Richie Richardson - one of the best of his day

Richie Richardson, born January 12, 1962, was one of the most stylish batsmen in world cricket. And in spite of never quite emerging from the enormous shadow of his Antiguan senior Viv Richards, he was the most successful West Indian batsman during the late eighties and the early nineties and, for a while, the best in the world. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the life and career of the man who walked to the crease for most of his career under the famous maroon sun hat.

 Great in the shadow

Walking in the shadow of the great Viv Richards was inevitable for a batsman making it into the supreme West Indian side of the 1980s. It was also the curious working of fate that endowed Richardson with a surname that accentuated that shadow, making it loom over him almost as a makeshift genealogical appendage.

The burden of the last name, along with a shy and diffident demeanour that dogged his heels off the ground, ensured that Richie Richardson would never quite shake off the fetters of comparison and be spoken of as a splendid performer in his own right.

Richardson’s name seldom appears in discussions dealing with the electrifying great batsmen of Caribbean cricket. When great names filter in, from George Headley to Frank Worrell, Clyde Walcott and Everton Weekes, from Garry Sobers and Rohan Kanhai, to Gordon Greenidge, Desmond Haynes, Clive Lloyd and Viv Richards and finally to Brian Lara and Shivnarine Chanderpaul, this Antiguan batsman is normally relegated to a glorified footnote. He becomes someone who passed the baton from Richards to Lara as a makeshift delegate of greatness appointed by proxy.

The truth is far different. During his era, Richardson was a splendid strokeplayer and often the best batsman of the world.

In March 1991, when he blasted 182 against Australia at Bourda, including 106 in a single session, Ian Chappell called it the greatest exhibition of square driving since the days of Everton Weekes.When he toured England later that year, he was acknowledged in the knowledgeable circles as the best batsman on hard wickets, while yet to prove himself on the softer surfaces of the old country. And he amassed 495 runs in the five Tests with two hundreds and an impeccable 104 at Edgbaston that demonstrated to the world that he really had few peers in any corner of the world. He was named as one of the Wisden Cricketers of 1992.

It had already been a couple of years since he had knocked Dilip Vengsarkar off the top spot on the Deloitte’s world ranking for batsmen. He had got to the peak in November 1989. And till 1993, he remained right up there, shuttling between number one and two, in a balanced tussle for the batting crown with Graham Gooch.

Curiously, while his career and reputation never quite emerged from the august overshadowing presence of Richards, during the eight years that they shared the cricket field, Richardson’s performance was considerably better. In some ways, the comparison is unfair because it puts the last sad phase of the career of the great man into the equation while for his protégé it was by and large the best part of his journey. But, the fact remains that even in the presence of Greenidge, Haynes and the great Richards, Richardson was, for a considerable period, the best batsman of West Indies.

Top Test batsmen for West Indies during the 1983-1991 period when the careers of Richards and Richardson overlapped

Under his maroon sunhat, Richardson at the crease was often a delightful sight. There was uninhibited strokeplay, when in the traditional Caribbean manner he tended to throw everything into the shots. There was supreme determination as well, evident from the 99 he got against India at the Port of Spain in 1988-89, batting with a broken finger. He could be electrifying on occasions, as was evident at Guyana when he went on a rampage against the Australians in 1991, scoring 106 in a session. (Later he told Cricketcountry, “For some reason, whenever I go to Guyana, I always used to feel good about myself. I used to drink a lot of coconut water in Guyana, that sort of like freed me up”).

And he was one of the rare players of his generation to forsake a helmet.

Yet, history and memory have been rather unkind to him. He is remembered mostly as the West Indian captain who became the first to lose a series after a decade and a half of undisputed domination.And then he was the skipper when his team suffered that humiliating defeat to Kenya in a World Cup encounter. And as a batsman, he is often looked at as a part-time pretender on the West Indian batting throne between the eras of Richards and Lara.

From defence to attack

Born in the Five Islands Village, Antigua, Richardson started with tennis ball cricket and progressed to bat at No 4 for Ottos Comprehensive School. He also captained the side. In contrast to his exciting batting style of the later years, he was a dour defensive batsman in his schooldays who never managed a hundred. It had much to do with the school championships of Antigua, where each side played two innings during the course of one day.

