Viv Richards
© Getty Images

Cover story

'The first thing is to think aggression'

In his time he taught the most fearsome bowlers to think twice. In his 60s now, Viv Richards, our jury's pick as the greatest ODI player ever, talks attack

Interview by Sidharth Monga  |  

A few days before I met Viv Richards in Sydney, I met Len Pascoe. I knew Richards had been adjudged the greatest ODI player of all time by a Cricket Monthly jury, I knew Pascoe and Richards had a history, but I didn't bring Richards into the conversation with Pascoe. Lenny was talking about how a part of him used to be afraid he might hit a batsman too badly. I asked if he aimed to hit them in the first place. Now Lenny is in the entertainment business, and he can at times take the circuitous route to answering questions. "At that level if you wanted to hit someone, you could."

"Did you mean to hit somebody?"

"Yes. I really, really wanted to hit Viv Richards. Just him. It's not a hit 'cause you hate them. You're just angry. With Viv he made me angry a lot."

Pascoe had once bounced Richards. Only to be hit for five fours in the rest of the over.

"Some folk would think that a fast bowler would be always the more intimidating and getting more respect," says Viv. "I wanted to prove that necessarily don't have to be the case."

"My first thought would be to be aggressive. Some guys just basically collapsed to that style. Then you have a command over them"

And how Viv did. There are greys in the beard and the 'tache now, but he looks fit enough to get into the ring, which is what he usually equates batting to. He doesn't talk too much about technique, but one thing is clear: the desire to dominate despite not wearing a helmet. When I told him of the poll, in a function room in a Sydney hotel, he said in his raspy voice, "I am flattered, man." Over the next half-hour he spoke about what he wanted to do as a limited-overs batsman, not necessarily how he went about doing it. Maybe he was that damn good: he didn't need to think about it.

One of the reasons most judges picked you is that you were so far ahead of the game around you. How did you approach it? The format was new.
The first thing that came to mind was the need to attack… all about maybe looking to score runs rather than to defend. By keeping it as simple as you can. It's all about looking to attack, and being in the frame of mind to do that. Sometimes some of us just look to defend. When we think of defending, sometimes we get deliveries that need to be dealt with, and we haven't quite dealt with them the way we should because we are in such a defensive mode.

My first thought would be to be aggressive, looking to put you under pressure, which sometimes - depends on who you are - some guys just basically collapsed. Then you have a command over them. This is how I looked at it. If you could not do that, then you had to be respectful because there are deliveries that need to be respected. But the first thing is to think aggression, which means I am in the best frame of mind to attack. If not, then you do the next thing, which is defending, because there are some good bowlers out there.

Take cover: Viv Richards on the attack was a fearsome creature

Take cover: Viv Richards on the attack was a fearsome creature © PA Photos

Trying to dominate the bowler. It began with the walk.
Some people sometimes suggested I was arrogant. I didn't see it that way. It was about being in a competitive environment. The other guy is competing too. I always liked to compete. You never ever know how far you can go in terms of your limits until you are pushed to the limits. Those are the simple things.

It was deliberate, wasn't it - the walk, chewing gum?
I felt strong, you know. I felt strong about my presence, you know. I always believed, anything you do there is a certain amount of presence involved. Sometimes presence sends a message: "Hey, I am ready." The game of cricket, even though there is 11 folks involved on the field, when the bowler runs in, that's six balls at you. It's just the duel between you and the bowler. Then you have the supporting cast. It's all about you and that guy then. I always relished that. I always felt very comfortable and confident in myself. Even though you are going to win at times, he has six balls to accomplish whatever he can in that period of time. That's when you win little battles. You have to win those little battles, little confrontations, before you win the war.

Did you feel the bowlers were intimidated by your presence? And your aggression?
That's the message I wanted to send. Some folk would think that a fast bowler would be always the more intimidating and getting more respect. I wanted to prove that necessarily doesn't have to be the case. I have got a bat and on my day, and any good batsman, the Sachins, the Laras, the Pontings, they will all feel that way when they are solidly in control. It's about dominating, and being in control.

