Profile: Calm force of the islands: Richie Richardson

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The Independent Online
IT IS just more than two years, and 10 Test matches, since Richie Richardson took over from Viv Richards as leader of the world's greatest cricket team. Having emerged as a promising batsman, who emulated the master-blaster Richards from top to toe, it wasn't long before he acquired an identity of his own as a punishing hitter. On Caribbean soil in particular, his power through the line of the ball, backed up by murderous cutting and pulling on anything short, meant that he took the attack to the bowlers, his main purpose being to knock them off their rhythm.

Having established himself as one of the top five Test batsmen in the game, the captaincy of his country gave him a fresh challenge, his only previous experience at the helm being a handful of games as captain of the Leeward Islands in 1990. It was clearly not an easy time to take over. Not only had key players like Malcolm Marshall, Jeffrey Dujon and Gordon Greenidge decided to retire, but he was appointed ahead of the assumed heir-apparent, Desmond Haynes. This did not go down well in some parts of the Caribbean, particularly in Barbados, Haynes's home island and the power base of West Indian cricket.

Hindsight has shown the decision to be shrewd. Two incidents, both on England's previous tour of the Caribbean, are thought to have clinched the leadership for Richardson. First, there was his recalling of the England batsman Nasser Hussain, who had been given out during the Leeward Islands match in St Kitts. Despite the umpire ruling that Hussain had been fairly caught, Richardson overruled him when it became clear the catch had not been taken cleanly. Second, there was the cynical gamesmanship and Australian-type sledging indulged in by the acting captain, Haynes, during the last day of the rain-affected third Test in Trinidad. The adverse publicity that Haynes attracted for this did much to press the case for Richardson.

If his appointment smacked of the establishment picking their own man, the reality is somewhat different. For all his quiet, unassuming charm, Richardson is a determined and ruthless competitor, with a flair for the unusual. His trademark maroon floppy hat stands him apart, like some marauding buccaneer, and lest he should lose his timing at the crease, he always bats wearing a wristwatch. Such foibles do not usually commend themselves to cricketing establishment, and Richardson, 32, is very much his own man.

After a shaky start as captain (by not qualifying for the final stages of the World Cup in Australia), he was roundly booed on to the field in Jamaica when the West Indies played South Africa in a one-day international. It was Richardson's first home game in charge and the crowd were blaming him for the team's recent poor showing, albeit in one-day cricket only. Under his leadership, however, just one Test has been lost, though there have been several close shaves.

One of these was also against South Africa in Barbados, where a boycott of the match - ostensibly due to the omission of local all- rounder Andy Cummins - meant that only about 500 people saw the tense climax to an emotional Test. After the game, Richardson took his players on a lap of honour of the ground, and hand-in-hand they made their own gesture of solidarity as a plea to stop inter-island bickering. As he said later: 'All that brought the team together and opened the eyes of a lot of people in the Caribbean. We realised we had to unite, because that's the only way forward.'

The point was well made, certainly among the players. Winning an incredible series in Australia last year and in particular the knife-edge Test in Adelaide, the West Indies showed everyone just how cool they could remain under intense pressure. This is an ability many believed they never possessed. For this new-found calmness, and for encouraging less strained relations between the West Indies and Australia, Richardson must take full credit. So impressed were the Australian media with his co-operation that they presented him with a special gift at the end of the series.

With these tribulations has inevitably come the odd trial. In addition to the added workload of captaincy, he has found less time to work on his batting and even less time to relax. 'I've always been a person who likes to practise a hell of a lot,' he said. 'Now I find I'm being disturbed. An interview here, an appointment there.' Over his 10 Tests in charge, he has had a batting average of 39.68, compared with an overall average of 46.74. This is the equivalent of dropping from gold to bronze.

In addition, his health has suffered and on his recent return from Sri Lanka, exhausted and with a low red blood cell count, he was ordered to take iron supplements and with them a month's rest. The burn-out factor had extinguished his fire, and as a result he missed the early rounds of the inter-island Red Stripe Cup. However, he did not just look after himself. He also pleaded for his two main bowlers, Courtney Walsh and Curtly Ambrose, to be given time off from domestic duties. With Test players all too often abroad, and therefore missing from Red Stripe competition, the selectors turned a deaf ear to their captain, reasoning that if the next generation are to improve, then they must play against the best. This, Richardson concedes, was a fair point but not one likely to help their cause against England.

Bearing in mind the burn-out factor, his acceptance of a two- year spell with Yorkshire is a strange alliance, particularly now that the West Indies' programme is jam-packed with cricket until 1995. Richardson doesn't think so. 'It's going to be really hectic, but that's how it is in international sport these days. Yorkshire will be a break of sorts because all I'll have to do is concentrate on my batting.' This is no doubt important to him as he has already worked hard at overcoming limitations against spin (John Emburey had only to warm up to get him out) and slow English pitches. The fine tuning, he claims, never stops.

Martyn Moxon, the Yorkshire captain, is full of praise for Richardson. 'Although Richie came to us absolutely knackered, and didn't score as many runs as he or Yorkshire would have liked, his example and influence in the

dressing-room was excellent and he was instrumental in Darren Gough's improvement as a bowler. Just a quiet word here and there gave many of the younger lads confidence. He is very cool under pressure and gives the impression of being laid back. But underneath it all he is a deep thinker about the game and a great help to have around.'

Off the field, he has a sports and leisure business that he runs from his home in Five Islands, Antigua. He is a proficient guitarist, an instrument he packs alongside his bats when he is off on tour, and he often plays with a local band when at home. Apart from the odd disgruntled fan, nobody, it seems, has a bad word to say about him. In the fickle world of professional sport, and especially in the volatile environment of West Indies cricket, Richardson's calming influence is a prized asset.

England, too, have such a captain in Michael Atherton. Perhaps tactically superior to Richardson, he does not have the West Indian's gambling instincts. Given that he has a number of trump cards to play, Richardson has managed to keep the West Indies at the top of the pile. As the series unfolds, beginning with the first Test in Jamaica this week, we will see how his luck and judgement hold.