Barry Richards: A sublime career that bloomed unseen


Barry Richards, born July 21, 1945, was perhaps the best batsman of the world during his playing days who could showcase his brilliance in just four Tests. Arunabha Sengupta takes a detailed look at the career of this superb cricketer that bloomed mostly in the remote grounds of First-Class cricket because of the isolation faced by South Africa.

Mountain of runs buried under turbulent political waters

Measured from its oceanic base to apex, Mauna Kea stands at 10,200 metres — more than twice as tall as Mt Everest. Yet, the world does not recognise this volcanic island on Hawaii as the highest summit — with much of it submerged under the Pacific Ocean.

In many ways the career of Barry Richards scaled an analogous peak. Only much less of his staggering achievements were visible to the world. While 4,205 metres of Mauna Kea manages to stretch above sea level, there was just one international series and four Tests which saw Richards plunder 508 runs with two centuries of pedigree and portent. The cornucopia of later crowns was buried under the turbulent waters of political problems of apartheid and isolation.

Those four Tests remained the tip of a phenomenal iceberg. Unprecedented mountains of runs were promised to be revealed if ever the murky waters of the South African situation dried up and the splendour of his batting was once again allowed to project itself in international cricket.

From time to time the volcanic eruptions from his blade were momentous enough to shake the earth up and make them take notice.From the county grounds of England, the Sheffield Shield games Down Under and the Currie Cup matches, enormous ripples did splash across the sphere of attention. Yet, most often Barry Richards had to make do in lesser arenas, the breath-taking brilliance that should have been lapped up by the world watched by a few hard-core enthusiasts in Southampton.

There were high and mighty voices that vouched for his greatness. Don Bradman himself said that Richards was at least as good as Jack Hobbs and Len Hutton. No praise can be greater. The world acknowledged that along with Graeme Pollock, he was another supreme loss to the cricketing world. But, Pollock at least had the opportunity to score more than 2,000 runs in Test cricket. Barry Richards managed a fourth of them in his 4 Tests.

Thereafter he ruled over the First-Class scene, vanquishing the most formidable of bowlers till no challenge remained. Indeed, things got so monotonously easy that he created his own curious contests with himself. He decided, for instance, to turn his bat sideways and play an over using just the edge of his bat — in those days when edges were actually edges. There was also the occasion when he imagined the ground to be the face of the clock and struck six boundaries in an over, traversing the time around the dial in clockwise order. He often got bored, threw his wicket away when twenty or thirty away from yet another regulation, regal hundred. Yet, when he retired, he finished with 80 centuries from 339 matches.

The young master

It was before he had played Test cricket that Richards captured the headlines by becoming one of the Wisden Cricketers of the Year, sitting atop the 2,395 runs at 47.90 he scored for Hampshire in 1968. Wisden complimented the young man’s composure and assurance, the perfection of his technique and the drives through the cover and off which harked back memories of Wally Hammond and Len Hutton.

That season, Richards hit 206 off Nottinghamshire, and EDR Eagar, secretary of Hampshire and former captain of the county side, observed, “I have never seen better driving since Hammond.” No bowler could pitch up to the young South African. If the length was shortened, however, square cuts and pulls would follow, savage and severe.

There was perhaps a genuine reason for the comparisons with Hutton that both Bradman and Wisden so unabashedly resorted to. While a student at Durban High School, Richards pored over the action pictures of Hutton with intense interest. “I think his technique was the best I have ever seen,” he recalled.

Ability was detected early. His natural athleticism impressed important people in the cricketing circuits of South Africa. Alan Butler, Wilf Isaacs and Leslie Theobald, coaches and cricket instructors all, shared their time and passed their experience and wisdom. All the encouragement and guidance were appended with dedication and discipline that is the hallmark of a great player.

His county success of 1968 might have been influenced by his visit to the country five years earlier as captain of the school team. His teammates were the likes of Mike Procter and Hylton Ackerman. Richards scored 798 in 18 innings on that tour — boasting an average of 49.87, the best knocks being 106 in an hour and fifty minutes against Eton, and 79 in 76 minutes off the more mature bowling of Hampshire Second XI.