"When the bowler runs in, it's just the duel between you and the bowler"

Did your wish to dominate the bowler change from Test cricket to one-day cricket?
The thinking was the same, you know. There were times, maybe, when because of the longer duration of the game you had to play and compete, sometimes you take tender care. But when you felt in the zone, it's all about continuing and hoping that you are in the zone.

In Test cricket every batsman is taught to put a price on his wicket so that he can score big.
My price was to attack. To attack. That's one way of, maybe, controlling: to attack. To get into such a position where you are in control. It's all about being in that position to just dominate in the best way you can.

Sometimes in 50-over cricket you had to risk your wicket to get quick runs, which was not the case with Test batting.
Any time you are attacking, it is a chance you are taking. You are going after the bowling. You will never know if you don't take chances. One of the things you do to test where you are at.

Mind the gap: to Richards, batsmanship was all about placing the ball between fielders

Mind the gap: to Richards, batsmanship was all about placing the ball between fielders © Getty Images

Because you were an aggressive Test batsman, did you feel it was easier for you to adapt to the one-day game?
It was just my nature. Since I was a little boy, I think. It's style, you know. I guess in Test match cricket you have more fielders in more attacking positions, which means more gaps. Not as congested as you would get in limited-overs games.

What did you do to get around those congestions in limited-overs games?
You have more defensive fields at times, but it's like maybe a Steven Smith or Virat Kohli. They pick gaps. Gaps is what it is all about. If you keep hitting it to the fieldsmen, it gets very boring, I guess. It's all about hitting the gaps. That's what batsmanship is about. Not hitting fieldsmen on regular occasions.

You will remember what you did to Lenny Pascoe when he tried to bounce you. Mark Ray, who was playing that match, wrote about it: "Then I looked back at Viv Richards, and wondered what it must feel like to decide to destroy a Test bowler in the next few deliveries - and do it with such authority." Just what does it feel like?
The same way a guy feels when he can run in to bowl and you duck and weave, and your cap falls off and you are all over the place. The same way sometimes you get your own back, when you deal with aggression. It's a feeling that you look for in a situation to win that contest. This is what competition is all about, you know. To win that contest.

"Sometimes you don't play each ball on its merit. Sometimes you think ahead. Step away to leg, go to the off side"

When Pascoe bounced you, did you make up your mind that the next ball is going?
I just felt if I am in a good position, I can do whatever. If I am in a good position, I am going to - so long as I am in a good enough position - look to do things that I enjoy doing. If I am in a good enough position, then why not? Because of the thinking - it's about you being on the defensive a few times and you may have to respect that defensive position you are in. Sometimes in defence you can bring the attack out. Counterattacking. Then, "Wow".

The bowlers, when they shake you up with a few shorter deliveries, they try and get a little fuller, hoping that you are hanging back, and by hanging back you may play one without getting as close to the delivery as you should. But I was always thinking, "When my opportunity comes…" And that's how positive your thinking should be as a batsman. When the opportunity comes to score, you have got to be in the best position to do that.

Who were these bowlers that made you respect them - in limited-overs cricket.
Not one particular bowler, you know. I guess Imran Khan. Wasim Akram towards my later stages. I always felt he was something special. The angle he came from. Such quick arm movement. You could never pick him up as clearly as you would like. So I put him in that category. I'm glad that I retired when he had just started to come in. I was in the twilight of my career. I was happy that he came at that time. He was very special.

"The bowlers, when they shake you up with a few shorter deliveries, I was always thinking, When my opportunity comes…'" © Getty Images

Which batsmen did you like to bat with in limited-overs cricket?
I liked Desmond Haynes, who would look to - especially when you are going well at one end - work it around and keep rotating the strike. That's the sign of a class player. Knows the situation he is in. I always felt he complemented me. The way he kept turning the strike over. He was the perfect foil and partner.

Did your approach to limited-overs batting change as the game progressed?
I think I went out in the same blaze of glory. I remember towards my end, that was about it. I went out and played as positively as I could. There are times when there was a need for you to be a little more careful and understanding of your role. Sometimes when you are captain and that sort of stuff. Adjust to your team requirements rather than your personal thoughts, you know.

What was your role? Score as quickly as possible or bat through the innings?
There weren't any necessary plans. It was about, so long as you keep going, why not? So long as you have still got treads in the tyre why not keep going?

