The journey Sir Vivian Richards won't forget
While the honour of becoming BBC Sport's greatest overseas county player is another feather in Sir Vivian Richards's hat, the story of how he landed in Somerset is a reflection of old virtues
In the 1970s and 1980s, sports pages in India devoted substantial space for county cricket scores, and for good reason. Farokh Engineer was a popular wicketkeeper-batsman with Lancashire, Bishan Singh Bedi wore Northamptonshire colours, fellow left-arm spinner Dilip Doshi was a pro with Nottinghamshire before Warwickshire and S Venkataraghavan turned out for Derbyshire.
Sunil Gavaskar spent a season at Somerset in 1980. Kapil Dev went over to Northampton and later Worcestershire while Ravi Shastri enjoyed some productive English summers with Glamorgan in the late 1980s and then in 1991.
Vintage county cricket was in the news again last week when Sir Vivian Richards was voted as English county cricket's greatest overseas player by BBC Sport website users.
Richards beat the likes of Clive Lloyd and Sir Richard Hadlee to claim 43.2 per cent of the votes.
The cricket icon from Antigua, who played for Somerset from 1974 to 1986 and then for Glamorgan from 1990 to 1993 (except when West Indies toured England), strode the county scene like a colossus.
Richards got his first taste of England when he was sent, along with fast bowler Andy Roberts, to the Alf Gover cricket school in London in 1972, thanks to the decision of Antigua's coaching committee. Gover tried to change Richards's grip but to no avail but Richards lapped up the English coach's instructions to play with his bat and pad closer to each other.
In 1973, Somerset County Cricket Club's vice-chairman Len Creed, also a bookmaker in Bath, brought a side called Mendip Acorns to the Caribbean. In Creed's wallet was a clipping from The Cricketer magazine, which quoted Colin Cowdrey, the ex-England captain praising Richards's batting from a previous tour. Creed viewed Richards as a future Somerset player and managed to meet him sooner than expected, thanks to his helpful taxi driver, Willie.
Richards was summoned by Willie as he was practising with his Rising Sun CC teammates and soon the duo were at the Blue Waters Hotel where Creed had checked in. Andy Roberts joined them but Roberts was well on his way to joining Hampshire.
Though Creed was Somerset's vice-president, he couldn't get Richards straight into the county's team. Not because Richards failed to score big in a club game which Creed watched in Antigua but because players had to prove their worth in club cricket before attaining county colours. However, Creed was determined to get Richards to the county in an arrangement, "based on faith and trust," according to Richards in his official biography written by Trevor McDonald.
He was promised a job and a chance to play for Landsdown club in Bath. Creed couldn't manage to get the young Antiguan on the same flight to Heathrow, but he didn't have a problem in waiting at the airport for two hours before Richards's plane touched down.
At the Immigration counter, Richards was asked for his work permit. He didn't have one and that caused some anxiety before Creed used his good offices and got clearance from the Home Secretary.
Richards worked as an assistant groundsman at Landsdown and his near-blistered hands used to receive one pound as daily wages.
His first game for Landsdown second XI came about because another player dropped out. April 26, 1973 was the day Richards made his "English debut" against hosts Weston-super-Mare. The opposition were bowled out for 95 and Richards opened the innings with Alan King, who got 29, but the young gun scored the rest of the runs. On a pitch which Richards found soft as pudding, he finished the match with two sixes. Creed was chuffed and his reputation as a talent spotter grew. He also stood a good chance of getting the amount he paid for Richards's Antigua-London flight reimbursed because there was an understanding that Somerset would do so only if he emerged good enough to play for the county.
It was at Landsdown where he developed a friendship with a Sri Lankan teammate called 'Shandy' Perera. In Viv Richards by David Foot, Perera is credited for advising Richards to "begin striking the ball off the front [foot]."
On returning home, Richards Sr, according to Foot's book, called his son aside and said, "The studies in New York are still there if you want to take them up. But cricket for Somerset may be an even better way of using your talents." His boy, who had worked out that he could be earning around 2000 pounds a season, could just nod.
Richards's Somerset debut took place in the summer of 1974 – against the touring Indians in a May 1-3 fixture. Ajit Wadekar's Indians were bowled out for 175 and Richards walked in at 63-2. Just after scoring seven he was trapped leg before wicket courtesy Syed Abid Ali's in-cutter. "Yes, you could see his class. But what also impressed me was his fielding. He was sharp and stood out from the rest at Taunton," Abid Ali told me from California on Tuesday.
In 20 Championship games that season, he scored 1,154 runs at 34.96 and was the only batsman to score two centuries for his county led by ex-Yorkshire and England star, Brian Close. Kudos in the Trevor Bailey-edited John Player Yearbook of 1975 ("He should also have a distinguished Test career.") proved prophetic.
There was no doubt among opposing teams as to who in the Somerset side had to be sent back soon to stand a good chance of winning. I asked Doshi what it was like to bowl to a batsman of Richards's calibre in county cricket. "Viv was obviously a very good player, one of the best I have bowled to – extremely respectable opponent, very proud man. I didn't lose sleep over anybody. I had to do my job and set my field accordingly," said the ex-Notts spinner, who dismissed Richards for not many in both innings at Bath in 1977.
If Richards is asked about his most memorable season with Somerset, he'd probably chose the 1979 one because Somerset won the Gillette Cup and the John Player League in one grand September weekend. Like he did at Lord's in the World Cup final against England earlier that year, Richards smoked a match-winning hundred in the Gillette Cup final against Northampton.
Richards's Somerset exit in 1986 was a highly controversial one. But that is for another day. We'll save BBC Sport's greatest overseas county cricket player the thorn in this special bouquet.
mid-day's group sports editor Clayton Murzello is a purist with an open stance. He tweets @ClaytonMurzello
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