He was much taller than we expected, but, in the beige suit with the hair and the Thunderbirds puppet lower lip, it could only be Richie (second name not required). My dad and my two brothers went quiet, stared and probably gawped a little – when a living legend walks past you, that’s all you can do. And that was at Old Trafford in 1977, 38 years ago, those 38 years only burnishing a reputation further, and one now frozen forever with Richie’s death on 84, a fine knock.
He was a tremendous cricketer of course, an attacking all-rounder and fearlessly innovative captain who knew the game was played to win, but played for the benefit of those outside the picket fences too, looking on in wonder at those blessed with the talent to play. He put on a show with his appeals and his externalising of the game’s emotions – not everyone liked it, but he was ahead of his time. His relentlessly positive approach, at a time when cricket in England was stodgy awaiting the revival that came with the Gillette Cup, wasn’t the last time he found himself on the right side of cricket’s more heated arguments – as his role in World Series Cricket, the Trevor Chappell affair and his commitment to free-to-air broadcasting showed.
But this is a personal obituary, not a comprehensive description of a life in cricket (with more Test matches attended than anyone else), so I’m flung back through time to childhood, waiting, waiting, waiting for the clock to tick round to five to eleven and Soul Limbo’s cans to be tapped together. The sun was excluded from the living room to avoid glare on the screen and Richie would appear, half looking at the camera as usual and I settled down for a seven hours of bliss. Richie literally made my day.
He never said too much, never indulged in the lyricism of a John Arlott, never sparkled with the humour of a Brian Johnston nor stiffened with the ultra-slick professionalism of a Peter West, he just found phrases that complemented the pictures perfectly and, most importantly for an impressionable boy like me, infused the viewer with his own love of the game. He could turn it up to Danny Morrison levels too, but only, as when Mike Procter took an unforgettable hat-trick, when the performance demanded it. And for Richie it was always the game that mattered most – Australia were never “Us” but “The Australians”. That was not lost on me, nor millions like me.
Perhaps the incident that best illustrates Richie’s extraordinary reach into the hearts of cricket fans happened in a queue outside Lord’s for the Benson and Hedges Cup Final 1995. A bloke in front of us said to his mates, “Keep my place lads, I’ve left my ticket in the car.” One of them instantly announced in pure Richie, “Bit of a schoolboy error I thought”, and everyone who heard it smiled in recognition. Nobody needed explanation – it was cricket, so it was Richie.