Richards started club cricket with Natal Technical College, and in 1964-65 he made his first-class debut for Natal in the Currie Cup. In 1965, he visited England again, this time with Procter, and spent a season with Gloucestershire Second XI and the Ground team.

Richards scored his maiden First-Class century when turning out for a South African XI against the visiting Australians at East London in 1966-67. It was unfortunate that he could not break into the strong South African side. With the next Test series not forthcoming till 1969-70, his entry into Test cricket was delayed. He filled up the time by piling on more and more runs.

The perfectionist in the young Richards was demanding even during his early days. There is a story of one of his innings, for Natal against Transvaal in February 1968. At close of play he was unbeaten on 13, and not very happy with the way the runs had trickled. The next morning, he padded up and went to the nets at 8 AM, accompanied by a willing Alan Butler, coach at Durban. For an hour and a half, the young lad worked on the minute chinks and wrinkles in his technique. From the session he went straight to the ground, with the same pads still strapped to his legs. He resumed his innings and hammered 146.

The brief Test days

When Richards returned to England in 1968, he was keenly sought after by Sussex, and eventually opted for Hampshire.After his sparkling first season in England, he amassed 763 runs at 58.69 in the South African domestic season of 1968-69 and followed it up with 1667 at 53.77 in the next English summer. By this time, his claims to a Test slot could no longer be ignored.

The first Test was not that impressive with his innings amounting to 29 and 32. They turned out to be the lowest scores he would make in Test cricket.

At Kingsmead in the second Test, Richards provided a spectacle of outrageously brilliant strokeplay. He raced to 94 before lunch. Ali Bacher, the captain, tried to squeeze a single to the leg side to give this dashing batsman the chance to complete his hundred before lunch. In the attempt, the skipper was bowled round the legs by Alan Connolly. Richards retired to the break with six required for his hundred. He got it in the first over after lunch and proceeded to score 140. In his First-Class career, he hit a hundred before lunch on nine occasions — five of them on the first day of the match.

The first hour after lunch at Kingsmead has gone down in South African cricketing folklore as an eloquent tale of ‘what might have been’ had they not been pushed out of the world stage. Barry Richards and Graeme Pollock added 103 in those 60 minutes, Pollock continuing after the dismissal of Richards to a monumental 274. “I don’t think this country has ever again seen batting like we saw that day,” Bacher recalled.

In the final Test of the series Richards hit 81 and 126 as South Africa took the rubber 4-0. His 508 runs were amassed at 72.57.

Apart from the runs, the series also witnessed the brilliance of cricketing acumen of the young Richards. John Gleeson had arrived on the South African shores as a mystery bowler, the secret of his off-breaks and leg-breaks unknown to the South Africans. The canny Australians never allowed him to be exposed. In tour matches, whenever one of the regular South African players arrived at the wicket, Gleeson was taken off. Hence, the enigma was carried on right into the Tests. He troubled a lot of batsmen, Bacher being the most tentative.There was no discernible change of action in the deliveries and most of the batsmen were still grappling to fathom the vagaries of turn.

In a team meeting that followed the first innings against Gleeson, Richards explained the way to tackle him. The secret was to watch the fingers on the top of the ball. If only the thumb and one finger were visible, it would be a leg-break. If more fingers peeped out, it would be an off-break. For the rest of the series, Richards lorded over Gleeson, running down the wicket to hit him repeatedly to the fence. The rest of the South Africans were still a little apprehensive. Even Graeme Pollock played him from the crease. But Richards had demystified the action. Gleeson captured 19 wickets in the four Tests, and his scalps included Trevor Goddard, Ali Bacher, Graeme Pollock, Eddie Barlow and Lee Irvine. But, not once was he able to snare Barry Richards.

And after this series, Richards never played Test cricket again.

South Africa’s isolation meant that Barry Richards career was limited to 4 Tests. However, he did grace the park in First-Class cricket across the world. © Getty Images

Ten years of domination

The volcanic talent wanted a release. The feline grace and the perfect technique, the absolute mastery of every type of bowling, all this wanted a platform.

Richards travelled around the county fields of England in 1970, setting most of them on fire, amassing 1,667 runs at 53.77.

