Rested Richardson relishes the battle

Tony Cozier reports from Bridgetown, Barbados, on a revitalised captain
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Refreshed, relaxed and raring to go, Richie Richardson has resumed his captaincy of West Indies that was interrupted on doctors' advice last July.

On Wednesday, he led his team on to the field at Kensington Oval here for the first one-day international against Australia, the first time he had done so since last April's fourth Test against England at the same venue.

"I had played hard cricket for more than 10 years, never had a break, never went on holiday and I was just burnt out and needed a break," Richardson said of the condition, medically termed acute fatigue syndrome, that led to six months' break from the game.

His was the first documented case of a professional cricketer having to give up playing because of the condition. It meant an end to his two- year contract with Yorkshire midway through last season and his absence from the West Indies tours of India, late in the year, and more recently New Zealand, when Courtney Walsh adequately filled in as caretaker.

"For more than a year I had been troubled by extreme tiredness," Richardson recalled. "I found it very difficult to concentrate during a game and, at times, felt very unwell."

Friends reported him nodding off in the middle of a social evening and he himself summed up the condition by saying that when he made 50 it felt as if he had made 150. The evidence was clear in his usually explosive, high-scoring batting. He went 10 Tests without a century and averaged just 27 against England last year compared with an overall 45.75. His captaincy off the field often seemed adrift.

Speculation had spread fast on small West Indian islands, and amateur diagnoses of Richardson's unusual condition covered an extensive range of medical ailments. The most common was leukaemia, for some of the symptoms were similar to those which struck down an earlier West Indies captain, the legendary Sir Frank Worrell, at 42.

Richardson was unfussed. "I was concerned about my fitness, yes, but I had no doubts I was going to make it back," he said. "I knew I just needed a break from the game, to get adequate rest, recuperate and come again."

He did make it back - with a bang or, to be more precise, a succession of bangs all across the Caribbean. His 544 runs at an average of 77.71 in the Red Stripe Cup tournament in January and February included 300 in the five matches, and he skippered the Leeward Islands to the one-day championship.

"I have worked and trained very hard and lost close to 10 pounds," he revealed. "I'm feeling very fit and very good within myself. I believe I'm batting very well. I'm revived and just looking forward to continuing playing cricket at the highest level again. In fact, I haven't felt like this in years."

Now 33, his only concession to the passing years is the occasional use, for the first time, of a helmet while batting instead of the wide-brimmed maroon sun hat that had become his trademark. His resurrection is not good news for the Australians whom Richardson describes, not unsurprisingly, as his "favourite opponents".

He has gathered eight of his 15 centuries in 25 Tests against them and no West Indian- not Sobers, not Kanhai, not Richards - has scored as many.

It is an affinity that goes back to the very beginning as he made his first first-class hundred for the Leewards, batting in a baggy green Australian Test cap borrowed from Viv Richards. The following year, he collected his first Test hundred against Australia. Richardson succeeded Richards, his fellow Antiguan, as captain in 1991, a surprise choice since he superseded Richards' deputy at the time, Desmond Haynes.

He enjoyed a rough initiation as he tried to rebuild a team suddenly bereft of Richards, Gordon Greenidge, Malcolm Marshall and Jeffrey Dujon.

He was roundly booed by the crowd at Kingston's Sabina Park in his first match as captain on West Indies soil following the team's disappointing performance in the 1992 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand. And his first Test at the helm in Barbados, against South Africa in that same series, was boycotted by the public angered over the omission of a Barbadian player and the indifferent form of Richardson's fledglings.

But the new captain held firm and his strength of character permeated through his young charges. Under him, and latterly under Walsh, the West Indies have repeatedly fought their way out of tight corners to maintain their remarkable record of not losing a Test series since 1980.

Now Richardson returns to another surfeit of cricket. He meets the strong challenge of the confident Australians at home over the next two months and then faces England in six Tests and three one-day internationals throughout the summer.

It seems an awful lot for someone who, not a year ago, was on the verge of the cricketing equivalent of a nervous breakdown. But Richardson talks with relish about his return.

"I've got a lot of cricket in me and I want to go out there and really deliver," he said.

"I'm not going to put myself under any pressure, just going to play hard and hope for the best."