Assembly line interviews. That's what we call them. Put a big man in a huge room and let the pack loose.
Interviews at sponsored events become an assembly line of staccato questions fired at a celebrity: journalist after another packing in as much as possible in a fixed time slot. It's a set recipe for a tepid experience. It's like forcing down packaged food even as we are tantalised by the possibility of the gourmet spread possible.
Sir Vivian Richards was in Delhi hawking a brand of coconut water, signing bats for a manufacturer and plugging Hyatt hotel's Gold Passport loyalty programme. We were offered 30 minutes of his time.
Instead of just another Q-A, we thought that the best way to penetrate beyond the mask that most famous people tend to wear - you know the one that has them repeat trite answers to sad questions - was to spin it.
"Bedi saheb, would you consider interviewing Sir Vivian for us?" we flung a wrong 'un at spin legend Bishan Singh Bedi. "Oh, that lovely, lovely man. What a great human being! I would like to consider this," responded Bedi. We were asked to report to his office, the questions were discussed, the logistics figured out and we all trooped to the hotel a day later.
The plan is off to a brilliant start. Richards leaps to embrace Bedi, mimics his bowling action and the two dissolve in a bout of reminiscing and good humour. We start feeling most smug.
In a big hall, the two legends greet one another.
Bedi: Sir Vivian, shall we say welcome home?
Richards: Yes, a home away from home, for sure.
Bedi: You don't look like you have aged much.
Richards: Well, I am not so sure about the looks. Someone said to me 'you look OK Viv', but I tell you I will swap the looks for the feeling any day. (laughs)
HT Aside: The vigorous munching of the gum that was so typically Sir Viv isn't there nor is the distinctive close-cropped hair peeping from under his maroon cap. Instead, he has a shaved pate and the hint of a goatee. The batsman who intimidated bowlers through the mere act of walking out of the pavilion is in person a gentle, warm man. His hands are huge and ours disappeared in them when he gave a mild shake in greeting.
Watch | Bishan Singh Bedi in conversation with Sir Vivian Richards
The two start talking cricket.
Bedi: The state of West Indian cricket today, does that bother you?
Richards: It gives me nightmares, Bish.
Richards: Yeah, it does because I am rather passionate not just maybe about the period of time that I played but because of the folks who went by and the admiration that I had for those individuals. The exploits of Sir Gary Sobers, you know, the three Ws (Clyde Walcott, Frank Worrell and Everton Weekes) and all these great names are iconic with West Indian cricket.
Bedi: Absolutely. Likewise, you too are an icon.
Richards: It is not only about what I have achieved as an individual. Because if it wasn't for them, I don't think I would have been doing an interview here today. Those folks made you believe that you can achieve big things. A little worry is that some of our young individuals do not quite understand the history. . .everyone thinks now must be the greatest time ever. That's a load of total rubbish in my opinion.
Richards: You know, if they had an understanding of what West Indian history was all about, the game as a whole, then they would know about the passion that they can bring to the game and the way this game needs to go -- to compete because of that huge and magnificent tradition we had. And I believe that's lacking. These are some of the things that really get me worked up. I feel we are not making much progress in these matters and it's a concern.
His passion shows through in more ways than his words. Those hands of his are constantly whirling. He clasps them, twirls his thumbs, shoots them out to emphasise a point and spreads them to explain another. They complement the restless feet. Richards sits easy in t-shirt, jeans and white sneakers. But though his feet may no longer be prowling around the crease, he seems unable to keep them still. They do little jigs of their own as he responds to queries.
Bedi quizzes him further about cricket in the West Indies and how it affects the game at a global level.
Bedi: . . .And it should concern the ICC (the International Cricket Council) as much as the West Indian cricket board because West Indies cricket at best is better for world cricket than anything else.
Richards: Thank you so much and coming from you it means a lot. You have been such a great servant of the game yourself because I remember when I first came to India, I was seriously intimidated by the fact that there were four spinners in the team. My father told me: 'Viv, you will never ever become a cricketer unless you go and face these guys and if you can come out smelling sweet you will be OK. And then you go to Australia, and if you can handle the (Dennis Lillee) Lillees and the (Jeff Thomson) Thommos then you will be OK also.' I always looked at my peers with an enormous amount of respect and, as I said earlier, it isn't about what Vivian Richards would have achieved. Vivian Richards was inspired by so many people in life.
