Greenidge continuing their partnership carried the day and I decided to go with him. The pair lifted the score to 200 before Richards, having comfortably outscored the powerful Greenidge, took one liberty too many with “Flat Jack” Simmons and was out for a glorious 128. Try as I might to put that day in perspective however I can’t – it still seems like yesterday – and in forty years I have never seen a batsman as good as Richards. Once or twice Brian Lara has come close, and occasionally I thought Martin Crowe might touch the same heights, but I know in my heart of hearts that I will never see Richards’ like again.
Richards is the greatest of my time, if not by a distance then certainly without a doubt, but few seem to agree. “Am I out of step, or is everyone else?” is the sort of question we are supposed to ask ourselves as part of a catharsis when we have made mistakes, and I have been there with Barry Richards, but nothing ever changes my mind about him, and while I am not about to suggest he was a greater batsman than Sir Donald Bradman, nor necessarily even his equal, I cannot get the thought out of my head that, had he not been a victim of the circumstances that did blight his career, Richards might have earned the right to be mentioned in the same breath as “The Don”.
Clearly that is an opinion I need to justify but I am not alone in holding it. As his career came to a close Tony Greig considered Richards to be the finest batsman in the world and expressed the view that in different circumstances I am convinced he could have rewritten the record books – and rewritten them with a style and grace matched by precious few players in the history of the game. And if that gives a clue to the way Richards batted John Arlott’s words he butchers bowling, hitting with a savage power the more impressive for being veiled by the certainty of his timing, are as good a summary as I have read.
But before I look at those “circumstances” an account of Richard’s career is called for. It will come as no surprise that he was an outstanding schoolboy player and at 17 he captained a strong South African schools side that toured England. One fixture was against an invitational side who included Richie Benaud amongst their number. Richards raced to 33 before his first exposure to the wily Australian. The first delivery was a little short and Richards gleefully clubbed it to the mid-wicket boundary. The second was something Richards had not encountered before, a perfect flipper, and he was bowled playing for the spin that wasn’t there. Benaud had seen enough though, writing later even then it was quite clear that he was a player out of the ordinary.
Richards’ first innings in First Class cricket came a couple of years later, for a South African Colts XI against Mike Smith’s 1964/65 MCC tourists. He began with 63, taking just 56 deliveries to reach his fifty before, as he was to do so often over his career, he took one liberty too many and was stumped. Charles Fortune, in his book of the tour, described Richards’ as having played with a confidence that was not far short of contempt. That innings, together with a further promising outing against the tourists for Natal, was enough to get Richards into the Test trial a couple of weeks later but, unfortunately, he did not grasp the opportunity sufficiently firmly and the 18 year old failed to get into either the Test side or the party that came to England in 1965 for a three Test series. That said Gloucestershire off spinner David Allen had seen enough of Richards and his great friend Mike Procter to persuade both to spend the 1965 summer with the county.
In the days before the immediate registration of overseas players was possible the two young South Africans only played one First Class match, ironically enough against their countrymen. Sadly rain only permitted play on the first day, but it was enough for the two to make a great impression. Procter scored 69 and Richards 59. Wisden described both as driving, cutting and pulling with power, style and precision, as they added 116 together at well over a run a minute.
Australia visited the Cape in 1966/67 for a five Test series. Selected to play against the tourists for a South African XI three weeks before the first Test Richards chose the perfect time to make his maiden century, and then in a moment of madness cost himself his chance of a Test debut during an incident at a hotel where, after being refused admittance, he lost his temper and caused a small amount of damage. One of the selectors headed off any possible police involvement by making peace with the hotel management, but demotion to number eight in the second innings made the selectors thoughts clear, although by making Richards twelfth man for the final Test there was at least a positive end to what had ultimately been a disappointing season.
The following year Richards recorded four more centuries and, with the English authorities opening up the county game in 1968, he had offers from Hampshire and Sussex. He chose the former and scored more runs than anyone else in the country, 2,395, although a poor conversation rate, only 5 of his 23 half centuries converted into three figure innings, hinted at a disinclination to concentrate too hard for too long. Only Geoffrey Boycott headed him in the First Class averages. He was chosen as one of Wisden’s “Five Cricketers of the Year”, the good book commenting Richards’ horizons seem limitless, and it will be fascinating to see how far his talents will take him.
In January 1970 Australia arrived in South Africa for a four Test series. They were to prove the only Tests Richards ever played, and his country’s last for more than two decades. A certainty to be selected Richards attitude to his debut was summed up by Procter, who later wrote of his great friend I had never seen him so nervous. Further confirmation of the importance of the occasion to the young Richards comes from the fact that it took him 20 minutes to get off the mark. He ended up with 29 and 32 in the first of his team’s four comprehensive victories. The nerves thereby banished his five other visits to the crease in the series brought him two centuries and two half centuries, and a final tally of 508 runs at 72.57. In the second Test a hundred before lunch on the opening day was his for the taking, but he decided to forego that particular landmark for the good of the team, and played out a maiden over just before the interval. He wrote later that had he known then how his Test career would pan out that he would have made the effort to join the elite band of Victor Trumper, Bradman and Charles Macartney.