He then flew Down Under, to turn out in the Sheffield Shield for South Australia. Playing against the visiting MCC side, he plundered 224. And then, on a balmy November morning, on the lightning fast wicket of Perth, he scored 325 in a day against an attack of incredible talent and variety – consisting of Dennis Lillee, Graham McKenzie, Tony Lock and Tony Mann. His final score was 356, made off 381 balls in 6 hours 12 minutes, with 48 fours and a six. This was his only Australian summer and he ended with 1,538 runs at 109.85 including 6 hundreds.

A hundred years earlier, WG Grace had dominated the cricket fields by reaping far more runs than any other peer during a glorious decade from 1868 to 1877. Exactly a century later, Richards traversed almost the same sort of high across the English grounds from 1968 to 1977. His partnership with Gordon Greenidge at the top of the Hampshire innings became legendary. During this phase, Richards piled up 15,843 runs in England at 50.94. In these ten seasons with Hampshire, he passed 1,000 runs in all the seasons but his very last when he fell short by 73.

Barry Richards in English summers from 1968 to 1977


Three times he carried his bat through a completed innings, the most spectacular of them an unbeaten 225 out of a team total of 344 against Nottinghamshire in 1974.

Yet, Richards was not really only interested in amassing runs. As Robin Jackman remembered, he was often more absorbed in the Wimbledon, finding ways to be afflicted with groin injury during the exciting phases of the tournament. While many a bowler enjoyed the high point of their careers by bowling a maiden at Richards at his sublime best, the man himself often got bored with the one sided state of things and threw his wicket away in his seventies or eighties.

The World Stage once more

It was Kerry Packer’s intervention on the cricketing scene that made Richards feel the tingle of highest excitement once again. He signed up for World Series Cricket, not because of the money, but more due to the exposure of pitting his talents against the best in the world.

He was in Perth to play league cricket for Midland-Guildford in the 1976-77 season when his reputation as a batting genius tickled the entrepreneur in Packer. Richards signed without hesitation, “The money was only incidental to a last opportunity to play in the company of world-class cricketers again.”

He played for the WSC World XI, and hence made fewer appearances than the stars and stalwarts from West Indies and Australia. But, it was a confirmation of his stature as the best batsman of the world, even amidst the galaxy of incredible talent.

He started with 57 and 48 at Sydney. And then came the immortal duet of the two Richards at Gloucester Park in Perth.

Barry Richards, who had shaved his experimental beard because it itched under the helmet, first walked out with his Hampshire opening partner Gordon Greenidge. By lunch, Lillee, Gary Gilmour and Max Walker were scratching their heads, sweating under the Western Australian sun. While drives and cuts had thundered from the willow of the Bajan batsman, the South African had more often caressed the ball. But destruction had been written all over the approach. A long day loomed ahead of the Australian rebels.

Richards waited till he was 84 before lofting his first six. In the same over of Ian Chappell’s innocuous leg spin, he reached his century, in 170 minutes. Greenidge got there soon enough, but consumed 30 more deliveries.

Both batsmen were on 114 when Greenidge started hobbling and limped off the ground with the score at 234 without loss. Barry Richards did not need a break. Joining him at the crease was his namesake and the only man on earth who could challenge him for the crown of batting brilliance. Max Walker summed up the situation, “The papers were asking who the best batsman of the world was. Richards or Richards? Black or white? Barry had already got a hundred when Viv got out there and we knew we were not going to get Viv for much less than 200.”

Barry Richards enjoyed batting with Viv. It reminded him of his collaborations with Graeme Pollock. “The main difference was that Graeme was always keen for a single at the end of the over. So, Graeme would try to hit five fours and a single every over. Viv on the other hand tried to hit all six balls for fours.”

But, by the time Viv settled down, Barry was already soaring at the most dazzling height of batsmanship. An hour-and-a-half of enthralling stroke-play followed before the beleaguered Australians trudged back for tea. During that esoteric period, Barry scored 93 to Viv’s 41. The entire period seemed to be traversed without raising a sweat for the batsmen even in that stifling heat. The only time Barry Richards seemed to make an effort was when he ransacked Ray Bright for sixteen from three deliveries. The last ball, his fourth and final six from an on-drive of a kind seldom seen before or since, did look a trifle pre-meditated.

