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The King and I

Imperial march: Viv Richards walking out to bat was quite the event PA Photos

Woven into the fabric of Chris Cowdrey's sparkling after-dinner repertoire is the story about the toss in his first and, as it transpired, only Test as captain of England. "Poetic license pretty much all the way through," Cowdrey happily admits, "but the point is that everything I touch upon was written across his face." That face belonged to the most charismatic cricketer of the age. Sir Viv Richards needs no introduction. He was a hero to us all; a truly brilliant cricketer who played the game with a focus, passion and unbridled joy matched by very few. The outside back cover of his autobiography has a quote from Sir Ian Botham: "There has never been a better player." Maybe, maybe not. What we can say is that when Richards was "on", there was no one close.

On the morning of July 21st, 1988, Cowdrey went out for the toss at Headingley in cricket trousers and a white England tracksuit top. He knows not why, nor where the blazer was. After a time, the hum of anticipation round the ground turned to cheering as Richards strutted onto the outfield and with that familiar rolling gait made his way to the middle in a maroon West Indies tracksuit and without a care in the world. "He was my favourite player in the world, so to be his opposite number was daunting to say the least. As he walked towards me, the hairs rose on the back of my neck." After a handshake, they verbally swapped teams, sort of.

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"Well," said Chris, "we've got Gooch, Curtis, Athey, Gower, Lamb, Smith on debut..." "No problem, man, you play who you like," interrupted Viv. "I don't suppose he'd have paid any more attention if I'd said Hutton, Compton and May; he truly didn't care who they played against. I finished. He began."

"Ok, now, let me think, err, Greenidge, no, Gordon is injured, so it's Dessie, then Duje, yes, Duje... yuh man, we got Haynes… Dujon… Richards… Richardson…"

"I said, 'Ok, that'll do!' Which I sort of did to break the ice a bit and he half smiled and said he'd better finish too. Remember no match referees then, or official team sheets. Richie Richardson didn't play actually, it was Keith Arthurton, but most of the names burst at me like a list sent from the gods, though, truth be told, they were a few short of the best side they could put on the park."

"Viv's entrances were those of the Roman emperors setting out on crusade; his stays at the wicket, rights of passage. He came to slay all before him and mainly he succeeded"

Cowdrey flicked the coin high in the air and Viv called correctly. It was an overcast Leeds morning and the air was damp. No brainer. Bowl. Damn, thought Chris, or worse. "But Viv hesitated and then said, 'What you wanna do, Cow, man?' Okay, he didn't actually say that but it was written across his forehead in capital letters and the message was that the toss wasn't going to make much difference to the result; I was a new and nervous captain of a team that after three Tests in the series were 3-0 down and struggling to breathe. He went off and chatted to a couple of the bowlers - Malcolm Marshall for sure, Curtly Ambrose I think - and then called out to me that they would bowl. He had me round his little finger.

"I'll never forget it. I tell the story at dinners as a kind of parody, to explain the almost mesmeric effect Viv had on his opponents. I haven't seen such certainty and self-belief in anyone else, anywhere, ever. Fantastic really. What a man."

I agree. We all do. We adore him.

In Swansea in 1993, Viv was on strike to Marshall in a county match between Glamorgan and Hampshire. These were contests to savour, us hackers briefly living in a parallel universe with the greatest players of the day. Malcolm sprinted in, but at the split second of his delivery stride Viv pulled away, clearly furious. There was silence. We looked at each other, then at him: no one dared say a word.

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He marched forward, a smouldering warrior, and screamed, "Hey!" He was most of the way down the pitch now, marching faster with each step, thankfully past Marshall and past the umpire. "You!" Nothing, bar the horrified look on the spectators either side of and above the sightscreen. "That's you! " He was halfway to the boundary now and pointing to a spot just above the sightscreen, pointing to a man who was sitting alone, lost in the newspaper that hid his face. "You! " Alerted by those around him, the man looked up from his broadsheet and, startled, pointed at himself like, "What, me?". "Yes, you!!!

"You've got David Gower and Robin Smith at slip; you've got Malcolm Marshall, the greatest fast bowler in the world, bowling to Vivian Richards. And you reading the f**king newspaper?!" Priceless.

Sir Leonard Hutton once observed that Richards "goes on about being descended from slaves and cotton-pickers, but he walks to the wicket as if he owns the plantation". Which was about right. Viv's entrances were those of the Roman emperors setting out on crusade; his stays at the wicket, rights of passage. He came to slay all before him and mainly he succeeded.

At Hampshire in the early 1980s we had a fast bowler called Steve Malone, or Piggy, after the Ronnie Barker character Piggy Malone, in a famous Two Ronnies sketch. Lovely bloke Piggy, but not quite as quick as he thought he was. Anyway, Sunday League match against Somerset in 1981, and first ball Piggy beats Viv around off stump with a jaffa. Next ball the same. And then Piggy's big mistake. Huge. He gave the great man some lip. Proper, full-blown verbals. Of all the cricketers in all the world...

