Defend Truth


King Richards the Fourth? The Kingsmead coronation that never came


Ashwin Desai is Professor of Sociology at the University of Johannesburg and author of ‘Reverse Sweep: A Story of South African Cricket Since Apartheid’.

I so wanted to get Barry Richards’ autograph. I could wend my way to the stand where Richards sat with his feet up. But my father disarmed me of pen and paper. In cricket, in 1970 apartheid South Africa, there were boundaries that the likes of him and me could not cross.

“There is only one tragedy in my life — it is my son. Not playing Test cricket is not a tragedy, it is a disappointment. Losing your son is tragedy.” – Barry Richards in conversation with Subash Jayaram.

“What do they know that school only know?” 1970. The Aussies were in town, and I was at the ground. My mother had packed a neat four-some of cheese and tomato sandwiches. 

By now the shop opposite our one-bedroomed flat had a slicing machine and they were thinner than those churned out by my mother’s long blade. We non-whites were granted an even thinner slice of turf to watch the game under the clock.

I was the tiniest and youngest and thus lots of the banter flew over my head. Later a wonderful high school Latin teacher turned English master told me that this is what is referred to as persiflage.

I came armed with my exercise book and pen. Gleeson was scratched into the first page. I would see him a lot through the Test. 51 overs in the first innings, 160 runs conceded, three wickets taken. Gleeson’s mystery would remain just that throughout the Test series.

With my back leaning on the green fence that cut off the white section from us, I munched my first two sandwiches and neatly re-wrapped the other two for lunchtime. Ali Bacher and Bill Lawry walked out for the toss. I was barely 11, but already without knowing it a student of the game. Asthma often made me flat-bound and my uncle Desmond devised an indoor game. I would have to come up with two international teams and then use dice to score them. If it landed on five it was out. And so, I got to know names like Worrell, Walcott and Weekes, Farouk Engineer, Bishen Bedi and Zaheer Abbas. These were names and their dicey scores I scratched into exercise books when exercise I could not.

Barry Richards ambled on the field and insouciantly took guard. I had already watched him bat for Natal. He could pierce a packed cover field with the precision of Aunty Ivy’s thrown slipper. This was a man who had honed his reflexes at school, as Mike Procter would reveal, by throwing “a golf ball against a wall then hit(ting) it back with a cricket bat”.

Test cricket is a staid affair. But as Barry reached his 80s a buzz began. Would he be crowned a centurion before lunch? The last was Donald Bradman in 1930. Barry would have been King Richards the Fourth. Richards entered the nineties with a sensible shot. But Bill Lawry was a canny sort. He took longer in deploying cadres to police the boundaries than Cyril appointing the SABC Board. The clock behind me ticked. Barry was stuck on 94.

This amazing innings is overshadowed by Graeme Pollock’s 274 which surpassed Jackie McGlew’s record of 225 not out. Still, in my 11-year-old mind, Richards’s innings with its 24 fours and a six is arguably the greatest in the period of apartheid Kingsmead.

We saw the cover drive, a dance down the wicket to Gleeson that was like a pirouette on a pin and a cut so late that I nearly peed. I did. But in Durban’s humidity, everyone dribbled in the non-white stand between the press of armpits and thighs.

Where Richards caressed, Pollock with his open stance was all power, much like his namesake the painter Jackson who it is said “hurled pigment at his canvas like pies”.

While Barry lunched, I reached for my sandwich. Ants as big as broad beans had got under the covers. The tea room for non-whites was not open. A pot-bellied cricket lover on the other side of the fence leaned over and gave me an overweight sausage with a sticky sauce. I was to learn later in life it was boerewors.

After lunch, Richards began swinging the sceptre. Not wildly like you see these days with unnecessary flourishes. Every shot leapt from the textbook, or from a family movie on the silver screen, clean, brief kisses between bat and ball. He went on to get 140 runs from 164 balls, a strike rate of over 85. And before I had finished licking my fingers he was gone.

“Recorded centuries leave no trace/on memory of their timeless grace”. John Arlott

Richards embodied all the tragedy and farce of the time. He had a laid-back elegance accompanied by a petulance and impetuosity. In 1967 he crafted a hundred for an Invitation XI against the visiting Aussies in East London.

