Paul Lewis on sport

Paul Lewis is the Herald on Sunday's Sport Editor

Paul Lewis: A shadow of glories past

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Vivian Richards. Photo / Getty Images
Vivian Richards. Photo / Getty Images

One of my fondest cricket memories was a day at the County Ground in Taunton, Somerset, when a bloke called Vivian Richards walked to the crease.

The home crowd, largely fuelled by scrumpy and other liquid delights, burst into song. "Vivian, la-la-la ... Vivian, la-la-la". The object of their affections was batting for Somerset and made his trademark entrance.

Walk? He strolled. No, it was more considered than a stroll. It was a swagger too, a kind of hybrid - a stragger, maybe. It was a parade; a royal procession. The only reason he was making his way to the pitch was that they couldn't bring it to him, as his station demanded.

He chewed gum, as if he needed something to do to relieve the boredom of watching the field retrieve the ball from over the fence. As his squat, muscular figure slowly approached the pitch, he'd fix the fielders, particularly the bowlers, with that stare. You might be playing cricket, it said, but you haven't played my cricket yet.

He would hit the top of the bat handle emphatically with a palm. He said after retiring it was to check the rubber of the bat handle wasn't protruding too much.

Maybe, but to the bowling side it looked like a gunfighter showily twirling his revolver round a finger. I know so many ways to kill you.

He would fiddle with the brow of his cap. No need to wear a helmet for this lot. No need to wear a helmet at all if you are Isaac Vivian Alexander Richards, maker of 8500 test runs at an average of 50, nearly 7000 ODI runs (average 47), most of them at breakneck pace.

On this particular day, he didn't slay all around him before wiping the blood off his sword and swaggering slowly off again. The third ball he faced went for six but this was a brief flurry then out.

It was the casual arrogance that stuck in the mind. And the defiance. You never beat a side with Viv Richards in it, to bastardise the old saying, even when you won. He and his 1980s West Indies team-mates had an air of menace; they embodied national pride, the poor colonials embracing the game and then giving Mother England (and everyone else) a nasty hiding. It was a colour thing too - black power with a red ball.

If they were challenged on the field, they would bowl with ferocity - Holding, Roberts, Garner, Croft, Marshall and many more. They'd bat with purpose or - in the case of Richards, Greenidge and others - they'd pursue the bowlers with aggression in defiance of their position in the match. That was Richards' big weapon: he had the eyesight, the reflexes and the spirit to humiliate bowlers, even the best of them.

The current West Indies side appears to have none of that.

We must congratulate the Black Caps. They have been criticised heavily in the past in this column and they have mostly taken their chances well. If it hadn't been for the Dunedin weather, they would have been 2-0 going into the third test. But we should not get too carried away. This is the weakest West Indian side I have ever seen - even allowing for the mental strain of what seemed an unjust ICC decision to carpet spinner Shane Shillingford when his action seems to require a fraction of the preposterous leeway given to the man for whom cricket re-wrote the law, Muttiah Muralitharan. They are a caricature of the great West Indian team of the 80s, probably the best team ever.

It's ridiculous comparing mere mortals with the greats, like Richards. But you can't help it. There is no escaping the comparison.

Since the 80s, the world has mourned the slow disabling of West Indian cricket. Myths like basketball and other US sports draining off the youth of the nation have persisted; the reality is that pollution by poor management, lack of stars, ordinary results, easy money in the selfish realms of the Indian Premier League and other cash-rich but meaningless short forms of the game, have slowly poisoned the West Indian well.

The current side is without at least six leading individuals who might have made a difference. Some are out because of injury, others because of differences with management, curious selections or because the player has a preference for a financial career where international cricket is mostly a sideline.

Chris Gayle, Kemar Roach, Ravi Rampaul, Fidel Edwards, Jerome Taylor and veteran batsman Ramnaresh Sarwan would have made a difference, surely. Sarwan has been out of form and not in the selectors' thoughts for some time now but he has vast talent and experience - the Windies don't have too many men with nearly 6000 test runs in the bank. So too may Dwayne Bravo (brother of Darren) have made a difference; he seems to have more talent than captain Darren Sammy but plays mostly in white-ball cricket.

In Richards' day, fitness was a big deal. His team was not just talented, they worked hard. They were fit, minimising injuries. When the torch passed to a new team and a new leader, Brian Lara (himself a great batsman but no Richards as a leader) did not relish the training regime. It went - and so, slowly, did the West Indian aura of invincibility. They stopped being a hungry, dangerous unit led by a hungry, dangerous captain.

Hard of body, hard of mind became soft of spirit - exactly what we saw, with the odd exception, in the first two tests. Coach Ottis Gibson spoke of using the terms "man up", "embarrassed" and "lack of fight" in the dressing room dressing-down.

When Richards was coming up in English county cricket, he admired Somerset and England captain Brian Close, a batsman with nowhere near Richards' talent but plenty of courage. At 45, well past his best, Close was playing for England against the West Indies in 1976 when he was felled by a wicked Wayne Daniel ball.

As Richards told the Observer at the time: "Okay, I was playing for my country but this was my [county] skipper on the ground and in pain. So I went up to him. "Are you okay, skipper?" Closey eventually gathered himself and bellowed: 'F*** off.' What a man". You wonder what I.V.A. Richards thinks of the men of the West Indies today.

- Herald on Sunday

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