Fire still burning for Windies great Richardson

WINDIES GREAT: Richie Richardson.
WINDIES GREAT: Richie Richardson.

''There's the guy from the West Indies, it's... it's, Brian Lara. Hi Brian,'' stammered and squealed a young teenager playing a makeshift cricket game at Dunedin's University Oval.

The man in question smiled his encapsulating smile and said ''hi there'' as he walked by.

The problem was, it wasn't Lara at all, but another legend of West Indies cricket, Richie Richardson.

At 51, Richardson is more than seven years Lara's senior, so enjoyed being mistaken for a younger man.

Besides, it wasn't the young local's fault; Richardson was wearing a West Indies baseball cap, not his trademark, faded maroon wide-brimmed number.

Dressed in team issue West Indies kit, Richardson still epitomises cool. Shiny, gold chains on his neck hold his wedding ring.

''Of course I wear it here,'' he said, flashing his pearly whites again.

''It's close to my heart.''

It would be cheesy in a New Zealand accent, but cool in Richardson's.

His trainers are bright and shiny and he sits, well, lounges, and talks like nothing matters.

The hat doesn't seem right though. A cap looks as foreign on Richardson's head as a helmet did in the last couple of tests.

He still owns that famous floppy; the hat he wore in lieu of a helmet despite getting hit in the face early in his career by Sri Lanka's Ashantha de Mel.

It's at his home in Antigua.

''I never really felt comfortable in a helmet,'' he said.

''They weren't available when I was a youngster and when I tried it, it didn't feel comfortable and I didn't feel safe.''

He'd faced the fastest bowlers at home playing for the Leeward Islands anyway and knew he could cope.

In his first season of first-class cricket he scored two centuries, one against a Barbados team featuring Malcolm Marshall and Joel Garner. The other was against a Jamaica team featuring Michael Holding, Patrick Patterson and Courtney Walsh.

Funnily enough, he was soon brought into the test squad.

He then developed in the side facing some of the best bowlers of his generation day in and day out in the nets.

''And they didn't take it lightly in the nets either,'' he said.

The West Indies cricketing school of hard knocks didn't work for everyone, but for Richardson it did.

In his 86 tests, Richardson scored 5949 runs at an average of 44.39.

His name sits 10th overall in runs scored for the West Indies.

It was the challenge that fired him up.

And he had no problem if bowlers did try and hit him; Richardson was as assured as anyone off the back foot and happily ran the hooking gauntlet.

''I've always loved a challenge. That's what the game is about, going to war and rising to anything challenge thrown your way.''

That's why he grew an extra leg against Australia too. He scored nine of his 16 centuries against them.

''Their aggression, their fight, I loved it,'' he said.

''It fired me up. I knew they were lifting so I lifted too.''

After watching the West Indies side on television, Richardson was drawn in.

He'd stay up all night watching overseas test matches - when available - then train all day.

''We had quite a few people where I'm from who weren't really into cricket, but they would bowl. They'd bowl all day to me. I'd bat so long my back was sore, just from batting.

''I remember I couldn't bat one day because I'd batted for so long my hands were raw, all the skin was coming off.''

It was that passion - and plenty of runs - that helped force Richardson into one of the strongest cricket sides the world has ever seen. And keep him there.

While he remembers fondly his maiden test century - 131 not out against Australia in Barbados in 1984 in his fourth test - ''and a couple of other centuries'', Richardson's favourite highlight was making and staying in the West Indies side in its prime.

''For me, the greatest thing about my career was to be able to entrench myself among stars like Clive Lloyd, Viv Richards, Michael Holding, Malcolm Marshall, Joel Garner, Desmond Haynes, Gordon Greenidge, Jeffrey  Dujon.''

There were plenty of comparisons with Richards, the man he eventually replaced as skipper in controversial circumstances, though Richardson never liked them.

Competition however, coursed through his veins, in whatever he did. It seems talent did too.

Aged just 16, Richardson played football for Antigua - before he'd played cricket for his country.

He's a handy tennis player and plays golf of single figures.

''Even though I hardly ever get to play,'' he was quick to add.

Football was his first love, though, and the midfielder with a penchant for strong tackles played until recent knee surgery.

He also kept his hand in cricket. Only three years ago - before he became the Windies' manager - he was still playing as a professional in lower English leagues.

And scoring runs, of course.

''And taking wickets.''

His current role is more about mentorship than helping technically.

He admitted the side's current form and longtime dip from the upper echelons was a major sense of frustration.

More work was needed and higher standards, he said.

''Back in our day, everything had to be right. It had to be of a very high standard. The way you played, the way you practiced, your attitude, even the way you dressed. Even the girl you spoke to,'' he laughed.

''The success didn't just come, we earned it.''