One of the great joys of journalism is that it introduces you to many wonderful people, including childhood heroes. As a teenager growing up in cricket-crazy Mumbai in the 70s, one of the first cricket games I distinctly remember watching was the first Test at the Wankhede stadium with the 1974-75 West Indians. They had brought with them many young talents. Among them was a shy man with a ready smile who would eventually become a true knight of the sport: Sir Issac Vivian Alexander Richards.
Having Sir Vivian as a World Cup guest in the studio has been a special moment. He maybe a slightly greying 59, but when he walks in, images of the past come flooding back: of a muscular Richards hooking the fastest bowlers in the world without a helmet, of a gum-chewing genius, of a man who frightened bowlers into submission. In 2000, Wisden rated him as the greatest one-day and third-best Test batsman of all time.
There are many Richards stories one has delighted to. My favourite one is from his authorised biography. Apparently, as a young man from Antigua — a tiny island in the West Indies, smaller than Noida — Richards was having a difficult time adjusting to life in England where he was playing county cricket. The English routine was lights out at 10 pm, with no late night out. The ‘early to bed’ routine wasn’t working, and Richards was struggling with his form. Which is when he decided to break the curfew and party till midnight. The next day, he scored a brilliant hundred. Asked for the secret of his success, he smiled, “You can take me out of the West Indies, you can’t take out the West Indian in me!”
For an entire generation, Richards came to exemplify West Indian dominance in the game. Blessed with a unique constellation of fast bowlers and powerful batsmen, led by the calming influence of Clive Lloyd, the West Indies were unbeaten in all forms of the game for almost two decades. There was, of course, that one little slip-up in 1983 when India scored the biggest upset in World Cup history. Richards hasn’t forgotten it. Or rather, he’s never been allowed to forget it. It was, after all, his ill-advised pull shot that saw Kapil Dev run into the history books with a catch that has been replayed more often than any other moment in the game. Ask him about it today and Richards shrugs it off, “Bad day in the office!” adding with a quiet chuckle, “Remember, favourites in any sport do not have a divine right to win!”
But through the 70s and 80s, the West Indies did win almost every game they played. They were, arguably, the greatest team of all time. Cricket historians have suggested that Bradman’s team of 1948 and the Australians under Steve Waugh were a match for the men from the Caribbean. But the statistics reveal otherwise. Windies between 1976 and 1992 won World Cups and did not lose a Test series. Waugh’s Australians lost in India, while Bradman’s team achieved its primary success in England. But even they couldn’t match the remarkable feat of the West Indians in ‘whitewashing’ the English in consecutive series.
Which is why one of the sadder aspects of this World Cup has been to witness the near-total decline of West Indian cricket. Being crushed by Pakistan in the quarter finals was only the latest act of humiliation. The fact is they haven’t beaten a top flight Test-playing nation in a one-day game in almost two years. The only time one has seen a flash of anger on Sir Viv’s face was when I dared to suggest that the West Indians might have to ‘qualify’ for the World Cup next time. “We still have talent. It’s the mind that can be a problem sometimes!” he said.
Maybe the West Indians aren’t hungry enough to win any more. In his seminal book, Beyond the Boundary, Afro-Trinidadian historian CLR James wrote about how the idea of cricketing success was intrinsically linked to West Indian nationalism in the 1960s, an opportunity for a tiny group of island-nations to compete with the best in the world on even terms. Cricket was a passport to success and social mobility, for an entire people to claim their rightful place in society at a time when colour and race had divided communities.
No one was more conscious of this than Richards. Which is why he must be seen alongside Muhammad Ali as the two most influential sportsmen of their generation. Ali symbolised ‘Black power’, exemplified by his act of throwing his Olympic gold into the Ohio river after being refused service at a whites-only restaurant. Richards, too, had his ‘Ohio’ moment. In 1980, he was offered a huge fee to play in South Africa, enough for him to retire into the sunset. Instead, he publicly denounced apartheid and made it clear that going to South Africa would have meant never being able to face his friends back home in Antigua.
Today, the fire still burns in Richards, even if age has mellowed the man. He would love to see West Indies cricket succeed again as he knows, like any true sports-lover, that cricket without the Caribbean flair will not be quite the same game again. Yes folks, before there was Sachin, there was Sir Viv.
(Rajdeep Sardesai is Editor-in-Chief, IBN 18 Network)
*The views expressed by the author are personal.