The Original Master Blaster
Tuesday 23 September will see the Lord's Taverners pay tribute to one of the greatest players to ever play the game of cricket, Sir Vivian Richards, on what promises to be a huge fundraising night for the charity. As you may have seen, our latest issue of the Long Room magazine conatined a feature on the great man with a few anecdotes from West Indian broadcast legend Tony Cozier. Read on to see the article in full:
Some of the greats of West Indian cricket will come together on 23 September to pay tribute to Sir Vivian Richards.
Sir Vivian Richards is coming home. Not ‘home’ in the strictest sense of the word – that will always be his native Antigua and Barbuda – but to the Home of Cricket. Thirty-five years after his imperious 138 not out crushed England’s hopes of winning the World Cup final, the West Indian great will be the toast of Lord’s once again at the Lord’s Taverners Dinner Honouring Sir Vivian Richards.
As well as that man-of-the-match performance in 1979, Richards treated spectators at the famous old ground to a treasure chest of memories throughout an unforgettable career, including a blistering 145 from 159 balls in his first Test innings there in 1980. Even when he wasn’t shining with the bat, he was still influencing the outcome of matches, running out three of Australia’s top four in the 1975 World Cup final at Lord’s.
It was a time when the West Indies ruled the cricketing world – helped in no small part by Richards – and many of his team-mates who played a part in that domination will also be at Lord’s on 23 September. Opening batsmen Desmond Haynes and Gordon Greenidge and fearsome fast-bowling duo Sir Andy Roberts and Joel Garner will all pay tribute to their former team-mate. Each is a revered figure in Caribbean cricket, yet of all the illustrious guests it is Richards who stands tallest. Not literally, of course – Garner, the 6ft 8in giant nicknamed ‘Big Bird’, edges it in the height stakes – but for his sheer presence.
When asked to pick one characteristic that separates him from other cricketers, veteran cricket commentator and writer Tony Cozier points to that very trait without hesitation. “He had a special aura about him,” says Cozier, who will also be attending the event. “He had the build of a champion heavyweight champion – he was once nicknamed ‘Smokin’ Joe’ after Joe Frazier. He came onto the field with a swagger. He almost intimidated the bowlers before he got to the crease.”
There have been few more iconic sights in cricket than the Richards walk to the crease. Wearing the famous maroon cap (always a cap, never a helmet), the burly batsman would stride with purpose to the middle, head held high, often swinging his bat in his right hand, chewing gum every step of the way. It was compelling viewing and enough to make opposition bowlers conjure up a mystery new injury that prevented them straying from third man.
It was all part of the package that made up the ‘Master Blaster’, as he became known (India’s Sachin Tendulkar was later given the same nickname). Not only would he flog the bowlers all over the ground, Richards saw it as his duty to make sure they knew who was in charge. And when an opponent was bold enough to fight fire with fire, the results could be spectacular.
Cozier recalls the time in the 1979/80 series against Australia when Rodney Hogg hit Richards on the head with a bouncer: “Richards got treatment from the physio and after he had given him the nod to say he was ok, Hogg came in to bowl again. He bowled a bouncer and Richards hit it probably five or six rows back in the stands.
“Everyone knew it was coming. They knew Hogg would bowl another bouncer the very next ball. They knew Richards would attack it and take it on. And they knew the ball would end up five or six rows back.”
The message was undeniable: Don’t mess with Viv – and Hogg was reminded of it again and again over the next six overs as the batsman blasted him to all corners of the MCG.
Such was his competitive spirit – Cozier covered almost his entire international career and cannot remember a more fierce competitor – that it is easy to take Richards’s batting ability for granted. Yet on his day, there was no batsman more devastating, no one more able to turn a match on its head.
Lest we forget, this was a player voted one of Wisden’s five best cricketers of the last century. An average of over 50 in his 121 Tests, which would have been even higher had he been more precious about protecting his wicket, doesn’t tell the whole story. Perhaps it is better to focus on standout moments, such as the astonishing unbeaten 189 in a one-day international against England at Old Trafford, or the whirlwind 56-ball century (once again at England’s expense) in 1986 which remains the fastest ever Test hundred.
An inspirational figure who was the rock of the middle order, Richards was the obvious choice to succeed Clive Lloyd as captain in 1985. He went on to make history, becoming the first West Indian skipper never to lose a Test series – even though the team’s powers were on the wane in the years leading up to his retirement in 1991.
“I think he certainly inspired others in the team,” says Cozier who admits he often bores his wife by talking at length about Richards and the West Indies sides of that era. “During his time towards the end as the team was declining in strength, he kept it up really by intimidation – against the opposition and of his own players as well. If they didn’t live up to the standards that he had set himself, he let them know.
“In a one-day match in Australia at the MCG, a chap called Richard Gabriel was on the boundary and misfielded a couple of balls. Richards moved him around and said, “Move back, move back, move back” until he had sent him off the field.”
That legendary intimidation wasn’t only restricted to events inside the boundary ropes. As the West Indies took the field for the second day of the final Test of their 1989/90 series against England in Antigua, Richards was nowhere to be seen. Instead of leading his team onto the field, he was on his way up to the press box to confront a reporter for the Daily Express.
“James Lawton had written something about him that he didn’t like,” Cozier reveals. “He came upstairs into the press box, and everyone in the press box was in utter silence.
“He was standing up for his side, of course. If there was any sort of putting down of his team or the West Indies, he wouldn’t take that lightly at all.”
Cozier quickly learned his own methods for handling his relationship with the skipper. “If I had written something which I thought was mildly critical of him, I’d keep my distance or I’d miss breakfast the next morning,” says the commentator, who explained that the pair are now good friends. “He always greets me and my wife, and he’s close to my son who is also in television and produces cricket for television.
“But of course he’s not playing, so I don’t write anything critical about him now!”