“I sniffed the leather on a few occasions, especially in Australia, and it smelled very sweaty. But there was no one who could persuade me to wear a helmet. To my way of thinking, I was going into battle for my country. It was war, and if I was going to die for the cause then so be it. The fear of failure and losing was much stronger than the fear of being hurt.....” Sir Vivian Richards.
Viv ‘Smoking Joe’ Richards’ titanic battles with Australia’s firebrand fast bowlers, Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson between 1975-1982 and the 1977-79 Kerry Packer World Series were nothing short of an all-out war to prove individual superiority and dominance.
On his first tour of Australia in 1975-76, the West Indies were mauled 5-1 as Lillee and Thomson (a total bag of 56 wickets) inflicted several serious body injuries on the West Indies batsmen. In Sydney, Bernard Julien’s right thumb was fractured by Thomson, in Perth, Alvin Kallicharran’s nose was broken by Lillee.
They also gave Richards a torrid time, Lillee dismissing him five times and Thomson three times including smashing him in the box and hitting him in the jaw.
Clive Lloyd once said, “there is no batsman on earth who goes out to meet Lillee or Thomson with a smile.”
In his autobiography, Richards declares, “he (Lillee) was the most dangerous fast bowler I have ever faced.”
Viv drew swords with either Lillee or Thomson in ensuing series up to 1982. One can say that the results were even but many times the ‘kangaroo’ duo felt the full force of Richards’ flashing blade.
I quote the cricket books Number One and Letting Rip by Simon Wilde, “When next they met in meaningful contests, he greeted them with withering strokeplay. He came across Lillee in a Packer Supertest in December 1977 at Melbourne. Richards played dazzingly for 79 and 56 including a spell in the first innings in which he hooked Lillee for six just in front of square, drove him off the back foot for four and then square cut him for another four.”
Lillee finished the match wicket-less, his 36 overs costing 177 runs.
Three months later at Kensington Oval in Barbados, Richards and Jeff ‘Eye of the Tornado’ Thomson clashed head-on – in the WI first innings Thomson was bowling lightning quick, Gordon Greenidge was gone for eight (caught via the glove off Thomson) and Richards came in the third over with about an hour to go before the close of the first day’s play.
A cricketing drama was about to unfold on the sun-splashed island of Barbados. Richards and Thomson were engaged in a world heavyweight boxing championship match – on a cricket field. I again quote excerpts of Letting Rip by Simon Wilde:
“Richards could not wait until morning, he had to take on Thomson now. Even though Thomson struck him on the body with a steeply rising ball, he produced some streaks of pure gold: he drove Thomson off the backfoot over mid-off for four: hooked him for six through midwicket: hooked him for four: lifted him overhead for another four: Richards was trying to smash everything out of sight, Thomson started to bowl no-balls. Then off the last delivery of a nine-ball over which had cost 19 runs, Richards top-edged another wild hook and was brilliantly caught by Wayne Clark down by his ankles at long leg for 23. Was this the most dramatic encounter between a batsman and fast bowler of modern times? Show me one better!”
In his next Test series against Australia (1979-80) in Australia, Richards dominated Lillee and Thomson with scores of 140, 96, 76 and 74 in the three-Test series as WI won their first ever Test series in Australia by a 2-0 margin. The deadly West Indian pace quartet of Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, Joel Garner and Colin Croft decimated Australia capturing 55 out of the 56 Australian wickets to fall.
Richards’ average in this Test series was a celestial 96.5 and as former Jamaica Prime Minister Michael Manley states in A History of West Indies Cricket, “it was more the manner of his making his runs which enthralled the tens of thousands of spectators who saw him bat at this point in his career.
The absolute assurance, the power, the refusal to be contained, the capacity to dominate any attack all set him apart.”
Viv Richards retired from Test cricket in 1991; but some critics argued he should have retired at the age of 37 after the WI triumphant tour of Australia in 1988-89. In three of his last four Test series he averaged less than 30.
There is no iota of doubt however, that at his peak (1974-86), Viv Richards was the most dominant and most feared batsman in international cricket.
On March 10 2015, another historic accolade was attributed to Viv Richards – he was crowned the greatest-ever One Day cricketer by a jury of 50 eminent players, commentators and writers assembled by the Cricket Monthly – a digital cricket magazine owned by ESPNCricinfo, the world’s leading cricket website.