“In an era where batting was as difficult as bowling is today, Richards brushed aside records and runs with the same effortlessness as his cover drives”.
“I am convinced he could have rewritten the record books, and rewritten them with a style and grace matched by precious few players in the history of the game.”
Tony Grieg had profusely praised South African great and possibly the most underrated player in the history of cricket, Barry Richards. It was unanimously agreed by ardent cricket fans that Richards was a complete batsman – a rare amalgamation of the flair of Brian Lara, the class of Sachin Tendulkar, the flamboyance of David Gower and the elan of Don Bradman.
Sadly for World cricket, Richards played a meagre 4 Tests after which apartheid problems in the country saw the greatest talent in cricket restricted first-class cricket.
Such was his authority at the crease that even Don Bradman was impressed by what he saw and picked him as an opener in his all-time Test XI. Even in the four Tests that he managed to play, Richards left a solid impression, scoring a whopping 508 runs against Australia at an average of 72.57 including two centuries.
However, there is very little left of what was vouched for as some of the best batsmanship in the history of cricket by the handful who did get to see him in action before their eyes. Except for a few blurred out videos of his first-class exploits for Hampshire, there is nothing left for the present generation to learn by watching his videos.
For 22 long years, South Africa remained banned from International cricket. It not only deprived the World of some outrageous group of players but also denied them the genius of Barry Richards in particular. Had he got an opportunity to play Test cricket, there is no doubting that his name would have come up in the same breath as that of Bradman. Such was his demeanour as batsman. Such as was his aura as a cricketer. No memory of Richards can be recalled without a pinch of regret and melancholy.
28,358 runs with 80 centuries and 152 fifties in first-class cricket make him one of the most successful batsman in the history of first-class cricket but more than numbers it is his languid style of batting and sheer dominance at the crease that set him apart from his contemporaries.
His batting technique was nearly flawless. With a blend of perfect balance, exceptional footwork and a wide array of strokes, Richards was an institution in the art of batting.
One knock that stands out from the torn pages of his batting history is a gritty knock in Southampton as wickets fell in clusters around him. While batsmen struggled to put the bat on ball, Richards was imposing, almost unaware of how difficult batting was on the surface.
Years earlier, when he was first seen in the nets of Pretoria, Richards was equally expressive and sublime. What stands out is the manner in which he evolved. During times when the condition of the pitch was constantly changing, Richards compensated for it with outstanding footwork that he kept changing based on the pitch.
“They had more fielders in the leg side then. When I started playing one-day internationals, there was no restriction on the number of people in the leg side. You could have eight on the leg side if you wanted to. There was no restriction on wides either. Underwood would bowl two feet down the leg side and that wouldn’t be called a wide. To counteract that you had to do things differently. You have the help of the rules and umpires to call that today, but before, you didn’t and so you had to manufacture [shots],” Richards says in an interview referring to a section in the book on him, Sundial in the Shade, written by his Hampshire colleague, Andrew Murtagh.
Manufacturing shots were unheard of in that era, unlike today. He was in every sense of the word a modern opener; one who believed that every defensive stroke can be played in an attacking manner. He toyed mercilessly with bowlers and forced them to bowl to his strengths. One prime example of Richards’ ability to evolve his gameplay according to the conditions and bowlers is the manner in which he countered Johnny Gleeson, the mystery spinner from Australia, in his debut Test series.
While most batsmen took four Tests to really figure out Gleeson, who could bowl both leg-spin and off-spin effortlessly, Richards barely took half an hour – it was a leg-break if you could spot the thumb and finger and it was an off-break if Gleeson’s index finger was perched above the ball.
He kept improvising on his technique, on his batting style and spent hours at the nets. His awareness that batting was evolving and you need to evolve with it made him a legend in every sense of the word. He didn’t have to hunt down greatness; it found him despite his scarce appearance at the biggest stage.
In the 1970/71 Sheffield Shield season, Richards averaged a staggering 109.86 that helped South Australia win the Shield. In the season his outrageous talent hit a peak and he hammered 325 runs in a day’s play (he would eventually make 356) against Western Australia in one of the fastest grounds in the World, Perth.
Opposition, conditions, nothing mattered when Richards was in the mood. He often was. Runs flowed from his bat and his appetite for them never deserted him in his entire career. He was all about thinking big and executing it perfectly and quickly.
“When people are talking about batsmen of the past, they look at the stats first of all. It is very seldom that you get a mention. But it is nice that your peers, who played the game, people revered in the game, have chosen you even though you had played so few Tests. It compensates in some way for the fact that I didn’t play 100 Test matches like Gordon Greenidge, with whom I opened a lot,” Richards once said in an interview when asked about how it felt to be in the all-time XIs of Don Bradman and Dickie Bird.
In an era where batting was as difficult as bowling is today, Richards brushed aside records and runs with the same effortlessness as his cover drives. When he batted, you could sense who was dominating even if you barely knew the game. Years down the lane, with barely a handful of footages of him, Richards continues to live in the minds of cricket fans through books and articles. His story, would, forever remain a what could have been.