But, even through all these factors, his talent was spotted by coach Guy Yearwood. His defence was tightened further and strokes were added on the foundation. To add horizontal batted strokes to his arsenal, Yearwood instructed bowlers never to pitch anything up to him. It worked. Soon he was breaking branches of the nearby trees with his hookshots.

Richardson started as an opening batsman for the Leeward Islands. And it was quite early in his career that realisation dawned on him that as long as four fast bowlers took turns to pelt him with relentless short pitched stuff, scoring runs in a conventional manner was always going to be tough. The square boundaries were short, and he learnt the effectiveness of the hook-shot.

However, in spite of his batsmanship entering this adventurous realm, he forsook the helmet. According to an interview given to Cricketcountry, “Maybe, it was a bit crazy. To be honest, when I was playing as a youth, there were no helmets available, so I wasn’t exposed to it. Actually, when the helmet was introduced, I felt very uncomfortable. Even fielding close to the bat with the helmet on, I felt very very vulnerable. I said, I am going to back myself, back my eyesight and instinct and continue without the helmet.”

He also did not use the chest protector.

Stolen bags and the top league

It was in 1983 that he made it into the West Indies team to tour India. There had been a small migration of some players for the South African rebel tour and Richardson had scored a big century in the domestic competition. The young man was chosen as the backup opener to Greenidge and Haynes.

“It was like walking into a heaven of stars,” he says. With the side brimming with several all-time greats, it was indeed an unbelievable experience for a man from one of the smaller islands. But, in reality the tour did not really get to a very pleasant start for this 21-year-old rookie. He had part of his luggage stolen and lost most of his clothes. According to fellow Antiguan Andy Roberts, “He travelled for two weeks with hardly any clothes, and the management did hardly anything about it.”

While rubbing shoulders with Lloyd, Richards, Greenidge, Malcolm Marshall, Michael Holding and the rest was a heady experience, the young man found himself ignored at the nets. Again according to Roberts, “Our batting order was: Greenidge, Haynes, Richards, (Larry) Gomes, Lloyd and (Jeff) Dujon. Richie was the third opener. He would come only after the bowlers had finished batting. He would have part-timers bowling to him. It was unfair to the young man to bat after the bowlers, and also, importantly, it was wrong for him to know he was not in the playing XI the day before the Test. I told him I would bowl at him to make sure he got some proper practice.”

Richardson made his Test debut at Bombay, as a replacement for Gus Logie who had bagged a pair at Ahmedabad. He walked in at the fall of the first wicket with Shivlal Yadav in operation. He hit the second ball onto his pad and an orchestrated appeal by the close in fielders saw the umpire raising his finger. He walked back for a duck, forlorn but not sullen. Later he laughed it off in an interview given to The Barbados Nation. “It was another one of those decisions. The ball hit the middle of the bat and I could not believe the umpire gave me (out).”

Richardson was born with this gift of sportsmanship. He indulged neither in dissent nor showmanship. He stood in the slips most of his career, but appealed only when he was certain. Fairness was built into him, partly by his thoroughly religious upbringing.

Runs around the world

Richardson took three Tests to settle down at No 3 and make the adjustments needed to take his game to the next level. In his fourth, he hit an unbeaten 131 against Australia at Bridgetown. And he followed it up with 154 on his home ground of St John’s.

And when West Indies visited Australia in late 1984, he hit 138 in Brisbane. The series was curious for the batsman, with a hundred, a fifty, a duck and five additional single digit scores. However, he had shown that he could make runs in different conditions.

As he matured, runs came more regularly, with big centuries at home against New Zealand in 1985-85 and England in 1985-86. His tours to New Zealand, England and the sub-continent remained rather ordinary. He never quite succeeded in the sub-continent in his career.But, in 1988-89 he hammered two hundreds in Australia, with few failures this time.

And when India visited immediately after that, he started the series with 194 at Georgetown, and ended it with 156 in Kingston, in between scoring that gritty 99 with a broken finger on an extremely difficult wicket at Port of Spain.

