Viv Richards arrives by helicopter at the Rishton club ground

Viv arrives via helicopter (before Allen Stanford gave the vehicle a bad name)

© PA Photos


Rishton's summer of Viv

A look back to the time, 30 years ago, when the Lancashire League found a superstar in their midst

Scott Oliver  |  

Many's the time in club cricket you'll turn up not having the proverbial Scooby Doo about the opposition's pro - his name, what he looks like, his stats. This probably wasn't much of a problem for Lancashire League cricketers visiting Rishton CC in the summer of 1987, for the new pro at Blackburn Road had by that stage of his career amassed 6472 Test runs at 52.61, with 20 hundreds, one of which was the fastest in the history of the game.

No, no one needed telling that the hip-swaying, shoulder-rolling strut or coiled power of that familiar, gum-cudding figure standing on the square belonged to Isaac Vivian Alexander Richards. They probably recognised him from off of the telly - maybe from that game three years earlier and 40 miles down the road, when he bludgeoned the highest ODI score, an undefeated 189 out of 272 for 9; or from 11 years ago, when, rather than grovelling, he opted instead to rub Greigy's nose in just the 829 runs in four Tests. Yep, they may have had an inkling, these savvy men of the Lancashire valleys, that Rishton's new pro was strong through midwicket.

Richards missed the season opener at Bacup, only touching down in London at 12.30pm on the day of his debut, meaning he only got to the ground half an hour before the start. This isn't entirely unheard of among club cricketers, so you could argue that it was an immediate adaptation. Conversely, his mode of transport was the less conventionally clubby chartered helicopter, paid for by the Sun newspaper, which was part of the sort of media scrum that doesn't greet your bog-standard overseas pro from, say, Khan Research Laboratories or Chilaw Marians. Film crews from the BBC and ITV Granada were also present, along with national and local press. But then, this was the Master Blaster, captain of the all-conquering West Indies team and No. 4 in the world batting rankings, although still the undisputed No. 1 in most eyes. It was like Lionel Messi signing for Accrington Stanley, or Stocksbridge Park Steels.

Viv's availability was, of course, made possible by the acrimonious crisis that had engulfed Somerset the previous year, when the decision was made mid-season to release the club's two long-serving West Indian greats, Richards and Joel Garner, which prompted the departure of Ian Botham in solidarity. Given Richards' 56-ball evisceration of England in Antigua - followed up with the fastest hundred during the English professional season, a 48-ball effort for Somerset against Glamorgan - it was fair to say he was still in possession of his mojo. But he hadn't sought another first-class home, later writing in one of his autobiographies, Hitting Across the Line: "I did not want to be involved with another county. I needed something else, something pure."

Rishton's chairman, Wilf Woodhouse, was ahead of the curve, and his dogged persistence eventually persuaded Richards to dispatch his manager to Lancashire, to run the rule over this village of 7000 people. He reported back that this "nice community" with the cricket club at its heart was just what the maestro needed. And as luck would have it, Rishton's secretary was out in Australia watching England in the Benson and Hedges tri-series, in which West Indies were also competing, and Richards put pen to paper.

But was he chewing gum? Richards walks out to bat in his first match for Rishton

But was he chewing gum? Richards walks out to bat in his first match for Rishton © PA Photos

It was, patently, a major coup. Not that Richards was the first big name the club had engaged - Michael Holding had played there in 1981, and Mohammad Azharuddin would come in 1988, followed by the likes of Allan Donald (1996), Jason Gillespie (2000) and Vernon Philander (2006). In fact, it's a Lancashire League rule that clubs must field a professional - presumably to help cultivate interest, with failure to do so incurring either a fine or points forfeiture. But still, this was Viv: the biggest draw in world cricket. The Rishton 1st XI captain, David Wells, even went on national TV, discussing the club's new signing with Frank Bough on BBC's Breakfast Time. "I was wearing a horrendous jumper. But then, so was he".

Having fought his way through the paps, Viv was soon donning his pads. The first ball he faced in English club cricket was bowled by Eddo Brandes, pro at that season's eventual champions Haslingden. "I had him absolutely plumb lbw," recalls Brandes, but the presence of a couple of thousand spectators dissuaded the umpire from pooping the party, and Richards went on to score 87, one fewer than Rishton's margin of victory. "I saw him in a hotel foyer at the World Cup later that year and he admitted he was stone dead," laughs Brandes.

