Viv Richards: A Meeting with the King

Jon Hotten meets his cricketing hero and finds himself saying exactly the one thing he had been determined not to say…

When he went to the ring, he was often smiling. He knew that when the heavyweight champion of the world defended his title, it was a solemn moment, but he found it hard to forget how strong he was.

Good that, isn’t it… AJ Liebling wrote it about Rocky Marciano, but it might just as well be about Isaac Vivian Alexander Richards walking out to bat. He was usually chewing gum instead of smiling – although the flash of teeth from underneath that Roman nose sometimes gave the impression of one – and his journey to the wicket was inordinately slow for the entrance of a gladiator.

‘Hurry up,’ someone in the Yorkshire crowd once heckled. ‘That’s why,’ Richards said, ‘when you look at records and things, and you see the record of Vivian Richards against Yorkshire, I could be high up where averages and runs are concerned’.

I met him last year. It was on a flat, cold morning at the University of Surrey, and he’d come straight from the airport to a reception to promote the Antiguan Olympic team’s use of the facilities there come 2012. The room was full of journalists and local radio and TV people, and I heard him before I saw him. He was talking to a young and beautiful radio reporter standing somewhere towards the side of the bar. ‘My full name,’ he was telling her slowly, ‘is Isaac Vivian Alexander Richards… It’s a very long name, isn’t it…’ He left an arch pause before breaking into that unmistakable, high laugh.

He was 58 then, almost 59, but aside from the smallest fleck of grey in his goatee, he looked the same as he had when he retired from cricket in 1991, head shaved, face unlined, eyes bright and dark, stomach washboard flat and shoulders and waist still ascribing the perfect ‘V’ of a middleweight boxer. He’d famously never been inside a gym, but those boxing references just kept on coming. Some who knew him well called him ‘Smokey’ after Smokin’ Joe, with whom he’d shared such indomitable spirit. To everyone else though, he remained simply King Viv, destroyer of bowlers, avatar of modern batsmanship. Even the knighthood, which he shrugged off ['Hi man, hi... call me Viv'] didn’t seem quite enough. King Viv it was, and is.

I’d known for a while that I might be able to speak to him, and I knew exactly what I was not going to say: that the first three times I saw him bat, he made 291 at the Oval, 138 not out at Lord’s in the World Cup Final and 118 in a Benson and Hedges final for Somerset a couple of years later – ‘You see, Viv’, I was definitely not going to tell him, ‘you were getting worse every time…’

We sat down at a small table overlooking some plastic hockey pitches. He was drinking orange juice. ‘You know Viv,’ I heard myself saying in a voice that seemed to come from a distant, empty room, ‘the first three times I saw you bat…’ He listened patiently. ‘…So you see,’ went the voice that was apparently mine, ‘you were getting worse every time…’
He looked at me for a second, glanced down at his juice… and then smiled. It felt a bit like like I imagine getting off the mark in your first Test innings feels. We had some common ground – not a sentence you can utter every day – in that we’d both been to Alf Gover’s cricket school in Wandsworth; he reminisced about the eggy smell of the old gas lamps that lit the place and the penetrating winter cold that took until lunchtime to lift, and remembered lovely, Patrician Alf and his famous ‘one to drive…’

What he recalled most about that 291 at the Oval was also something sensory: how hot and brown the pitch was; how un-English. We spoke for about 15 minutes, I suppose, and he said something I’ll never forget, a phrase that serves as an epitaph for his epic career: ‘You see,’ he said, ‘with the bat, I was a soldier…’

That’s good enough for Liebling, good enough for anyone. ‘With the bat, I was a soldier’. He was, and more.

6 thoughts on “Viv Richards: A Meeting with the King

  1. A post, Jon, that among its other qualities reminds me how much we lost in that Liebling never wrote on cricket. He spent time in London but did he even acknowledge the game’s existence? But then he eschewed baseball and pretty much all else barring a little horse-racing. And of course the equally interesting, if less well-recognised sporting encounters practised by the more larcenous denizens of Times Square and those suckers against whom they ‘played’. There was, as they probably didn’t sing at ringside ‘only one A.J. Liebling’, but have you encountered W.C. Heinz?

  2. Viv definitely had the aura of a demi-God. Children are not partisan or nationalistic or loyal in any way to abstracts, and I worshipped Viv as much as Botham or Gower.

    I didn’t realise until I saw the excellent ‘Fire in Babylon’ film just how much his refusal to tour apartheid South Africa meant and still means to people in the Caribbean.

  3. In Antigua he IS god, Brit…

    As a Wandsworth resident, I’m curious to know where Alf Gover’s cricket school was located, Jon

  4. Hi Susan,

    I don’t know the names of the roads off the top of my head, but if you’re coming from the wimbledon end, you go all the way round the one-way system, past that funny little record shop on the corner called (I think) Zodiac and turn left up the hill towards Clapham, it was right there on the left as you got around the bend. It’s now a housing development called Cricketers Close, or something like that.

  5. My earliest memory of Marciano was etched from pouring over the sports pages of the Daily Mirror before the school day and discovering that a thuggish American, known as the Brockton Blockbuster, was due to take on (and later wallop without mercy) the British and European Champion, Don Cockell – the street fighter versus the roly-poly boxer. I entered the frightening world of Marciano through the thoughts of the finest sports journalist I have ever read, the great Peter Wilson. As I remember, Wilson gave Cockell no chance of winning, but was later greatly impressed by the manner of his losing: tremendous bravery against a man who knew and used astonishing physical strength and every dirty trick in and out of the book. From that time on (1955) I read Peter Wilson almost in a state of awe at his glorious use of language. I was there at ringside in San Francisco, New York, London. I wanted to be a sports journalist; I wanted to be Peter Wilson. This is what Patrick Collins has said about him:

    ‘Wilson of the Daily Mirror was the towering figure in British sports writing – patrician, radical, thunderously opinionated and personally charming, he composed his copy on tablets of stone. He wrote particularly well about boxing, the sport on which his authority was immense. As a raw reporter, I was invited to dinner with the great man. He mentioned, in passing, the 1930s fights between Joe Louis and Max Schmelling. “You really saw Louis v Schmelling?” I said. “Dear boy, I believe I saw David v Goliath,” he drawled. On his frequent travels, Wilson would occasionally strike the pose of the Englishman Abroad. Arriving in New York to cover a Joe Frazier fight, he was presented with a baseball cap and instructions to wear it at ringside. Wilson exploded in a spluttering tirade. He had never worn such an object in his life and he was damned if he was going to break his habit. The promoter, a patient man, explained: “When the riot breaks out after the fight, and security starts cracking heads, they gotta know which heads they can crack. You get me, Peter?” That evening, Wilson sat at ringside, smiling self-consciously. At his neck was an Old Harrovian tie, on his head a baseball cap.’

    Jon, forgive me this departure from the truly great Sir Vivian, but I can add nothing of worth to your wonderful post about that genius. Mention of A J Liebling triggered memories of Peter Wilson, who was perhaps the Richards or Marciano of his profession, and I felt the urge to mention him. And a final thought: what a paper the Mirror was at that time with Wilson, Cassandra (William Connor), Zec, Ledbrooke (killed at Munich) and other notables making it essential daily reading.