Talking to Cricketcountry about the Port-of-Spain innings, he said, “It was very difficult because I had a fractured finger and I didn’t think I would have played that game. Viv was captain at the time and said, ‘Look you are in good nick. I want you to play.” I said, ‘If you want me to play, I will play.’ I was in a lot of pain and every time the ball hit the bat, I was in serious pain. But, I was playing for West Indies and always saw myself as a soldier. I saw the opportunity. The wicket was bad, one of the worst wickets I have played a Test match on. The ball was doing all sorts and was unpredictable. I went out there with very little hope that I would score runs. When I started paying attention, I was like wow! 80s, here is an opportunity to get a hundred. I started working a bit harder. I got out to a delivery when I was on 99, which to this day I don’t understand what happened to that delivery. I thought I had it covered, but it went on the ground and bowled me. It was very difficult on that wicket to face guys like Kapil Dev, Chetan Sharma and the spinners. I rate that innings very highly. There wasn’t pressure, but I had to apply myself and play according to circumstances.”

Further dimensions to his game had developed by now. He had become one of the best slip fielders of the world. His catch of Maninder Singh in the Bombay Test of 1987-88 won the newly established Classic Catches award for the season. This writer remembers Richardson flying across from second slip, in a spectacular full stretch, a foot and a half from the ground, latching on to the ball with both his hands. Amidst that formidable cordon which also included Richards and Roger Harper, he looked a perfect natural. Again, the truth is somewhat different. The skill was added through hard work and plenty of effort.

“It wasn’t easy because I never really fielded in the slips before as a youngster. It was something new to me. We went to Australia one year and some of our slip fielders got injured. We were playing against South Australia and I think Clive Lloyd asked me to come to the slips and I took a couple of catches. I went into a Test match there and jumped for my first catch because I didn’t know what technique to use. Clive Lloyd was really angry. I thought, I got to lift myself up and I quickly made amends and started catching really everything that came my way. It is something I developed. I studied catching and applied the techniques different to most people and worked for me. I was able to dive forward and take catches. I used to study our bowlers, I could see exactly what they were doing and read their plans. I could anticipate catches and was always ready, especially off Malcolm Marshall. I knew he was setting batsmen up. It wasn’t easy as the ball was coming at rapid pace. When you play at the highest level, you got to rise to the occasion and do what it takes to perform.”

Soon, another aspect of his game came to the fore. On the first day of the 1989-90 domestic season, Richards broke a finger. And Richardson took over the reins of Leeward Islands. The veteran legend did not return till the final game and by then the team had already claimed their first title in the history of the Red Stripe Cup. Not only was it a statement for his captaincy, Richardson also led the table of top batsmen in the tournament with 421 runs at 70.16. 

At the helm

He had impressed the selectors enough. After the superb England tour of 1991, Richardson was acknowledged as a batting great and the right man to take over from an aging Richards. Perhaps it would have been politically prudent to appoint the Bajan Haynes as a stop gap skipper before the reins passed on from Richards to another Antiguan. Richards himself had publicly expressed that Haynes was the right man for the job. But according to the men who mattered, the 29-year-old batsman seemed ready enough. Richardson had just invested in a duty-free shop and a sports store in St John’s Bay when he was named captain. He led the team to the World Cup campaign in Australia.

The ordinary showing by the team in the competition did not really help matters. Richardson had to face quite a few problems in the West Indies. When he supported the board in their decision to drop the iconic Richards, he courted unpopularity in Antigua. The pressures were tremendous. Besides, leading West Indies is not an easy task in the best of times. It was a team in transition with plenty of great players retiring together.

According to Richardson: “It is never easy when you are captaining the side, particularly in a West Indies team where players are from different islands. There are different cultures and different ways of doing things. It wasn’t easy and when I took over as captain, we had lost a number of great players. So, it was like we were building. It was very difficult for me, but a great experience. I learnt a lot from the players, how to manage players and I have no regrets.”

He led for the first time in the longer formatin the historic first ever Test between South Africa and West Indies at Barbados. It ended in a tense win for the hosts.

In spite of the spate of departures, there were men ready to carry the team into the next phase. Courtney Walsh and Curtly Ambrose formed a fearsome combination with the new ball. Ian Bishop, when fit, was a formidable proposition. Brian Lara announced himself as an all-time great with 277 at Sydney and followed it up with 375 at Antigua.