Next victims of the Richards Roadshow were Accrington, alma mater of David "Bumble" Lloyd, who, aged 40, and 23 years from his last game of club cricket, chiselled out an unbeaten 51 in his team's 181, nowhere near enough thanks to Viv's 98 not out in reply. Lancashire League tradition was that any player scoring a half-century earned a collection - money tossed into a box taken round the crowd - and with 2500 in through the gate Richards duly pocketed £400 for his efforts. He missed out on a double-collection when, sitting on 94 with the scores level, stalwart seamer Alan Worsick served up a deliberate full toss that Richards failed to launch over the ropes. Still, gate receipts totalled £1700 - that's £4400 with inflation - the highest in the history of Lancashire League cricket, and enough to finance Accrington's urgently needed new clubhouse roof. To use a Bumbleism, Richards was box-office. "I played some big finals, but those were the biggest crowds I played in front of on a consistent basis," recalls Wells. "Because Viv was turning up at, say, Haslingden or Burnley or Lowerhouse, instead of ordering 100 pies for the day, they'd order 300, you know…"

An average of 185 was going to prove difficult to sustain, even for the great man, and in the next match, the return fixture at Haslingden (in one of many obstinate local quirks, fixtures were played in blocks rather than standard symmetrical half-seasons), Viv was trapped for just 8, caught at what the successful bowler and captain, Bryan Knowles, called "deep cow", part of Knowles' sole five-fer in 27 seasons. Knowles also scored 95 not out - the highest innings Rishton conceded all year - and the 138 runs were knocked off one down. Not bad, but then six years earlier Knowles had become the first amateur since 1957 to top the Lancashire League batting averages, and the first amateur since 1929 to score 1000 league runs, even hitting Rishton's pro that year - MA Holding, a few short months after that over to Boycott in Barbados - back over his head for a one-bounce four during an innings of 96.

These were no mugs, and Richards quickly realised it wouldn't be a stroll, writing in Sir Viv, a later and more definitive autobiography: "Any thoughts of a hatful of runs and a handful of wickets were soon tempered by the reality of the serious cricket played on damp, difficult strips against captains who knew how to make the best of the local lie of the land. They were no respecters of reputation."

Young fans try to get a piece of the king

Young fans try to get a piece of the king © Rishton CC

The weather sweeping in off the Irish Sea claimed four of the next seven fixtures. Already, Bacup's players had been denied their once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Then, after the ten-wicket win against Accrington in which he didn't bat, a weekend double-header fell victim to the elements. Richards' pre-deluge 91 against Ramsbottom was chalked off his final stats - for another of the oddball local rules allowed for some league fixtures to be replayed; one such was the total washout at Burnley, although unfortunately for their bar takings (and maybe for a five-year-old Jimmy Anderson, there to watch his uncle Neil) not a single ball was bowled in the rescheduled match either. In total, ten out of 29 matches were lost to the weather.

In August, a second double-header fell victim to the rains, this the weekend that the MCC's star-studded bicentennial match against the Rest of the World was played, Viv having declined an invitation to join the likes of Greenidge, Haynes, Marshall, Border, Imran, Qadir, Miandad, Gavaskar, Shastri, Vengsarkar, Hadlee, Rice, Gooch, Gower and Gatting out of loyalty to Rishton. On another occasion, Richards ruled himself out of a pair of lucrative paydays for the Rest of the World XI in the Callers Pegasus Festival at Jesmond in order to play in a much-interrupted Worsley Cup semi-final with Ramsbottom stretching over several nights, five overs here, ten overs there, the heavens opening each time the game looked like reaching its conclusion, denying an already dismissed Viv his leave of absence. But he wasn't a man to abandon comrades still on the battlefield.

Come rain or shine, Viv was a regular presence at the club, coaching kids on Monday, netting on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and taking on all-comers at snooker between times. Lodgings were the four-star Dunkenhalgh Hotel and Spa, a 700-year-old former manor house with turrets, porticos and crenellations that was literally one mile up the road, yet still closer to Enfield CC, indicative of the league's parochial patchwork of cheek-by-jowl rivalries (Church CC was even closer). Richards' wife and kids visited for a couple of weeks, otherwise it was him and his "minder", Tony. He had a sponsored BMW to buzz about in, fulfilling his promotional obligations with Cockspur Rum, sponsors that year of the National Club Knockout, and not a product whose endorsement would have caused too many pangs of conscience given his fondness for it as a tipple - not least when Ian Botham paid an impromptu midweek visit.

Amid the rains, Richards followed a maiden league ton against Colne - pronounced as you would the thing out of which you might slurp a consolatory ice cream, having hit a full bunger to extra cover on a red-hot day - with a mini-slump: four games without a half-century. "The opposition, without fail, were ecstatic to see the back of him," recalls Wells. "But plenty of fans would go off the ground as soon as he got out. All they'd come to see was him get some runs."

Chief among the revenue-suppressing Viv Destroyers were a trio of bowlers who dismissed the great man home and away: Enfield's former Lancashire allrounder Bernard Reidy, a left-arm swing bowler chiefly famous for his perm; lanky East Lancs "dibbly-dobbler" Ian Haworth, who snared him for 5 and 30; and Rawtenstall's 24-year-old left-arm spinner, Keith Roscoe, still playing today, and now the second-highest amateur wicket-taker in the history of the league.