Later that year Richards had expected to be playing Tests in England, but due to the success of the “Stop the ’70 Tour” campaign he ended up playing five “Tests” for the Rest of the World. He played a series of cameos, and wrote later the contests never had the authentic atmosphere of a country versus country conflict. On our side there was a very free and easy approach.
Australia were due to host the South Africans in 1971/72, and for a long time it looked like the eagerly awaited opportunity for the Australians to avenge the crushing defeat that they had suffered two years previously would happen. In the end it didn’t, and with it ended the Test aspirations of a generation of South African cricketers. Partly to prepare for that series Richards had agreed to play for South Australia in the 1970/71 Sheffield Shield season. He scored 1,538 runs at 109.85 breaking records that belonged to Bradman. On 20th November 1970, at the WACA, he scored 325 runs, going on next day to 356. It was an excellent wicket for batting on, but the Western Australian attack included Dennis Lillee, Garth McKenzie and Tony Lock.
And so Richards’ life settled into a routine of County Championship cricket in the English summer followed by winters back at home in South Africa. He has a fine record in England, but did not much enjoy himself. In his 1978 autobiography he titled the relevant chapter Summers of Discontent and wrote I felt like a prisoner within the system …. the routine is interminable; every match is a carbon copy of the last. The daily grind bored him, as did the reaction to his batting. He became frustrated at the expectations of supporters who seemed to be satisfied with nothing less than a two hour century each time he went to the wicket. They were disappointed if he failed, and if he succeeded looked on his achievement as nothing more than their entitlement.
It follows that Richards often found it difficult to motivate himself but, as John Arlott observed;Face him with a challenge and he will rise to it. Then he plays himself in with clinical care, gradually unfolding his strokes until they flower all around the wicket. Television cameras would often bring out the best in him, as did games against touring sides. Interestingly his average for Hampshire overall was 50.50, but in those games in which Richards faced teams representing their country it rose by half, to 75.88. Against the 1975 Australians he scored 96 and then retired hurt with 69 in the second innings. He was particularly harsh on Jeff Thomson, fresh from his terrorising of England’s batsmen the previous winter, whose match figures were 0-143.
It is difficult for those of us who would give our eye teeth to play just a single First Class cricket match, let alone earn our living from the game, to appreciate how the attraction of county cricket could have palled as much as it so clearly did, but those gifted in other fields of sporting endeavour understand. Another favourite son of Hampshire, Southampton and England footballer Mick Channon, certainly sympathised writing in Richards’ benefit brochure in 1977 that I know that the worst day of my life will be when an England squad is picked and I am not in it. That’s how much playing international football means to me. So I really sympathise with Barry Richards. It must be shatteringly disappointing and it is a horrible position in which he finds himself.
Richards was one of the first to sign for Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket in 1977. After seven long years without an international challenge playing for the WSC World XI over the next two seasons clearly meant a great deal more to him than the relaxing jolly that the not dissimilar series in England in 1970 had been. He expressed regret that the opportunity had not come earlier in his career, but stressed his desire to play again in the cauldron of international cricket. In his five Supertests he scored 554 runs at 79.14.
The 1977 English season was Richards’ benefit year, and in those days the GBP21,255 raised was a tidy sum. It is not unusual, as happened to Richards, that his form suffered in his benefit year, but even if he did, for the only time in his career with Hampshire, fail to reach the thousand run mark in a full season, an average of 42 was still respectable. It was however the beginning of the end. At the start of the 1978 season the county fined Richards for remarks he had made in a radio interview criticising the treatment of Tony Greig, who had been banned for eight weeks by the TCCB after an article had appeared in his name in a newspaper that had contained some harsh words about Geoffrey Boycott. In light of what happened a few weeks later the experience clearly soured the relationship.
In his autobiography Richards had written Whenever I walk off a county ground for the last time – whenever that will be – it will be with an enormous sense of relief. The end came sooner than he thought when, after the match against Leicestershire at the end of June, he called time on his County Championship career. He said he would still play some one day games, and did so but the disenchantment was mutual, and he didn’t play again after Hampshire were knocked out of the Gillette Cup a month later. It was not remotely like the way he should have bowed out.
At 33 the finest batsman of his generation was gone. For a while he left the game completely but, at 36 he was lured back by the prospect of playing against the rebel English, Sri Lankan and West Indian tourists who visited South Africa in 1981/82 and 1982/83. He wasn’t quite the batsman he had been of course, but he was still a fine player.