Coming back to your question on where West Indies cricket is, I believe they are losing touch with history. They think whatever went by is old. I can only warn them that they too will get old at some point. They keep forgetting that you do not remain as young and as fresh. I warn a lot of these guys also Bish, that it's not the money you make that makes you someone of substance. I am just hoping that they understand that.
Bedi: Money should be secondary. . .
Richards: I am all for the game and the changes that have come and the money that it brings to players who in the past never had that opportunity. I am just hoping that they have some respect for what went by. Because they are also going to be at some point when someone asks, 'who is he?' They better be good enough people. That is what I think that they would be remembered for.
Bedi: I called up Sir Garfield Sobers on his 79th birthday and you know he said 'Bishan, only the living get old,' (both laugh)
Richards: Sir Gary is special, he's special. Sir Frank Worrell, yourself, I have enormous regard and respect for what you all gave to the game. West Indian cricket is all because of you guys and the present lot is missing out on that great legacy.
Everyone now tells me that it is a new breed of individuals we have. The new breed of individuals can be good people too because I would like to think I was OK at the game itself and I had people who I admired big time. Not just thinking of the good time that you have but the old people who were responsible for that. And up to this day, I am very privileged and rather fortunate to have been is such a position.
Bedi: That is what we admire in you. It's your humility.
It is fascinating to hear the two talk. These legends become bigger than life in our heads. Then you meet them and realise that they are like you and us. That's the best bit about these conversations. The great become human.
The two turn their attention to the state of cricket administration.
Bedi: Now if I may ask you, about the ICC. Three nations -- India, England and Australia -- are calling the shots.
Richards: This game needs some proper governance. Governance that is fair enough, equal enough. And it worries me sometimes that there is a lot of favouritism.
There were days when we were beating teams in two-and-a-half, three days. No one ever mentioned putting them in the minnows' category. But because West Indies cricket has fallen on hard times...
These are some of the things I feel very strongly and passionately about. This is such a potent question, about the governing body of the game itself. It's about time that they start looking at the money trail. I may get a lot of lick or sticks from the folks who are in that particular department. But I have no worries. I am only giving you an honest opinion of where I think the issue lies.
Bedi: I too feel very strongly about this... They talk a lot about cleaning up cricket. Cricket was never this dirty.
Richards: It's only when this money came in. It's not just the cricketers who have been identified as corrupt individuals but some of the administrators themselves need to be looked into -- the money trail to their pockets. This is some of the stuff that I worry about. They forget about the governance of the game. They turn a blind eye to some of the stuff that we see taking place at present in this game.
Bedi: They want us to believe that cricket has changed a lot. It's the same 22 yards, the weight of the ball is still the same. . .
Richards: It's spelt the same. . .
Bedi: ...The only things that might have changed, the actors, the directors, the producers, they have changed. The commercial attitude towards the game... I am not sure if it has changed for the better. . .
Richards: Well, we can only hope we give these guys an opportunity. Look at how best we can improve and put West Indies back in the highest tier of the game. We were once there and we just need a little pumping and maybe a few of our administrators need a little kick up the butt every now and then for some of the decisions made and some not made (both laugh).
So if we could get some help in these matters...we still have a great pool of talent in the country, we just need to have a format where most of our guys don't start jumping the gun, running to where the most attraction maybe. They also need to be good at representing their countries.
Bedi: Lloyd is now in the West Indian board. . .
Richards: Clive is part of the board and that is good to see. . .
Bedi: So is Curtly Ambrose
Richards: I love Curtly as an Antiguan and Barbadian as well. Curtly is very passionate and I hope he can drive home the message to the guys. He has been good, he has been pretty solid. . .
Bedi: You think you have a role to play. . .
Richards: I believe so. I am still pretty young at 63. I am still very, very overawed today just to think that folks would want to listen to what Vivian Richards has to say. I am very respectful about these things.