Dismissing one from sight in the bespoke manner, in his first league game, against Haslingden

Dismissing one from sight in the bespoke manner, in his first league game, against Haslingden © PA Photos

"He came swaggering to the wicket and scored 20 in no time," recalls Roscoe, who today works in the quintessentially Lancastrian family business: manufacturing racing-pigeon accessories. "Our skipper took the fast bowler off and said, 'Here y'are, your go.' First ball, he pushed back. Second ball he danced down and put me on Bacup Road, and kept walking at me and said, in that West Indian lilt, 'I didn't even middle that one, man'. The next ball I bowled an arm ball that popped on him a bit and he got a faint outside edge that the keeper juggled around him and finished up catching. Viv stood back on his bat, daring the umpire to give him out. And the umpire did the business for me!" Far from sulking, however, Viv took the collection box round for his team-mate, David Wilson.

The final innings of the slump came at Todmorden, whose ground had once been bisected by the Lancashire-Yorkshire border, but which now lay entirely in the white-rose county. Their pro was a 22-year-old outswing bowler, South Africa's second greatest de Villiers: Petrus Stephanus "Fanie", who had the temerity to clean-bowl Richards for 40. "The whole of bloody Todmorden was upset with me!"

For obvious reasons, de Villiers had never seen Viv bat on TV, and so was taken aback by the aggressive manner of the king's play. In the return fixture, Richards - not one to enjoy being bested by South Africans in the 1980s - made 127 out of Rishton's total of 210. "I thought: why the hell is he slogging me?" de Villiers remembered. "I can understand him slogging the local bowlers, but I had extra pace and swing. I never realised that's just the way he bats."

This season's best score was sandwiched by innings of 79 and 103 against Nelson, Richards hitting a patch of form more purple than Prince's wardrobe. The Nelson pro was another 22-year-old tyro, Steve Waugh, who made 54 and 93 in reply. Cameras from Australia's Channel Nine turned up for the second game to film a small news feature on the man then still considered only the second-best allrounder in his family, but whose response to Viv scoring 103 out of 199 was to steer Nelson to 181 for 3 with four overs left.

"We were dead and buried," recalls Wells, "until Waugh was stumped charging Richards' offspin." Three wickets then fell on 194 in the final over - bowled by Colin Kuhn, a bus conductor from Rhodesia - as Nelson finished up two runs short in front of another bumper crowd privileged to witness a toe-to-toe encounter of actual and future Hall of Famers, one lent an extra sprinkling of spice by news Waugh would make his County Championship debut for Somerset four days after the game, as a replacement for Crowe. Eighteen months later, at the Gabba, in Richards' 100th Test, Waugh unfurled three consecutive bumpers at Viv, who simply adjusted his maroon cap and smiled benignly at the latest avatar of Aussie mongrel - until, that is, he lost the trajectory of a back-of-the-hand slower ball which hit him on the shoulder blade as he turned his head, with Waugh screaming out an lbw appeal.

V is for Viv: atop a stand at the Rishton ground

V is for Viv: atop a stand at the Rishton ground © PA Photos

After the Nelson nail-biter, Viv sat on 688 runs with a possible 11 further innings. He would have had to go some to overhaul the league record - the 1518 that Everton Weekes scored for Bacup in 1951 - but the symbolic thousand, already achieved that decade by the likes of Mudassar Nazar, Madan Lal and Collis King, was surely a formality. As it was, Viv would only bat six more times, making just one more half-century, 66 not out at Ramsbottom.

Roscoe again found the maestro's edge with an arm ball that popped - "The keeper not only caught him, but stumped him as well. So you could say I got him out three times in two games" - and was subsequently offered a summer contract at Gloucestershire on the back of his exploits. However, with a mortgage and five-year-old son to take care of, he had to turn it down. "I couldn't afford the pay cut. Besides, I had booked a fortnight's holiday at my dad's caravan in Poulton-le-Fylde, and I promised my good lady we would go".

Despite their esteemed pro's considerable reputation and talents, Rishton were unable to win a first title since 1955, ultimately finishing fourth. Richards himself ended up top of both run charts and averages, his 899 league runs at 64 from just 17 innings edging out Waugh, although he missed the final weekend with chickenpox, denying him and the club a fitting farewell to what he described as "a great experience and a lot more exciting than I expected".

Nevertheless, as Wells reflects, Richards left a considerable impression on those lucky enough to share a dressing room, a partnership, a pint, or even an encouraging word with the great man. "Can you imagine someone telling you you're captaining Viv Richards? Wow, unbelievable! I suppose you can play with Jordan Spieth in a golf pro-am, but in which other game can you play with someone who's the best in the world at what he does for five months? Unfortunately, those days will never return."

Scott Oliver tweets @reverse_sweeper