Last week, I had the pleasure of spending an evening with my old friend and former team-mate, Barry Richards. It was a bittersweet meeting; it is always good to catch up with him but this was the first time I had seen him since the death of his partner, Ingrid, last November. He was giving a talk at the Lilley Brook Golf Club in Cheltenham in aid of Maggie’s Centres, a charity set up to aid those affected by cancer, both patients and carers. So it was a cause close to Barry’s heart.
Typically, he barely touched upon his personal life but confined his presentation to what his audience wanted to hear – cricket, his memories of his career and his opinions of the modern game. As he sat there, perched on his stool, at ease and relaxed, talking fluently and perceptively, I pondered what a loss he is to the world of cricket commentary, on radio or television, just as he was to Test cricket in the apartheid years. His home country has shunned him, as they have so many of his generation, and other broadcasting corporations have missed a trick in not employing his matchless skill behind a microphone. Mark Nicholas always contended that Barry was among the top half-dozen former cricketers who think most deeply and most imaginatively about the game (the others being Donald Bradman, Ted Dexter, Mike Brearley, Martin Crowe – now sadly deceased – and Shane Warne) and it is a tragedy that Barry’s views these days are largely confined to gatherings such as this.
For he had much to say. I shall confine this article to just two topics upon which he expressed an opinion. He made mention of the exponential growth in white ball cricket. Far from decrying its influence, he encouraged us, the traditionalists among us, to embrace it wholeheartedly. Like the motor car, it cannot be uninvented; better to get behind the wheel and take advantage of its undeniable benefits. First and foremost, it has brought untold wealth into the game, with financial rewards for the players only dreamt of by his generation. Most of it emanates from India and that nation’s insatiable appetite for the shortened version of the game. He offered up this as a mind-boggling statistic. There are more millionaires in India than there are people in Australia. The facts speak for themselves; India is now the big beast in the world of cricket. This brought responsibility hand in hand with all that booty. Were the authorities charged with the welfare of the game doing their job? Were they protecting the heritage and interests of cricket at all levels worldwide? He wasn’t so sure. He fears for the future of Test cricket. There is a real possibility that the Test nations will, ipso facto, divide themselves into two tiers. It is incumbent on the richer countries (India, England, Australia) to support the poorer countries (West Indies, Bangladesh, Zimbabwe et al) otherwise uncompetitive and ultimately meaningless series will result and Test cricket will slowly die. For eight years, Barry sat on the MCC World Cricket Committee, a think tank tasked with making recommendations to the governing body of the game, the ICC. One of their suggestions was the formation of a world Test cricket championship. It was a good idea, he contended, supported by many thoughtful players past and present, but so far, nothing has transpired. He worries that we are sleepwalking to disaster.
Has one-day cricket improved the game, he was asked. Batting has been totally transformed, he answered. Mind you, he added, have you seen the difference in the thickness of today’s bat compared with those of yesteryear? Helmets and shorter boundaries have contributed too. The fielding has improved out of sight, he admitted (though I might have taken issue with him here; there were brilliant fielders in his day – he was one of them – but the general standard has gone up, I agree). The bowling? He gave a wry smile. Pretty ordinary, he reckoned.
It was not long before the question he had been anticipating all evening was put to him: what’s happened to South Africa in this current World Cup? His answer was succinct. They have been playing rubbish (this was even before their elimination a couple of days later). They had been unlucky with injuries, he conceded, but their campaign had been derailed almost before it had started. To put it bluntly, they had no Plan B. But it was worse than just one poor tournament. The malaise in the body politic of South African cricket ran deep and had come about by years of poor strategic planning and a neglect of any sort of coherent policy to unearth the next generation of Test players. The only provision for youth cricket was provided by the schools. The recreational bedrock of the game, club cricket, was dead on its feet and the first-class game……well, here, he gave a hollow laugh. It was anything but first-class. What was required was a coming together of a cadre of committed former players to thrash out a 10-year plan to put South Africa back at the top of the pile. He for one would be more than willing to get involved. “But they don’t want to know,” he added sadly, “It would be nice to be invited back to watch a Test match on my home ground but no…..” His voice tailed off. Good players will still emerge – good players always do somehow - but that will be in spite of, rather than because of, the current system.
The rights and wrongs of the quota system he skirted round skilfully. It was not just that the Test team had to contain a certain number of black and Asian players; all teams down to the U11s were subjected to the same regulations. He understood the political imperative behind the initiative but that does not make for a harmonious atmosphere within a dressing room. If a kid is left out of a team to accommodate another who is clearly not so good, he will soon tire of the game and go off and do something else. The surf at Durban has no quotas.
These days, Barry fills his days on the golf course playing a game – you will be unsurprised to hear – he is damned good at. I reflected as the applause ran round the room that for a man blessed with such supreme talents, he hasn’t had much luck in his life. Only four Tests to his name before South Africa’s isolation from world sport closed in and a successful career denied him commenting on the game when so many behind the microphone burble on so inconsequentially. Barry Richards was anything but inconsequential. How does the song Big Yellow Taxi by Joni Mitchell go?