Exclusive: Barry Richards chats to Cricket365

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Donald Bradman once said that cancelling the Australia series against South Africa in 1971, which resulted in SA’s cricket isolation for 21 years ‘was one of the saddest days of my life. It meant the end of Barry Richards’ Test career.’

Richards, who played just four Tests (two tons, ave 72.57) before Apartheid-driven sanctions kicked in, went on to become a Hampshire legend and then a fixture in Australia’s cricketing history. But the end of that Test career has always saddened many, not just The Don.

‘Richo’, now living in Knysna on South Africa’s south coast, is the subject of a biography by friend and former Hants team-mate Andrew Murtagh, called ‘Sundial in the shade. The story of Barry Richards: The genius lost to Test cricket.’

We had a long chat with Richards about the book, his contributions to the game (many of which are not common knowledge and made for fascinating reading), his frustrations, and the state of the game today.

How did the idea for the book come about?

It’s fulfilling a bucket list for Andrew Murtagh. He obviously was a pro cricketer but realised at a young age that he wasn’t quite going to make it as a full-time cricketer. So he went off and taught for 30 years at Malvern College. But his real passion was writing books. He asked me if I wouldn’t mind doing it (being the subject of a book) for him.

Did you need much convincing?

Nah. He said to me ‘I’d really like to tell your story because I saw you play at your best and I can’t imagine what the frustration must have been like, to not play on the highest stage.’ So that was his motivation for writing it.

I liked the style of it. It’s more like a really long interview…

That’s Andrew’s style. He’s very laid back and he’s one of those guys that it’s easy to talk to. It flowed reasonably easily. The cricket side was easy, the personal stuff was much harder.

You come across as a fairly private person in the book. Did speaking to a friend, someone you know fairly well, make it easier to discuss the past frustrations? Compared to speaking to someone you didn’t know?

There are two issues to that. Obviously I did know him well, and he was with Hampshire for quite a while. But the other thing is he understands cricket, he’s had mental problems himself, with a bit of depression. So he understood the cricket issues, the family issues (Richards’ son Mark committed suicide in 2009 – Ed). If anyone could understand it, he would.

It’s not an autobiography at all. It’s clearly written by someone who is a big fan of yours.

I think it’s by somebody who played cricket, and that’s always nice, having someone write about your subject who played to a pretty high level. He understands the cricket side, and he’s obviously a very intelligent man. It was an easy book to do.

Was it difficult, looking back over your life and career and rehashing things that may have frustrated you or made you unhappy?

Nah… When you get to my age (70), you get over it. It’s not coming back, and if you keep looking at it that way… There’s a certain amount of frustration when you do something like that, but it’s more about the non-recognition of those former players.

Nothing brought that more home to me than when I went to Clive’s funeral (Clive Rice passed away in July) and there was an article in the Cape Times that was a real back-hander. Clive didn’t deserve that. Whatever his views were, he was always upfront, he was always honest, and I thought he didn’t deserve that. Those sorts of things frustrate you now and again.

And of course, Graeme Pollock suffering (he has Parkinson’s disease)… All the television money that South Africa generates, it would be very easy for Cricket South Africa to take some of that money and say to Graeme, ‘Come to the Test match, be a host for us, an ambassador.’ It’s something that he deserves. But it’s never going to happen, so there’s no point driving yourself mad over it.

The word tragedy is used quite a lot when describing your career. Do you feel that it’s the right word, given why isolation happened, and in context of your life?

It’s probably not. It’s more Andrew putting in context of disappointment. Princess Diana dying is a tragedy. My son dying is a tragedy. Missing out on a sporting career is not really a tragedy. If you could find a word that’s a little bit less that ‘tragedy’ then that would be the right one. But it was his book, I was the subject.

Is there anything in the book you’d go back and change?

I read the book quite a few times, in that it was hashed over and get it to a stage where it wasn’t upsetting anybody. To be honest, to keep reading it over and over and dissecting it wasn’t something I wanted to do. I was happy with the final print and what went out, and there’s no point in nitpicking it. It’s written from the heart from Andrew and spoken in honesty by me.

Before I started reading it, my first question, given the age we’re in where everyone is able to change teams, is why you didn’t try to play for England? (He was with Hampshire for 10 years)

Not only did I not want to, but you have to look at the rules at the time. Graham Hick, who is even younger than me, had to sit out for seven years before he could play for England. The rules were very different. You couldn’t even change counties in the old days. And if someone moved from Transvaal to Natal, if it wasn’t work related then everyone would be up in arms. When I was very young, even moving clubs was a major thing, you just didn’t move clubs. Loyalty was a big factor in the old days. It’s applied less and less as we go along. People now would not understand the rules that applied when I was 25.

It’s unimaginable now. Like KP, for example.

In the old days, to make a name for yourself, you had to play for your country, simple as that. Nowadays you’re an independent contractor. Chris Gayle doesn’t have to play for his country to make a lot of money, his destiny is in his own hands and he can do what he wants to. We didn’t really have that option.