That evening, when refused entry to a nightclub, he kicked over a vase. It ensured he would not make the Test team.

He opened for Hampshire with the West Indian Gordon Greenidge but lived in a country where Basil D’Oliveira could not play for the Springboks let alone tour the country of his birth with England. 

He was hippish but chased money and sponsors with the adage “you can’t eat a century and cups don’t pay for rent”. As his old mate Mike Procter put it, “at his peak Barry was seeking extra enjoyment from his genius by asking for more and more money. Kerry Packer’s offer in 1977 was perfect for him… It was only the prospect of playing against international touring sides that brought him back to South Africa…”.  

My father accompanied me on the third or fourth day. I so wanted to get Barry Richards’ autograph. I could wander behind the clock and wend my way to the stand where Richards sat with his feet up. But my father placed a gentle hand on my shoulder and disarmed me of pen and paper. How does a father tell a son who lectured him on the niceties of the gentlemen’s game that, in cricket, there were boundaries that the likes of him and me could not cross? 

But still, we followed Richards. We drove seven hours to the Wanderers. I was petrified as there was a huge gap as you climbed to the top of the Non-White stand. The signs confused my young mind. At cricket grounds I was non-White. At Payne Brothers when I joined my mother in the queue, we were non-European. Who said identities were not fluid during apartheid?

If I remember correctly, Richards had hurt his back. So, Ali Bacher got Don Mackay-Coghill to attack the leg stump cramping Barry. It worked in the first innings as Barry was out for 34. But he snapped back in the second to make 134.

Ah, Ali Bacher. He had the peculiar charm of the cunning. When asked by Crispin Andrews in April 2018 about what makes for a good administrator, Bacher replied “adaptability, flexibility, ruthlessness”. All those qualities were on display at the Wanderers and would serve him well when apartheid fell and the Springboks morphed into the Proteas.

The 1971/2 season was a marvellous, record-breaking one for Richards. He scored 1,089 runs with an average of 77.78. Next best was Arthur Short with 435 runs and an average of 31.7. It was Richards at the height of his powers.

Life has thrown Richards some hard personal blows, none more so than the suicide of his son. Quick-tempered comments have tarnished the elegant sheen. As Arunabha Gupta observes, he portrays “the impression of a rather bitter, grumpy man who has not quite made peace with the rather cruel hand dealt to him by fate. A trifle too quick to criticise the modern greats, the modern game, the modern bats… in short anything to do with recent cricket.”

Mike Procter, unlike Richards, swept into the post-1990 unified cricket structures with an unbridled enthusiasm. Procter last played for the Springboks in March 1970 against the Aussies. And there he was in Australia in 1994: “We had just beaten Australia by five runs in one of the most amazing Tests of all time… The team kept coming back from the dead, refusing to lie down, and we had triumphed in a breathless finish… As the team’s manager, I was naturally overwhelmed with pride and joy…”.

Richards was probably sulking in the corner thinking “what about me?” Both though were joined at the hip. Playing South African Schools, then for the Springboks, and coming up against each other in the English County circuit. How to think about their similar yet different final trajectories in life?

It is the test of biography writing to try and tease this out. To avoid generalities and apply Erben’s evocative idea of “a sociology of the individual”. This, die-hard sociologists might quip, is an oxymoron, but it captures the idea of a person as at once a product and agent of history.

Procter and Richards could both turn a game on its head through the force of temperament and the unorthodox. But there were broader social forces that they could not change, and they were condemned to ply their trade on the English county circuit.

Procter so dominated his county team of Gloucestershire that it was often called Proctershire. And as I write this, I can still picture the Richards, oh Richards, the late cut in which the bat was at once stiletto and cleaver — “that fragile moment” as Barthes would have it “when the world is stilled, touching on both silence and applause”.

Of course, they both said some stupid things during apartheid. None though more stupid than the ANC/SACP ideologues of the time about the nirvana and immortality of Soviet Communism.   

One gets a sense that Procter would snap at a chance to celebrate the 100th year of Test cricket at Kingsmead. Richards would huff and puff. I hope though he comes to the house of cricket that he so long dominated and where he gave so many so much joy.

There is an 11-year-old boy who is waiting, 1970 exercise book in hand, hoping to exorcise the ghosts of times past and venture into fields his father never could. DM


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