Castries (St. Lucia): As he walks down the aisle of the plane flying from Jamaica to St Lucia, the Master Blaster greets a West Indies player with a finger-tip high five, a total stranger with a polite nod and shares a joke with a fellow Antiguan.
At 50, Sir Viv, or Isaac Vivian Alexander Richards to give him his proper name is probably the most admired men in this disparate region. And what's more he's still one of the coolest dudes around, widely admired by young and old alike. After a cricketing career which placed him along Sir Garfield Sobers as the best ever produced by the Caribbean, Richards is now the top man in West Indies cricket, chairman of Selectors, the man who with two others decides who gets to wear the famous claret cap. It's a tough job. The West Indies is a geographic anomaly. It doesn't really exist in anything other than cricketing terms. The team selects from Jamaica in the west and the Caribbean islands more than 1,200kms to the east, as well as from Guyana on the South American mainland. The common thread is a link to Britain. British rule over the region may have disappeared, but it has left behind various influences, including cricket. Richards was a crucial member of the West Indies cricket team that ruled the world in the 1970s and 80s, when snarling pace bowlers battered batsmen and Richards put opposing bowlers to the sword, swotting the fastest first class century ever recorded and ending his international career in 1991 with a Test average of 50.23. In an era when batsmen adopted the helmet to protect themselves, Richards strode fearlessly to the crease, wearing only his cap and relying on his flawless eye to deal with short deliveries. When Wisden chose five cricketers of the 20th century, Richards featured alongside Don Bradman, Jack Hobbs, Sobers and Australian spinner Shane Warne. As Richards career declined, so did the fortunes of West Indies cricket. Caribbean cricket commentators, devastated by their team's losses, blamed everything from financial instability to the increased Americanisation of island society. Richards hovered in the background, stepping in temporarily during the 1998 World Cup to coach the team when Malcolm Marshall fell seriously ill. Now, he has clearly mellowed into someone who can seek to bring the highly politicised world of Caribbean cricket together. On the flight to St. Lucia to watch his charges play New Zealand, Richards chatted to friends, selectors and players, signing autographs and joining a passionate debate about the football World Cup. Formerly one who chatted freely to journalists, he is more circumspect these days, aware that choosing the wrong word as chairman of selectors can have massive ramifications. As a youngster, I played for a small Devon side in a charity match against a Somerset team that included Richards and his friend Ian Botham. Both men had a reputation for living life to the full and the evening cricket match special for this amateur player was lively. To my astonishment, Richards remembered the evening more than 25 years ago, mentioning a specific event that caused quite a stir in small town Devon. He talks with considerable affection about his years with Somerset, when he and Botham transformed the sleepy county side into a team of winners. Winning is contagious. The more you do it the better you get at it and self- confidence just keeps on growing, Richards says of the current West Indies side that is enjoying something of a renaissance, winning a test series against India last month. As he gets off the plane, Richards is ushered through a special channel, using the diplomatic passport supplied to him by his native Antigua, for whom he acts as an honorary ambassador.
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