"I always felt my strength was down the ground and over extra cover and over midwicket"

No, I mean there are some batsmen who are given the license to risk their wicket for quick runs.
That thought never came in. It was about being free in the mind to do whatever. There were times when you would need to make adjustments because of the position your team would be in at that time. Anyone who is in leadership positions sometimes does make those adjustments.

Did your batting change when you became captain?
I think you started to become a little bit more responsible for your decision-making, and what you would do, things like that and so on. Because of the responsibility to your team, you felt at times you needed to be like that. With thoughts - but yet still it may not change with your batting. (Laughs)

Did you build innings differently when batting first or when chasing?
No, the approach was same. Cricket is cricket. You can do too much thinking off the field, and sometimes that thinking hardly comes to fruition. It's nice to operate instinctively.

Texaco massacre: Richards on his way to a record 189, against England at Old Trafford, 1984

Texaco massacre: Richards on his way to a record 189, against England at Old Trafford, 1984 © Getty Images

As limited-overs cricket grew, batsmen began to just keep working three-four singles every over in the middle overs and then set themselves up for the big finish. Did you follow that formula?
There are times when teams require that. When you are responsible to your team, you can react to the whole. The hallmark of my game was to think about the team first.

Did you ever feel nervous or unsure or insecure?
It's nice to feel nervous. Nothing wrong with getting nervous. It means you care. And you are attentive. It's a sign that you have an understating of your requirements. Nervousness makes you react. This is something when you are competing. If you are not nervous about competing, there is something wrong with you, you know.

Do you look back and think you could have won the 1983 final by just knocking it around?
Nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah. I have always looked to be as positive as possible with my game. To think that the cards you are dealt you must play with.

"You can do too much thinking off the field, and sometimes that thinking hardly comes to fruition. It's nice to operate instinctively"

What are your favourite limited-overs innings?
I have always felt maybe the 189 against England, 138 against England in the 1979 final. Lots of other innings - 153 at the Melbourne Cricket Ground against Lillee and Thommo and the boys. All these little knocks were of importance.

In that 1979 final, the shot that you played off the last ball of the innings - had you decided before the ball was bowled that it was going there?
You do predict. It's the last ball. You are not looking for singles, you are looking to get the maximum. There was a short boundary. I predicted reasonably well and flicked it for six. Sometimes when you are playing one-day cricket, you don't play each ball on its merit. Sometimes you think ahead. Sometimes you make room to do certain things. This is the sort of stuff that can put the bowler off his mark.

But nobody used to do that before you. Where did you learn it?
It's… maybe you just felt that once you are given the licence to do that, especially in the latter overs, you could do various little different things. Step away to leg, go to the off side, all that stuff. It's all part of the entertainment factor.

Did you feel freer when you moved from Tests to one-dayers?
Yeah. Cricket is about being free, what you want to do and accomplish.

"I felt strong about my presence. Sometimes presence sends a message, 'Hey, I am ready'" © Getty Images

Did you ever think of playing fancy shots like the reverse sweep?
My style was to keep the ball in front of me. The only thing I would attempt was maybe the late cut or the sweep. But I always felt my strength was down the ground and over extra cover and over midwicket.

How do you see the evolution of limited-overs batting after you retired?
I love what I see. It is remarkable, some of the shots played. I guess when you have the helmet on, guys are as brave as ever to do certain things. It has taken batting to a new level, which is great to see. This is the sort of stuff that has helped the game.

You would never have worn a helmet even if you had continued for longer?
No. That's the way I felt at the time. Pretty confident about never having to wear it. It is a game of bat and ball, you know. If I miss, you hit, or whatever. So I kept it that way.

Since you retired has there been any batsman who reminds you of yourself?
There is a whole lot of batsmen out there that I enjoy. But I hate to compare. I don't want to make comparisons. Everyone has his own little style. I don't want to get into that topic.

When you scored 189, did you think in the middle of the innings, "This is a record, I am going into uncharted territory"?
No, I never thought about it. It's only folks who tell you afterwards. I never thought of these things. If you do your job well enough, there are so many things you are rewarded with.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo