Richie Richardson: Fastest blade in the Caribbean

ENGLAND : Richie Richardson was known for two things: his maroon sun hat and that brutal cut shot. The arms would whizz in the air, the bat would come down in a blur at the ball; a shot whose reputation was such that backward point fielders would stand a touch deeper.

You would think it would be the most natural shot that he always had but that wasn’t the case. When he was young, Richardson didn’t have a violent bone in his batting. “When I was young, I hardly struck the ball firmly. I would just caress it. It would die at my feet. I had really soft hands,” says that once-young boy from the Five Islands Village, who went on to become a batsman of destructive repute, skipper, manager, guitarist of a local band, match referee and, as he proudly inserts, “a golfer”.

In school, Richie was a shy, self-effacing boy who was bullied around. He was not a regular for the school team as he was considered slow and soft. “They thought I could easily be chickened out. I didn’t do anything to change my image either. They all made fun of defensive batting, though I was proud of it. Growing up my idols were Rohan Kanhai and Alvin Kallicharan, who were not destructive batsmen. I wanted to be a steady batsman who can bat on endlessly,” he says.

It all changed one evening when the cricket coach of his school, Aubrey Stewart, thought it was high time he changed his student. That evening, Richardson recalls, changed his life. “He (Stewart) marked the return crease maybe 15-16 yards from me. He then asked the bowlers to ‘just knock the brains out the boy.’ I was so terrified that I was shaking in my boots. And those days we never had helmets.”

What followed was the most hostile spell of fast bowling he has faced in his life. “I have faced (Malcolm) Marshall, (Joel) Garner and Michael (Holding) in domestic cricket. (Merv) Hughes, (Craig) McDermott and (Bob) Willis too. But I never feared for my life as much as I did that day,” Richardson says. He tried to duck, weave and sway away from the fireballs, but got stuck on his arm, chest and torso. “My cream t-shirt had turned red (with the marks of the cricket ball).”

Then in one angry moment of venting out, he slapped ferociously at a short ball. “I’d never struck a cricket ball harder than that in my entire life. I had shut my eyes when I played the stroke and saw nothing. Even the bowlers said they didn’t see the ball.”

No one saw the ball again. Some of Richardson’s friends said it had sailed over the fence of the school and into the bushes. A shot that made a boy turn into a man.

That day, he learnt how the cut shot can be a weapon of intimidation. “It was a slap on the bowlers’ face. His morale is dented. His ego is hurt. It’s like boxing. It’s like a knockout punch. I came out of the session swaggering with a new perspective towards batting,” Richardson says.

“It became an addiction. Later when I started playing first-class cricket, my coaches had to tell me not to play the strokes. But it was not like I became a good player of the cut overnight, I used to practice the shot 1,000 times a day,” he says.

Richie’s parents were miffed because he dirtied the walls and pounded the ball so hard that it began to crack up. So much so that they had to repair the wall nearly every week, finally prompting his father to clean up the bushes and make a cricket pitch for him. “I was so thrilled and it remained our haunt for several years before we all went different ways.”

By the time Richardson made his first-class debut in 1981 — the year Antigua broke the shackles of British rule, the new nation got its first ground, the Antigua Recreation Ground. Word had spread of an heir apparent to Viv Richards from his own country. On the domestic circuit, he earned the moniker, “fastest blade in the Caribbean”, a reference to his twinkling bat speed.

In two years, Richardson made his Test debut, against India in Mumbai. But he tried too hard and got out for a duck. But just three innings later, he scored his maiden Test hundred, against Australia in Bridgetown, and followed it up with another at the Antigua Recreation Ground in the attendance of his coach. “I played a lot of cut shots that day. I showed I can’t be bullied. I wouldn’t flinch.”

“We will kill you… We will hang you… You gonna die on the pitch, you bad man…” These chants by the infuriated Bridgetown crowd still boom in his ears when he recounts the West Indies versus South Africa Test of 1992, a match so thrilling that it has a standalone value even if one blurs out the socio-political import of the contest.

It’s a multi-layered intrigue. South Africa were playing their first Test after readmission. Many of the locals were still indignant, though Nelson Mandela had become president and the apartheid era had ended. As if that wasn’t reason enough, the Barbadians were unhappy that Richardson succeeded Richards and not the vice-captain during the latter’s tenure, Desmond Haynes, who was a Bajan. They sniffed petty board politics, though the reasons were related purely to his conduct when he was the acting skipper during the series against England.

First, Richardson’s decision to recall England batsman Nasser Hussain when he was unfairly given out, though it was clear that the catch was not taken cleanly during a tour game against Leewards Island, won him a lot of admirers. Secondly, Haynes resorting to sledging in the third Test against England in Trinidad didn’t go down well with the board. Thirdly, they wanted a younger skipper, as Haynes himself was past 35 and nearing retirement. “But these are sensitive issues in the Caribbean and at that time the inter-island rivalry was huge,” he says.

If these two were already reasons enough to stir a storm, the exclusion of Barbados all-rounder Anderson Cummins made the crowd angrier. Richardson walked out to the toss with these threats and chants. “I thought I would be the first person to die on a cricket ground. I thought they will kill me. It was barracking of a different level. What hurt me most was that I was being hurled abuses by my own countrymen. I thought if we lost the Test match, West Indies cricket would fall apart. It was a sensitive juncture in our cricket,” he observes.