Every now and again, I indulge in a binge fest of Viv Richards. It’s therapeutic. Maybe it was triggered by his 70th birthday on 7 March, but it was such an intense submersion that I felt compelled to write about why Viv Richards resides in my mind as the greatest cricketer.
As I watched clips of matches and read online stories, I came across one I had written for Wisden in 2013 about Brian Lara.
‘[…] Greatness is a spectacular word, wearing a heap of accessories. To admit all the batsmen whose willows have made us weep for joy would be careless.
‘It has to be the aggregation of different elements: stamina, character, ability, spirit, charisma—a broad range that feels impossible to define until, as you mentally collect qualities, an image of Viv Richards comes striding out to meet you from another era, and you just know.’
It was one of five articles by different writers on batsmen who could be defined as great, drawn from a list provided by the publisher. I’ve found those lists too restrictive in their criteria. They tend to be based on statistics, and focus primarily on performances on the field.
Undoubtedly, Viv’s batting records speak eloquently. But for me, what has elevated him is his character. Listening to him over the years, one is struck by words that keep coming up when he describes the forces that drive him. He talks about principles, fairness, respect, integrity: his watchwords.
In the early 1980s, when approached to join the rebel team heading furtively to play in apartheid South Africa, he insists there was no hesitation for him to reject what he considered to be blood money. Up to five years ago, at a riveting session at the Goafest in 2017, he said it was one of the most important decisions he had ever made.
While he has always acknowledged the extremely competitive side of his nature that often led to confrontational stances, he believes in fairness and showing respect for both colleagues and opponents.
He related an episode from when he was 16 that made a deep impression on his approach to the game. Playing for the first time in a first-class match in Antigua and walking out to bat before a large crowd that had come to see this young wonder, he was given out first ball—a decision that might have been dodgy and riled spectators to incendiary heights.
It seemed a fire was started and inside the pavilion as he wondered what should be done, he was advised to return to the crease to calm things down. He returned to the crease and was once again given out for duck.
As he tells it, there was no second innings redemption. Out for a duck again, he wryly admits he must have the record for three ducks in one match.
Viv’s father, Malcolm, had instilled in his three sons his own love for cricket, his quasi-military background drilled into them a disciplined approach to training and a fierce insistence on fair play. Malcolm, an Antiguan who apparently was a fine cricketer, did not have a chance to make it to the West Indies team because, in those days, positions were the preserve of players from the big four: Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad and Guyana.
(Frank Worrell and Tim Hector were two of the main voices pushing for the inclusion of players from the Leeward and Windward islands.)
Malcolm would tell his sons that the only way they could rise was if they believed in themselves. Viv believed.
It could not have been easy, given the environment of the 1970s—a small-islander had to move past black and white dreams into colours of power. For Viv, it was the red, green and gold of the Rastafari movement.
Faced with a constant barrage of racism in England, he developed the fierce, aggressive veneer that became his hallmark. Proud to represent Antigua and the West Indies, his indomitable spirit created an aura of invincibility that made him glow—not like a halo but like a chalice of fire.
Yet, despite his regal stature, Viv remained an unpretentious character. There has been nothing pompous in his bearing. You can see it in the way he mixes easily at every level, always ready to laugh, mischievousness in his eyes, never aloof, and generous with his cricket knowledge.
If he has been regarded as a brusque taskmaster when he was West Indies captain, he has also been a player who led by deed. He has identified Virat Kohli as the player who reminds him most of himself: the energy, the passion, the courage to take on all comers, leading from the front, he said.
Kohli said Viv was one of his childhood idols. In a charming conversation, a bit of a love fest it was, they poured out their mutual admiration: Viv, seated in casual, unassuming majesty, his calloused hands in striking contrast to Kohli’s elegant, manicured fingers—a stark reminder of the two eras of cricket separating them.
Considering the complexity of the man, (he’d told me that people believe he is brash, but he’s had bouts of shyness, and he has his ‘soft spot’, something not generally associated with him) I understood what made him great. It wasn’t purely his magnificent cricket; it was his implacable integrity.
Above all else, Viv Richards is a decent human. The best kind.