Spectator sport

Roger Alton: The day Viv Richards came to watch me play cricket

An encounter with a legend in Antigua

11 January 2014

9:00 AM

11 January 2014

9:00 AM

Sir Vivian Richards came to watch me play cricket the other day. That’s the sort of sentence you wait a lifetime to write. What’s more it’s true. Sort of. I haven’t been able to say anything like that for ten years, just  a few days before the Rugby World Cup final in Sydney in November 2003. I was at a screening at the National Film Theatre of a nautical epic called Master and Commander, starring Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany. Afterwards there was a Q and A with the actors. After a series of standard questions about the cinematography and suchlike, I put my hand up.

‘A question for  Mr Crowe, please. Who does he think will win the World Cup final on Saturday, England or Australia?’

‘Are you being serious?’

‘You bet.’

Crowe launched into an extremely well-informed analysis, concluding that it came down to the differing strengths of the two front fives and that, on balance, England’s shaded it. In the days up to the game I could say, just about truthfully, to anyone I could persuade to listen, ‘Well I was talking to Russell Crowe the other night and he reckoned it came down to the scrum…’

Anyway, back to Sir Vivian. We were under lights at Sir Viv’s mighty Test stadium in Antigua, and Sir Viv, who has enough charisma to light the place on his own, arrived in time to see the first of the 20-odd sixes off our bowling fly into the top stand. Our opponents were named, ominously, the Antigua Legends, and we were a team of roaming journalists and friends, few of us in the first flush. And the trouble was that the young man from the Mail on Sunday had engaged in some ill-judged banter with the Legends’ skipper, an amiable giant called Wilden Cornwall, saying that he, the Mail man, was ‘The Boss’. As Wilden has a first-class batting average in the thirties and bowling in the twenties, this was not necessarily smart. Wilden, an old pal of Sir Viv’s — though he never got anywhere near a West Indies international side, which makes you think — launched one of the most savage batting onslaughts any of us had witnessed. After a bit I said to the square-leg umpire, who had stood in Test matches, ‘This is brutal stuff.’

‘Ah,’ he replied mistily. ‘You should have seen him in his prime.’

No bigger legend though, of Antigua or world cricket, than Sir Viv, who was charm itself at half time and at the presentations afterwards. For which many thanks to the Antigua Tourist Board, and if any Spectator reader wanted to taste the joys of the island and of fierce cricket, you could do worse than whipping over to the Caribbean next month for three one-day games between the West Indies and England (ahem!) at the Viv Richards Stadium from the end of February (www.windiescricket.com). Sir Viv will be there, as will the thousands of Antiguans who have always made watching on the island such a joy.

Talking of great sports stars of the 1980s, the must-have accessory for every tennis player this season is an ageing grand slam champion: Boris Becker for Novak Djokovic, Stefan Edberg for Roger Federer. Michael Chang is working with Kei Nishikori, the world No. 17, and Sergi Bruguera, twice winner of the French Open, is coaching world No. 9 Richard Gasquet. But there must be little that Edberg can teach Federer about court craft after 17 major wins, and we are unlikely to see Djokovic throwing his body the length of the net after a few chats with Becker. They are there as a comfort blanket, an ego-massager, a self-justification (‘If he wants to sit and watch me, I must be good’).

Actually, there is one branch of English sport that really could do with guidance from a great. Have you got Sir Viv’s number, Alastair Cook?

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Roger Alton is executive editor of the Times.

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