That's most rare coming from a cricketer. We are so used to most Indian cricketers - past, present and future - being so full of themselves that Richards' repeated humble utterances makes us again realise just how poorly most of our guys behave. The reason why this man was great becomes all the more obvious - he stayed grounded even as his career went stratospheric.
Bedi: You know, you were the original panic creator in the opposition dressing rooms? (Laughs) How did you manage to do that?
Richard: I believed in what I did. Even though you had folks out there who you feared... when I first came to this country I had to face four spinners. I can tell you this now in the twilight zone of our lives -- I could not afford to let you guys know then -- I was seriously intimidated as well. I was a nervous wreck, I was seriously intimidated. Why? Because I knew the four spinners --- Bedi, Bhagwat Chandrasekhar, Erapalli Prasanna and Srinivas Venkatraghavan --- that you play were all quality. Any team would try and preserve their new ball. But you guys would roll it making sure that it's roughed up so that you guys could be in the game as early as possible. That to me was one of the most intimidating factors that I had have ever come across in the game. But that made me a better individual. There are times you need to be lucky to survive. Being here at that time, there were so many things that I learned.
Bedi: That made you a better competitor. . .
Richards: Much more so. . .
Bedi: In India as well as in Australia. . .
It's rather incredible, this frank admission by the man. After all, Richards was famous for his swagger and his supposed devil-may-care attitude. Turns out it was all part of him shoring up his defences. He may have strode out as if he owned the field but inside even he had doubts. He too was afraid - just like you and us.
Bedi: And one guy who had helped you was Rudi Webster? (Webster is a pioneer in the field of sports psychology).
Richards: Rudi came at a time when I was getting out in the 30s and 40s. There wasn't any time that I wasn't on a race horse. But there comes a time when you need to pull up and there are times where you have got to stretch out and I was always stretching out all the time. He told me that the management of my game was not all that proper. He told me some psychology stuff on how I could become a better individual, how I could change that psyche of getting out in the 30s and 40s. Rudi did help in a big, big way. The little things that he taught you... we start worrying about too many little things. He taught me to take it just one thing at a time. When there are too many things in your mind that's when you start getting confused. Rudi played a huge part in helping me to overcome such fears.
Bedi: I love it, you acknowledge it... (Rohan) Babulal Kanhai once told me 'you cannot attack indefinitely without tight defence. . .
Richards: I believe in that and I guess coming to India helped me in that way because when you start getting carried away, you self-destruct. My whole philosophy of the game was to keep it as simple as can be and when I say simple, it's about defence. You cannot defend and still look to score runs. At the same time when you are scoring runs or you are looking to attack, it's about attacking. These are the two simplest things I have learnt in the game. When I was on the attack, I was strong enough in the mind to do so and try and dominate as best as I could. When you are defending, defend as immaculately as you can. Very, very simple.
Suddenly Bedi gets up, shakes hands with Richards and starts walking off. Richards is looking as nonplussed as us. He seemed to be enjoying himself. It turns out that Richards' agent has been gesturing in the background to wrap it up. We failed to spot him and Bedi is too much of a gentleman. He doesn't push on despite that being the norm when dealing with these agent types.
It was a shame that the two greats had to stop talking. But we are even more concerned about the fact that our boss will whack our behinds for not getting anything on Indian cricket. From smug to panic is after all a quick fall.
Bedi leaves while we skulk around picking up relevant bits from the subsequent conversations that Richards has to get the Indian angle figured.
Richards has a fondness for silver jewellery. He wears two bracelets on his right while the left has a silver Breitling watch valued at over Rs 4 lakh. A thin silver chain adorns the neck. The best bit? He is not even sure what brand of watch it is and has to peer hard to let us know.
He speaks softly, smiles a lot and doesn't get ruffled when a lady reporter asks him about his colourful life. After all achievers have history to back them, they don't need histrionics.
Perhaps this man was different younger. Perhaps then the aggression oozed. Now, Richards is a laidback guy typical of the Caribbean. "We have 365 beaches (back home in Antigua). I like the beach to relax. I can choose a different one each day of the year!"
While he lounged when speaking to Bedi, he is on the edge of the seat when speaking to the pretty young one who followed. He also smiles a lot, lot more.
This man stays a player.