You were accused of being a mercenary when you played for South Australia (for one season, instead of going home to Natal), and then the Packer revolution…

That’s where the loyalty thing came in. Even before that, I swapped clubs. I wanted to play with Trevor Goddard, he was a bit of a mentor for me, so I swapped clubs. That caused a major ruckus in Durban, you’d think I’d committed a murder. But that’s very hard for people now to understand, it was just not the done thing.

It was just the circumstances at the time. Guys like Robin Smith, Allan Lamb, Kepler Wessels, I don’t have any problem with them. They’re a generation younger than me and they saw that it (playing Tests for SA) wasn’t going to happen and they made the decision to take their talents somewhere else. There’s nothing wrong with that.

The Packer series (World Series of Cricket in 1978/9) must have been a no-brainer for you…

Absolutely. Because I was playing club cricket in Perth I was the very first overseas player to be signed, and that was purely because of geography. I happened to be the closest overseas player. It was a no-brainer for us, we’d never got anywhere near that sort of money before. It was very easy for us to sign.

Would you have enjoyed T20 cricket?

Of course! You have the freedom to do anything. And with the bats and boundaries today, you don’t have to hit the ball too hard to get it over the boundary. If you’re a batsman, it would have been, as you say, a no-brainer.

The dominant feeling in the book was frustration, but I didn’t find you or the book to be negative, per se. Do you think that if you were less talented, you’d have been happier in county cricket for all those years?

Yes, probably. I’ve often said this, but I wish I’d made more friends and scored less runs. That’s a product of my upbringing. My dad was a hard man. He shook my hand at 21, gave me a Parker pen and said welcome to the world, and when I got my first job he took half my money in rent. That’s the kind of upbringing that you were exposed to.

Being a latch key kid, I spent a lot of time on my own. A lot of people took it as arrogance, but I was shy and I was never very good at handling the limelight. Someone like Vince van der Bijl, he handled people really well, but I found that difficult.

Is that why being a commentator was tough for you, in the long run? You had the knowledge…

I was never a presenter. I was always better as an analyst. I can understand the game, read the game, I can say what the captain or the bowler’s thinking. But to go out and chat to Andrew Strauss or Ricky Ponting ‘What do you think about that?’ I was never going to be good at that and I knew it. I just called it as I saw it. I knew I wasn’t going to be a natural presenter, someone asking the questions.

I did a couple of those (Sky Master classes) when I was in England, out on the field, and I did them pretty well. That kind of thing, educating people about cricket, I’d have done a pretty reasonable job.

You coached South Australia for a season. Did you not want to be an international coach? Would you have taken up such an offer?

I was the batting coach for Sri Lanka and I really enjoyed it. I worked with a very young Mahela and a young Sanga, and I spent a lot of time with them and I really enjoyed that. We had long discussions, they’re very bright guys, they were fantastic.

But my work went in a different direction, I was offered the CEO’s job in Queensland. I hadn’t really had time to think about it, I was on the coaching trail and then suddenly offered that CEO job.

It’s not widely known that you were in charge of Queensland for eight years. And that the Bulls were the first team to have a franchise name, which you started.

Ja, it started with myself and a chap called Andrew Blucher and we were the very first team to have a name. That was many years ago. I was very proud of my time at Queensland, we won the Shield for the first time in 75 years or something. The ‘Gabba was 12 000 seats when I started and 34 000 when I left. If you talk about a frustration, it’s that all that knowledge is sitting here in Knysna and no-one ever wanted to use it.

Your best batting partner for a long time at Hampshire was Gordon Greenidge. You weren’t bosom buddies, by your own admission. Is the importance of being ‘mates’ with team mates overstated?

It depends. I think in many respects it is. We always stayed for a drink, no matter who you were. Everybody stayed, it was just the norm. You didn’t have to stay long, but it was a bonding session for 20 minutes after the game. Today they hardly talk to each other during the game. It has become a much more individual game within a team environment.

They keep kissing the cap when they get to 100, but if you had to tell them they’re playing for nothing the next Test, they wouldn’t be kissing the cap! It’s become very money-oriented, which I don’t have a problem with, but we just have to be  more careful to make sure we don’t de-value Test cricket.

Risky Singles (Controversial topics, one-sentence answers)

Quotas: “Difficult. It’s something that we have to pay attention to but in the end, merit’s got to count.”

Day-night Tests: “The ball. Get the ball right and it’ll happen.”

The Big Three: “Should be tackled by the bottom 7.”

KP: “Love him. I think he is the kind of guy that’s good for cricket. A lot of people find him divisive but he generates a lot of publicity for cricket.”

Steven Smith: “Uh….Steve Smith… Needs to sort his footwork out if he’s going to play on seaming wickets, but I don’t think he’ll do a bad job as captain.”

DRS: “In transition, and not 100 percent, which is why India won’t accept it, but it’s better than the human eye.”

Mankading: (Laughs, because he’s done it) “Gee, I’ll tell you what, that’s a regret. But I still think you should have the bat behind the crease line when the bowler lets the ball go. Too many guys are three or four yards down, and then they get in by an inch but they’ve pinched a few yards on the other side. A run should be 20 yards, crease to crease. Be careful!”

Olympic cricket: “T20 only.”

Nkandla: “That money should have been spent on education.”

By Lindsay du Plessis