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The genius who could have been a great

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Barry_Richards_South_Africa_CricketThose who had the fortune of watching him bat were left awestruck. He had the perfection of Sachin Tendulkar, the elegance of David Gower and the dominance of Brian Lara. Barry Richards was one of a kind. Had his international career not been cut short, many believe the South African batsman would have gone on to become one of the greatest batsmen of all time; the next Don Bradman, even. Sir Donald Bradman himself had called Barry Richards the greatest right-handed opener and picked him in his all-time greatest XI team.

It’s disappointing, then, that we have so little to cherish of his exquisite qualities. Save for rare, grainy footage of some of his knocks in first-class cricket for Hampshire and Western Australia, the greatness of Barry Richards’ batting remains imprinted largely in the minds of those who had the privilege of watching him bat.

It’s unfortunate that a batsman as talented as Richards got to play only 4 Tests – all against Australia. And even in those Tests, he left a solid impression, scoring 508 runs at an average of 72.57 with two hundreds. Considering it was his debut series, that in itself was a phenomenal achievement.

Unfortunately, the ugliness and horror that was apartheid barred South Africa from international cricket for 22 years. Barry wasn’t able to exhibit his prowess to the world. Had history been different and he been allowed to play, Richards would have most certainly set new benchmarks in batting. At least that’s what most players from his era believe.

 

“I am convinced he (Barry Richards) could have rewritten the record books – and rewritten them with a style and grace matched by precious few players in the history of the game,” ex-England captain Tony Greig has said.

 

Anyone who has amassed 28,358 runs with 80 centuries and 152 fifties in first-class cricket must have had some amount of talent. What could have been an outstanding international career was not to be. The story of Barry Richards will always be recalled with a tinge of regret in the annals of cricket history. He was a batsman of staggering talent and the cricket world was only poorer to have been deprived of his genius.

Richards made his debut in the January Test of 1970 against Australia at Cape Town. It has been 48 years since and yet the Barry Richards saga continues to enthrall cricket enthusiasts even today; his aura, his style and his legend makes for a fascinating, heartbreaking tale.

The legend of Barry Richards

Richards had shown his tremendous batting aptitude early in his life and was a well known child prodigy in South African domestic cricket. At the age of 17 he captained a robust South African school side that toured England. In one of the fixtures on that tour, against an invitational side, Richards had to face the wily Australian leg-spinner Richie Benaud. So impressed was Benaud with this young batsman that he later went on to write about him in one of his books, noting: “Even then it was quite clear that he was a player out of the ordinary.”

At the age of 24, he made his international debut and his maiden Test ton came in only his second Test – a stunning 140 off 164 balls against Australia at Durban. Richards flayed the Australian bowling to all parts of the Kingsmead, his sublime strokeplay enthralling the spectators.

Barry Richards was much in demand. The English county scene had just opened its doors to overseas players in 1968 and Richards got offers from Hampshire and Sussex. Richards chose the former and in the years to follow became one of the most prominent batsmen to have played for Hampshire. Such were his feats that even today he is regarded with great reverence in English county circles.

Richards played English county cricket from 1968 to 1976 and during that time he scored 15,607 first-class runs at an average of 50.51. During this period, his average in the county was in the top 20 in each season. In ten seasons with Hampshire, Richards scored more than a 1000 runs in all but one season.

Richards played for South Australia in the 1970/71 Sheffield Shield season. In that season alone he amassed bucketfuls of runs at a remarkable average of 109.85 and became only the second batsman after Don Bradman to score a hundred against all opponents.

 

One of the most significant moments of Richards’ career came during his stay with South Australia. While playing in a four-day match against Western Australia at Perth in November 1970, Richards produced his highest first-class score of 356. The most notable feature of this knock was that Richards smashed 325 of those runs in a single day in 322 balls and against a bowling attack that included names like Dennis Lillee, Graham McKenzie and Tony Lock.

 

Only five batsmen had scored more runs than this in a day. The South African batsman enjoyed the bounce of the WACA track and made merry while punishing the bowlers with panache. His epic effort included 48 fours and a six and is still considered by many as one of the very best played in Australia.

In his entire first-class career, Richards scored a century before lunch nine times, five of which were made on the very first day of the match.

His phenomenal feats in first class cricket also earned him a deal with World Series Cricket. Here too, Richards was thoroughly impressive and relished the opportunity to play in the company of world-class cricketers again. In all, Richards played in just five ‘Supertests’, but left his imprint in them by scoring 554 runs with 2 hundreds and 2 fifties at an average of 79.14 – the highest by some distance.

An artist with the bat

When in flow, Barry Richards was a treat to watch. At the crease, he was an artist, painting with elegant strokes. He had two shots for every ball and loved smashing deliveries over extra cover or late-cutting them to the boundary.

Tall, wristy and dogged, Richards had great hand-eye co-ordination and possessed the gift of touch and grace. He was swift on his feet and always looked to dominate bowlers. Technically, he was very sound as well. What made him even more dangerous was his knack of scoring runs at a brisk pace.

 

His flair was beautiful to watch. He loved entertaining the crowds and toying with the bowlers once he got set. An apocryphal tale went that mediocre bowling often bored Richards so much that he would get out at times out of sheer boredom.

 

While there might have been many batsmen who were more aesthetically pleasing than Richards, very few had the style and grace he had. He was near perfection to watch with innumerable delectable little things to enjoy from his performances.

He was one of the most complete batsmen to have played the game.  

A genius cut short

Those who played with him believe that his curtailed Test career hurt him. Though he did enjoy playing first-class cricket, the fact that he could not exhibit his talent to the international cricket community gnawed at him throughout his career.

When one is as gifted as Barry Richards was, one cannot be satisfied by pleasing attendees of the local English county game; you want the world to see your talent. This is rumoured to have affected his game and concentration, and was why he fell so many times in the 70s and 80s.

Regardless, there is no denying that Richards was one of the finest batsmen of his time. It’s unfortunate that his greatness was never truly seen by the world. His legend will be remembered with wonder, but there will always be a touch of sadness as well.

Barry Richards will forever remain the genius who might have been.

 

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