And so to return to the comparison with Bradman. It is not without relevance to quote the great man himself on the subject of Richards; You could never tire of watching him ….. it was a privilege to see him play. The Don also had no hesitation in declaring that Richards was the best right-handed opening batsman he had seen. Perhaps he did not want to make a comparison with the left-handed Arthur Morris, who was Richards’ opening partner in his dream eleven, but he clearly ranked him above Len Hutton and Sir Jack Hobbs. The Master was past his best by the time Bradman encountered him, but he saw the best of Hutton.
That Bradman had advantages that Richards did not must be the case. For half of Bradman’s career he could not be out lbw to a delivery that pitched outside the off stump. Richards always could, and indeed for most of his time a delivery that did not strike him in line either, although that is perhaps a minor point – Barry Richards was not in the habit of not playing a shot in those circumstances. On another legal issue Bradman had uncovered wickets to contend with, although so did Richards for part of his career, and he also played much more of his cricket on the soft English wickets of the 1970s rather than the rock hard Australian shirtfronts that Bradman enjoyed in the 1930s.
There was never an issue for Bradman of the sort of drudgery that Richards had to bear with the seven days a week cricket he had to play. It is true that Bradman did tour England four times, and that in those days tours were long and drawn out affairs over a full season, but they only happened once every four years, and unlike Richards Bradman did not find his name on the team sheet in every match. The Don never played more than 36 First Class innings in an English season. In 1968 Richards totalled 55. By 1977 that figure was down to 25, but then he missed six matches through injury, and had 18 List A innings as well. So Richards’ workload was much higher.
It hardly needs to be said that there was an enormous difference in what motivated both men. Throughout his Test career Bradman enjoyed what Richards craved, playing for his country. For Bradman there was, for much of the time, the captaincy of Australia as well.
The Australian public has always cared passionately about its sport, and at no time more so than in the aftermath of the depression when, looking back at some books written by men who played the game in that era, it would not be much of an exaggeration to say that Bradman carried the hopes and dreams of the nation on his shoulders. After their hero returned to the fray after missing the first Test of the Bodyline series the crowd at the MCG in late December 1932 taunted the England fielders from the off with shouts of wait till our Don comes in. They were silenced briefly when Bill Bowes bowled him first up, but were back in good voice in the second innings when Bradman’s century was the major contribution to what proved to be Australia’s only success in the series. For them Bradman was the very embodiment of Australia.
As Bradman’s record proves he thrived under pressure, and Richards was the same – how many more runs would Richards have scored if he had borne the same pressures, and cared as passionately about his innings as Bradman did?
There is another major difference between the two men’s careers. Richards was not always popular, either with teammates, opponents or the public, and his autobiography clearly demonstrates how that rankled with him. That he has mellowed over the years is clear from the way that he talks about the game now, but these experiences would inevitably have demotivated him at times. At Hampshire there were some seasoned pros amongst the squad who resented a 22 year old who was earning considerably more than they were, and there were also wider concerns amongst English players about the sudden influx of overseas players taking so much money out of the county game.
Richards did not help himself when interviewed before the start of the 1968 season when he declared that he would score 2,000 runs. He was reminded of that promise by the Sussex fielders as he made his way back to the pavilion after John Snow castled him for a duck in his first innings of the campaign, and there were those amongst his own side who were less than sympathetic, although of course come the end of the summer he had made good on his promise.
The situation was not dissimilar in Australia in 1970/71, where overseas imports for the domestic First Class game were rare. And that move was unpopular in South Africa as well, where the press portrayed Richards as a mercenary, who would always chase the money. The truth was that Richards told Natal what was proposed, but the province made no counter offer, so again much of what was said was unfounded and unfair. Whilst in some ways criticism and unpopularity would have, and clearly on occasions did, spur Richards on, the overall effect must have been to suppress his appetite for runs, at least to some extent.
Back in the 1930s Bradman was not universally popular amongst his teammates, O’Reilly and Fingleton in particular not being wholly enamoured of him, but he enjoyed the wholehearted support of the Australian public throughout his remarkable career, and whilst not all of his teammates may have enjoyed the Don’s company, he had their unswerving support on the field of play, and as noted for a large part of his career he had the captaincy to further inspire him.
To my mind there is no doubt that the circumstances in which Bradman played out his career were infinitely more conducive to a supreme talent maximising his potential than those which prevailed for Richards. That begs the question I mentioned earlier – had Richards had the advantages Bradman had would he have been as successful as the great Australian? I wouldn’t necessarily go that far, mainly because I believe that Richards would always have been more of a risk taker, but I don’t think there would have been too much splitting them, and that the great debate would not be as to the identity of the second greatest batsman of all time, but the third.