Finally, a miscued lift off Bright landed in Greg Chappell’s hands at deep mid-off, ending Barry Richards’ innings for 207. He had conserved his energies. Just one three had been run in the entire innings, while 28 fours and 4 sixes meant 136 needed no shuttling about across the pitch. After a mere 60 overs, the score was 369 for 1.

As he walked back, the only cause of regret for this sublime Richards and Richards show was that only 3,150 spectators were scattered around the galleries to watch it. Even Packer himself was in Sydney visiting a WSC coaching clinic. The great 296 minutes of batting extravaganza had been witnessed by just a handful of fans. But, those few would never forget what they had witnessed.

According to Clive Rice, “That was just the challenge that Barry needed to bring the very best out of him. The two of them were possibly the best at the time along with Graeme Pollock.”

In the next season there was another great Barry Richards innings, this time in the final of the World Series Supertests. It was a tense, low-scoring game, and after three innings, the highest total from either team stood at 219. WSC World XI needed 224 in the fourth innings. At 84 for 4, Australia had an edge. But, Richards stamped his class and took on Lillee and Gilmour to take them home with an unbeaten 101. Mike Procter with 44 was the second highest scorer for his side considering both innings.

Richards played only 5 Supertests, but he rose supreme among the simmering talent of batsmen. The parallel cricket circuit allowed him a chance to show the world the full extent of his greatness and he proceeded leave his extraordinary mark on that confluence of greatness.

Top batsmen in World Series Supertests


What might have been…

Richards retired from First-Class cricket soon after this triumphant showing, perhaps with the growing realisation that there was little hope for South Africa to come back to the Test fold during his playing days.

There was a brief period of residual magic. In 1984 he came out of retirement to play against the rebel West Indian touring team in South Africa. Trevor Bisseker, author of Giants of South African Cricket,waxes eloquent about a 49 he scored against Sylvester Clarke, Ezra Moseley and Franklyn Stephenson at Newlands: “He held the stadium enthralled for an hour, as he simply carved up everything that was delivered at him. He played with all the time in the world and the decisive quality of a master craftsman at work. Alas the spell was broken. His concentration seemed to snap and the inevitable end came. That innings put Richards into his right perspective. He was the closest thing to an insurance policy against defeat that anybody could take out. Certainly, if somebody had to bat for one’s life, one would choose Richards ahead of the other world greats of the 1970s, and that includes his illustrious West Indian namesake and Graeme Pollock.”

Barry Richards called it a day with 28,358 runs at 54.74. He was an uncanny mix of perfect technique and the ability to go after the bowling mercilessly without bartering safety for speed. According to Robin Jackman, who perhaps bowled against him more than any other bowler, “He was technically perfect, but he still had the ability to really hurt you, whereas others who were technically very good but not as good as Barry — say a Boycott — you never felt were going to hurt you that much. They’d wear you down, hour after hour. But Barry could really turn it on when he felt like it. Sometimes he did it just because he felt like it.”

After retirement, Richards moved into the commentary box, working for the South African Broadcasting Corporation and MNetSupersport. He has since then been a part of the Test Match Special team and has lent his voice to Channel 4 and Five. He also coached South Australia to a Sheffield Shield final before becoming Queensland’s chief executive. It was under Richards that Queensland won the Sheffield Shield for the very first time. He has also served as President of Hampshire and has taken on the odd coaching assignment in the subcontinent.

He has been present on the social media for the last few years, giving the impression of a rather bitter, grumpy man who has not quite made peace with the rather cruel hand dealt to him by fate. A trifle too quick to criticise the modern greats, the modern game, the modern bats … in short anything to do with recent cricket.

The superb art and craft of Richards received full and final endorsement when Don Bradman chose him as the opening batsman alongside Arthur Morris for his representative eleven of the twentieth century. Richards had played only four Tests, but apparently the greatest batsman of all time had seen enough.One cannot help but wonder about the many summits he could have climbed if he was blessed with a full career.