When Sir Vivian Richards took the English attack to the cleaners….
St Johns Antigua April 1986 – England limps into town quietly, dragging their injured limbs, shattered pride tailing in their wake.
After four humiliating encounters, it would be prevarication if anyone were to say there is hope in their eyes. All that could be said is there is some measure of satisfaction that they have managed to keep the most destructive batsman in the world quiet through the series.
Vivian Issac Richards had passed 20 in each of his previous five innings in the series without going on to make a hundred. Some small recompense from a series that skipper David Gower wanted to forget the minute he opened the first beer on the flight back.
Fate, however, had the last laugh in reserve.
It is rare to find batsmen about whom one can say that their impact on the game was greater than the sheer weight of the numbers they achieved. Notwithstanding the misplaced ire of self-styled statistics gurus, there is no doubt that Richards would be just such a candidate.
It started with the swagger of the rump swaying walk to the wicket and the sheer presence once he got there. It went up a notch with the lazy elegance of the stance transforming dramatically into a brutal despatch of the cherry into the sightscreen while the bowler was still completing his follow through. The gum chewing smile at the hapless bowler completed the effect. Vivian Richards had arrived.
Back in Antigua, skipper Gower was well aware of some facts.In 1986, Richards was at the peak of his prowess. In 92 Tests between 1976 and 1988, he would score 22 hundreds and would be the only batsman to average more than 55 (among those who scored more than 4000). Let us not forget that this was an era when several all-time greats were around – Greg Chappell, Allan Border, Sunil Gavaskar and Javed Miandad.
What made Gower wince every time he thought about it, was that Richards had always saved his best for England, against whom he scored 2869 runs at an average of over 62 with eight centuries. Among those who scored at least 2000 runs against England, only Don Bradman had a higher average.
A masterful display by the ‘Master Blaster’
West Indies had piled on 474 in the first innings. Desmond Haynes had anchored the innings with a patient 131 compiled in seven and a half hours. The total looked healthy finally because the West Indian bowlers, Holding, Marshall and all-rounder Roger Harper had stayed around to frustrate the English seam bowlers led by Ian Botham in conditions where they were unable to move the ball around. England responded with 310, a total that would have been embarrassing but for a captain’s knock of 90 from Gower.
The hosts set about quickly accruing what they hoped would be a winning total during day four of this fifth Test at the Antigua Recreation Ground. The England bowlers had only one aim – slow down the pace and hence the inevitable declaration. Preventing a clean series sweep was the main target.
Such was the situation when Viv Richards entered the fray a little before tea. What followed would be sheer carnage.
The 50 came in 35 balls. It had been a sedate start by Richards’ standards. Then, Ian Botham, a great friend of Richards and a Somerset colleague, made a huge tactical mistake. He attempted to bounce him out.
Sixes flew in all directions: one smashed a bottle of rum in the grandstand, another flew out of the ground into the adjacent prison. Scyld Berry would say years later about Richards’ innings: “If there was any elements of doubt in his innings, it was whether he would hit a four or a six.” Richards reached 103 in 56 balls, then added a further six and a single. John Emburey, one of the unfortunate England bowlers put to the slaughter, described it as “the biggest carnage I have seen in such a short space of time in any first-class game”. West Indies would win by 240 runs and complete a 5-0 sweep.
The Wisden Almanack would report: “Richards’s display, making him the obvious candidate for the match award, would have been staggering at any level of cricket, what made it unforgettable for the 5,000 or so lucky enough to see it was that he scored it without blemish at a time when England’s sole aim was to make run-scoring as difficult as possible to delay a declaration. Botham and Emburey never had fewer than six men on the boundary and sometimes nine, yet whatever length or line they bowled, Richards had a stroke for it.”
The 56-ball century would continue to be the fastest hundred in Test cricket for 31-years until Brendon McCullum, playing the last Test match of his life in February 2016, would achieve it two deliveries earlier.
As magnanimous in person, as he was magnificent at the wicket, Viv Richards message to McCullum would read: “If there was going to be an individual who you would’ve liked to have surpassed whatever you would’ve achieved in life, certainly it would be you. You’re one of those individuals who help to put bums on seats. Long may that continue. Well done, man.”