Richardson batted well during the hard earned series win in Australia in 1992-93, but after that his form fell away. West Indies did continue to win, but the captain’s prolific bat had turned somewhat unproductive. 

The last days

The defining blow came in the spring of 1995, when Mark Taylor’s Australians famously stopped the West Indian juggernaut by clinching the keenly contested series 2-1. Richardson led the side well, his role especially important when the showdown between Ambrose and Steve Waugh threatened to turn nasty. He also went up the order, opening the innings, leading the way for the young batting side. He even got an excellent hundred in the final Test at Kingston. But finally Australia emerged the victors and West Indies lost a series after 15 years. Richardson’s reign would be forever tainted by this dark spot.

During this series, he was also booed at his home ground when for the first time in his international career he came out to bat wearing a helmet.

The series in England that followed in the summer was a stalemate, and the West Indian public back home, long used to uninterrupted success, turned their ire on him. “Every day was stressful, everybody wanted a piece of you and I had no time for myself,” Richardson recalled later.

The World Cup in 1996, jointly hosted by India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, proved to be the last straw. In the group stages the West Indies suffered a shock defeat at the hands of Kenya. There was furore back home, withthe Caribbean press and public predictably calling for the head of the captain.

However, Brian Lara’s brilliance against South Africa in the Quarter Final ensured a spot in the semis. At Mohali, the West Indians had the Australians struggling at 15 for four at one stage, but Mark Taylor’s men recovered to a not too intimidating 207. At the end of 41 overs, West Indies were 165 for two, with 42 to win at 4.66 and eight wickets in hand. Richardson was at the crease with Chanderpaul.  And from there the side collapsed to 202 all out, with the captain looking on helplessly from the other end, ending with 49 not out.

“I honestly thought that we could have won the World Cup. I felt let down by some of the players on that tour. We really should not have lost the match against Australia. I was just really really frustrated,” he confessed to Cricketcountry.

Richardson resigned from captaincy and retired from all forms of cricket after the tournament.  He was just 33.

“I was losing the passion for the game. I had to wake up in the morning and it had become like a chore. I was still getting up and doing what I had to do, working harder, training harder, but it was difficult. And there were a few other things happening behind the scenes in West Indies cricket that was really frustrating me.” He was also suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome and needed to get away from the game.

At the time of his retirement he had 5949 runs from 86 Tests at 44.39 with 16 hundreds. He also held 90 catches, especially in the slips. He was not too concerned about retiring just 51 runs away from 6000 Test aggregate either. According to him: “When I played, I never looked at stats. When I played for school and combined schools, my coach used to say, ‘Never go and look at the scorebook. Make sure you do well enough for your team to win. When you look at the scorebook, you look at your score and become a selfish player.’ I bought into that and my goal was to play for the West Indies and do well and win matches. It would have been nice (to have those runs) but at the end of the day, I was playing for my team.”

In 224 One Day Internationals, Richardson scored 6248 runs at 33.41 with five hundreds.

As a captain, as mentioned, he is remembered for the series loss to Australia, and two unsuccessful World Cup campaigns. However, he did win 11 and lost just six of the Tests he led — including three series wins to counterbalance that one loss. In ODIs he had a decent 46-36 win-loss record.

Big Bad Dread and the Baldhead

After retirement, Richardson turned down offers of becoming a commentator. His cricket remained limited to the occasional beach knockabout, and captaining Kent-based invitational side Lashings in charity games.

He turned to music for comfort, watching very few cricket matches in the years following his retirement. In 2001, together with fellow Antiguan Curtly Ambrose, he re-formed a reggae band called Big Bad Dread and the Baldhead. Ambrose handled the bass guitar while Richardson the rhythm. The band has released several albums.

In an interview given to BBC in 2007, Richardson said: “We had a party in Antigua for Curtly and Courtney, and the former Dread and the Bald Head were there. Curtly and I made an appearance with them and we had fun and decided to reform the band when it broke up.”

However, in 2011, the West Indian board offered him the job of the manager of the cricket team. Richardson accepted and came back to the thick of things. The journey since then has been as troubled as his last days of captaincy, with West Indian cricket going through one of its lowest phases. Yet, there is hardly a man more qualified to guide them through these difficult times.