The Interview Series — Viv Richards
When do our journeys begin? Which are the moments that push us on to a particular path? For most Indian cricketers and cricket journalists of my generation, that flutter of butterfly wings came at Lord’s on June 25, 1983, when India beat West Indies to win the cricket World Cup. I’d be lying though if I said that was true for me. I do remember listening to snatches of radio commentary from the final — we were visiting India at the time — but back then, cricket was just a peripheral presence in my life.
That changed in the English summer of 1984. Two days after Liverpool had won the European Cup against AS Roma at the Stadio Olimpico, I feigned illness and settled down on the couch to watch West Indies play England in the first match of the Texaco Trophy. My grandfather’s letters from India the previous winter had managed to transmit a sense of awe about the cricketers from the Caribbean. After the World Cup defeat, they had toured India and towelled their hosts 3–0.
But on an overcast day at Old Trafford, there didn’t seem to be much that was mighty about the West Indian batting. Too much time has passed for the details to be anything other than blurry, but I do recall a steady procession back to the pavilion. The scoreboard tells me that it was 102 for 7 at one point.
Then it happened. The man in the maroon cap and those colourful wrist bands started hitting out. And those were no ordinary shots. Each was played with a flourish, like a full stop being pounded on to the page with an old-style typewriter. As the minutes ticked by, the audacity grew. There were some strokes that made you wonder if you were hallucinating. Even now, I watch the highlights and find myself saying: What??
We used to play a bit of cricket in school then, and summers also meant the odd hit on the patches of lawn in front of our houses. I didn’t know much about the intricacies of batting technique, but I did know that you just weren’t supposed to back away from your stumps and smash the ball over extra-cover for six. That just wasn’t done.
That 189 not out and those two hours of mayhem changed my life. I watched pretty much every ball that summer, as West Indies won the Test series 5–0. The man with the heavyweight boxer’s swagger made just one hundred in the Tests, but each innings was still an event, right from the menacing, gum-chewing walk to the crease.
Nearly two decades later, during the Champions Trophy in Sri Lanka (2002), we found ourselves in the same nightclub. I knew he was in Colombo, but there had been few thoughts of interviewing him. That night though, I discovered that there was such a thing as liquid courage. What’s the worst that can happen, I asked myself. He’ll tell you to get lost.
Shortly before last orders — and we were well into the wee hours by then — I steeled myself and walked across the room, feeling a little like I imagined Neil Foster must have bowling to him in those final overs at Old Trafford. It went far better than I expected, but I walked out of the club five minutes later cursing myself.
The only time he had to spare was that morning, at 11am. I had to get back to my room, sleep off a hangover, come up with questions and then get to the hotel on time. Fortunately, my hotel had a small outdoor pool, and 20 minutes of laps at 9 in the morning left me sober enough to jot down two pages worth of questions by the time I reached his hotel.
The Taj Samudra on Galle Road was also where the teams were staying. That morning, captains from seven of the participating nations were taking part in a meeting of FICA, the players’ body. Several camera crews were in position on the hotel portico, primed to go chasing after a quote or two.
Suddenly though, like the Red Sea parting, this small group of cameras went scurrying in the opposite direction to the annexe where the meeting was taking place. I peered around the corner to find out why. He was standing there, dressed all in white linen, with wraparound dark sunglasses on. More than a decade after he retired, Sir Isaac Vivian Alexander Richards was still box office. The sheer force of personality was still enough to make international cricket’s elite an afterthought.
Ten minutes later, we sat down on a couple of cane chairs and started talking. “Long night,” he said with what seemed like a sigh. “Would you like some lemonade?” As we waited for it to arrive, I started with my questions. Significant parts of the interview dealt with race, especially being a young black man playing cricket in England half a decade after Tommy Smith and John Carlos had clenched their black-gloved fists on an Olympic podium in Mexico City.
We spoke of Rastafarianism, the wrist bands, Bob Marley, Liverpool (I thought my head would explode when he told me he was also a fan) and so much else. But it’s one answer that pops up my mind all this time later. “It was all about getting respect,” he said, when asked about those early years in English county cricket.
Less than a month later, by which time the interview had been published, an organisation in Mumbai contacted me asking if I’d be interested in scripting a show anchored by King Viv during the World Cup to be played in South Africa four months later. Sadly, they couldn’t agree terms and the project never took off.
In March 2007, I headed to the World Cup in the Caribbean as a last-minute replacement for a colleague who had been taken ill. It wasn’t a straightforward journey. Bangalore to Paris, then on to St. Maarten, where I’d stay a night. Then off to Antigua before the final leg of the journey took me to Jamaica.
When I got to St. Maarten, I found that Air France had managed to leave one of my bags behind in Paris. Instead of exploring the charms of the island, I spent most of the evening at the airport figuring out how I could get the missing bag forwarded to Kingston before the opening match.
When I got to Antigua the next morning, the airport was almost empty. Queueing up for the flight to Kingston, there was just one man in front of me. Again, he was wearing white, and when he turned after picking up his boarding pass, I nearly dropped my backpack. The King was on the same flight.
When I got to the tiny, deserted space that was the departure lounge, I went straight to him. I mentioned Colombo and the interview, and then we started talking of the significance of a World Cup in the Caribbean. I was incensed when I learned that he hadn’t been invited to the opening ceremony.
Ten minutes before we were to board, I realised that there was a small book shop in the vicinity. Antigua, his island. Bookstore. Surely? I excused myself for a minute and ran across. Of course they stocked his autobiography. I walked back with the book, and found him chatting to the man who was sweeping the floor.
“Is your mother okay? How are her knees?” Once the man moved away and I asked if he could sign the book, he nodded in his direction and said: “It’s a small island. Everyone knows everyone else.”
A couple of days later, I bumped into him at Sabina Park. He hugged me in recognition, and told me that I should definitely go and check out the Marley Museum at 56 Hope Road when I had the time. There were also a couple of tips on what to eat when in Jamaica.
A few weeks on, the authorities had finally seen sense, and he was one of the guests of honour at the final in Barbados. When he wandered into the press box, I got another hug, and a couple of questions about the museum. And they say you should never meet your heroes…
Over the course of nearly two decades covering the game, I was fortunate to watch some of the game’s greatest batsmen. Sachin Tendulkar and Brian Lara were touched with genius. AB de Villiers had the most incredible repertoire of shots. Virat Kohli has that swagger when batting at his best. But not one of them is quite the King.
People will look at his numbers — and they declined dramatically as his eyesight and reflexes waned in the final four seasons — and ask what the fuss was about. But that’s the thing. Numbers lie, or they don’t always tell the full story. To watch Richards bat was an experience, it was something you had to feel. When he was out there, the field of view narrowed and the other 12 players and the umpires faded out of the picture. It was about him, and only him. You can’t manufacture that kind of aura.
He turned 68 last month, and that summer of ’84 lies a long way in the past. I came across so many of the game’s legends on my travels, but even after all these years, there’s still only one King. Viv.