Sir Viv Richards: 'England must work Ponting over to win Ashes'

The Brian Viner Interview: West Indian legend reveals his blueprint for success Down Under but bemoans the state of Caribbean cricket
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The Independent Online

Reports of Australia's demise as a cricketing superpower are somewhat exaggerated, according to Sir Vivian Richards. He knows a thing or two about conquerors becoming whipping boys, having watched it happen to his beloved West Indies since the glory days of the 1970s and 1980s, and he is sure that Australia are not trapped in the same downward spiral. England, he believes, will have to be at their best to retain the Ashes Down Under.

"It is a tough, tough place to play," he says, "and they have always produced tough cricketers. One of the secrets of playing against Australia is working the captain over. It's like the Red Indians. They knew that if you killed the chief, you killed the spirit. When I captained the West Indies we tried to do that to every captain we played against, but particularly Allan Border. Malcolm Marshall had a plan for him, bowling a little short, and getting him to pop it up with a guy in his back pocket. Ricky Ponting is similar, a good batsman and a hard character, but maybe more than ever now that Australia have lost so many great players, like [Shane] Warne and [Glenn] McGrath, England need to target Ponting."

Richards pauses and whips out a handkerchief to mop his brow, which is suddenly awash with perspiration. We're sitting on the verandah of the Cedar Valley Golf Club in Antigua, and it feels like the hottest place on earth, uncomfortable even for one of the planet's coolest men. At 58, King Viv has lost none of his regal bearing, and when he walks it is still as if the word "swagger" had been invented for him, but he sweats like the rest of us.

I am here because I've been staying at a hotel, Curtain Bluff, and happened to mention to the manager Rob Sherman, an American so worldly that he is a keen cricket enthusiast, that I'm a sports interviewer. He asks whether I would like to meet Viv Richards? Is the Caribbean bluey-green? Sherman knows all Antigua's favourite sons, even its biggest favourite, and so a few phone calls and a half-hour drive later, here I am talking to the great man about the Ashes.

But of course the Ashes are not the only show in town, in fact in these parts they're just a sideshow. When England go to Australia, the West Indies will head for Sri Lanka, where hardly anyone expects them to improve their miserable Test ranking. They stand seventh out of nine, marginally ahead of New Zealand, and Richards – who as captain between 1984 and 1991 never lost a Test series – reckons that West Indian cricket has never been in a gloomier state.

"For too long they have been comfortable with mediocrity," he says, with a heavy sigh. "And when you're comfortable with mediocrity, the next stage is that you're working hard even to be mediocre. One problem is that the West Indies board don't want to involve individuals who had success in West Indian cricket."

Such as himself? "Yeah, such as me. The establishment seem a little insecure. They think I'm being critical, but actually I'm being positive. I'm offering my help. Because you know, cricket doesn't change. The technology changes but cricket is still just about a bat and a ball. I don't know why the board won't turn to blokes who know what winning is all about. Because it's not just about talent, it's about attitude. Look at Liverpool [FC]. The talent is there, but the attitude is wrong."

The West Indian cricketing talent, he reckons, is there too. "It's no different from my time. Darren Sammy [the new captain] is a talented cricketer. Nobody can say that Chris Gayle isn't talented, and Jerome Taylor... but it's about the execution of that talent. I see batsmen backing away while the bowler is running up, leaving the lumber yard exposed. They should learn to move at the last second, while keeping the head as still as possible. I can help with that."

Nevertheless, and despite contrary evidence both statistical and anecdotal – a Test match average of 50.23, an average in one-day internationals of exactly 47, and countless intimidated bowlers – Richards feels that the dice are always loaded in the bowlers' favour. "They get six deliveries so they can afford mistakes. We only have one life."

He would have loved playing Twenty20, he adds. "Some of the players have problems making the adjustment, but that's what a professional game is. But I doubt T20 will ever produce great players like Test match cricket does. The administrators must be wise. They must look at how the finances from T20 can help to preserve Test cricket. It can be the saviour of the five-day game."

For those of us who came of age as cricket lovers in the 70s and 80s, perhaps the most abiding of all memories is of IVA Richards walking slowly to the crease, with the swaggering self-assurance of the finest gunslinger in the west. The famous swagger, he tells me, "came from backing what you have. You know it's going to fail you at times, but it takes even more strength to back what you have when it fails you".

And what of his disdain for the helmet, long after it had been adopted by most other batsmen? "I was never comfortable wearing it. Batting is all about comfort, and I tried it in the nets but it wasn't for me. I was proud of my maroon cap, I loved my maroon cap, and that was enough for me. And the mouth guard stopped me from chewing my gum, which helped relax me." A broad smile. "It made me feel in command."

He rises, and shakes my hand. The command performance is over, but my fixer, Rob Sherman, hasn't finished yet. During my audience with King Viv he has made a few more phone calls, and now he drives me to the Jolly Harbour Boat Club, where a grizzled old fisherman is leaning against a palm tree. On closer inspection he is recognisable as Anderson Montgomery Everton Roberts, once the most hostile of the ferocious West Indian pace attack and the first Antiguan to play Test cricket.

England have no real fast bowlers to take to Australia, Andy Roberts says. "Fast bowlers bowl at 90mph plus, but very few do that nowadays. Dale Steyn looks the part for South Africa, but England, no. Bowling has slowed down because coaches are fearful of injury. I don't know why because we never got injured. But man is not made to bowl fast. That's why I've had two knee replacements."

Like his friend and countryman, Roberts is horrified by the condition of West Indian cricket. "But I saw the way it was going. In the late 1990s I said, 'Forget about winning for five years. Focus on the grassroots'. They ignored me. We used to be so used to winning we didn't know how to lose, now we don't know how to win. Even when we look like winning we invent new ways to lose. It's distressing."

It is bowling on which Roberts is an expert, and he chuckles when I cite his own remarkable armoury. He had two bouncers, the really quick one and the slightly less quick one, and used them both to devastating effect. He was able to vary the pace of his bouncer, he explains, by adjusting the height of his jump in the final delivery stride. It is a technique he looks for in vain today. "I don't see anyone really mastering the art of fast bowling. The force is generated by the leap, but nobody has variation in that last stride. I always knew I could bowl as quick as anyone, but I also realised that bowling fast alone won't take wickets. You could reach 150mph, but that won't help if the batsman gets accustomed to it. What you need to do is bowl at 150mph, then 100mph, then 90mph, then 120mph. Then he's not comfortable."

There were several great West Indian pace quartets, but for Roberts the definitive four comprised himself, Michael Holding, Colin Croft and Joel Garner. "Joel provided height and bounce, Colin provided angle, Michael smoothness, and I was power and cleverness." Of quick bowlers from other countries, or eras, he picks out Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson as the most impressive he competed against, but also Bob Willis, "who had that fire. And of course [Courtney] Walsh and [Curtly] Ambrose were top-drawer as a pair, but not genuinely quick." And the batsmen? "I always admired Ian Chappell. His brother Greg was more of a stylist but I admired Ian much more. And [Sunil] Gavaskar. Once you saw him go down on his knees to hit a cover drive, you knew you were in for trouble."

A more committed smile this time, from an old fisherman content in the knowledge that he was far more often on the dispensing end of trouble, and not sorry that he sacrificed a pair of knees in the process.

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