The third ball was cut with a savagery seldom seen, and the following one block-driven down the ground as if it might never come back. For an hour there were fielders wringing their hands wherever you looked and boundary riders spreadeagled across the Taunton turf. Viv made 93 and in a frankly thrilling partnership - even for those of us on the wrong end of it - he and Botham, who made a brutal hundred, put on enough together to ensure that Hampshire lost the 40-over match by 149 runs. At the end of it, Viv came to our dressing room in search of Piggy, smiled and shook his hand: "Respect, man, you gotta show your fellow cricketers respect. Are we all good?" To which Piggy nodded, smiled nervously back, and that was that. (I should add, in fairness to Piggy, that he had Richards caught at slip for 16 in a Benson & Hedges match two years later and whispered not a word.)

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Once, Cardigan Connor knocked Viv's off stump out of the ground first ball at Bath. Oh boy, did we exult. Until we saw the umpire's right arm held out horizontally and heard his repeated call of "No-ball." Viv stared us down, like our celebrations were imbecilic. Oh boy, did we deflate. He made a hundred, of course he did. Connor was a good bowler and a modest man but Viv took it out on him.

By some strange telepathy, or simply by coincidence, I just had an email from Mike Procter reminding me of a "Sir Viv" tale he told back in January. I had forgotten, so it is timely. Remember, Procter could really play: a fast-bowling allrounder to rank with any. These were his Gloucestershire days and during the years of his captaincy, the club was nicknamed Proctershire by its devoted fans.

"Somerset were 12 for 1, with 20 minutes left on the second evening, needing 200 to make us bat again. We were well up the table and in contention for the County championship, Somerset weren't.

"Viv played really casual, missed, was hit on the pad, got lucky, didn't look interested. I bounced him plenty and gave him the glare and he swished at a few hooks that spiralled here and there and out of harm's way. He survived till the close. Next morning, much the same. I was losing it, giving him the teapot ball after ball, and then, frustrated, I let him have it, which was really my thing.

"OMG, never again! He stared me down, took a new guard and was 150 not out at the end of the match. The best defensive innings I saw. We never looked like getting him. He went from ridiculously loose to watertight in an over and began exaggerating the position and pose of forward and back blocks like he was Boycott. Amazing. I'd never seen him play like it before and never again. What a dumb captain Gloucestershire had. Rule one, don't upset the guy who can play."

"These fellas these days want to overcomplicate this thing which is batting. Come forward, come at the face of the man who challenges you, show him who's boss. Be the boss, because if you don't think you are, no one else will" Viv Richards

Batting for Glamorgan, Viv played the greatest innings I ever saw first-hand and I make no apology for telling a story told many times before. Glamorgan weren't special at the time, so we set them a target well within reach on a very flat pitch at the small Northlands Road ground - 364 on the final day. They were about 140 for 5 at tea but Viv was still there, and for some reason, he was blocking. He was in a filthy mood, exaggerated by the fact that the Glamorgan captain, Alan Butcher, had come out on the dressing-room balcony waving his arms around as if to say, get the hell on with it. I think Viv had decided the others were pretty useless, and in protest was going to block out the draw. We were realistic about Viv - might get him out, might not - but no way could the last five Glamorgan batsmen survive a whole session.

Then, first ball after tea, Viv followed through on a forward-defensive to Tim Tremlett and hit it into Northlands Road. We all looked at each other and thought, 'Oh my days, here we go!' And we were right, there we went. They needed more than 200 in the session and he just murdered us. It was fantastic to watch - up to a point.

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Fast forward. With one over of the match left, Viv was 150 not out. To win, 14 were needed and Malcolm Marshall - "the greatest fast bowler in the world" - was bowling to the man. It's that parallel universe again.

The Welsh were seven down now and Colin Metson was in. So I said to Malcolm, "With all of us on the fence, Viv gets a single and you have five balls at Metson and the rest, who can't bat. We might even win." So Macko ran in and bowled a length ball on off stump, which Viv blistered through cover for four. Our two quickest fielders - Paul Terry and Robin Smith - were on the fence at point and extra cover: neither moved, they just looked at each other as if to say "Ye gods!"

I'm thinking more pragmatically: that should have been a single. "Macko," I screamed from long-off, "give Viv an effing single!" Next ball, Macko bowled a quick bouncer and Viv, first rocking forward and then stepping back, hit it over the block of flats that ran alongside the perimeter of the ground on the longest side at square leg. We never saw the ball again, ever.

So now I've got the hump and moved in from the boundary at long-off to say "Give him a f**king single, bowl him a yorker and you've got three balls at Metson!" So the very great Malcolm Marshall ran in and bowled a good full ball - if not quite a yorker - which Viv dug out and drilled wide of mid-on. For 13 cricketers, two umpires and a couple of thousand spectators the earth stood still: all eyes were on a cricket ball that was scorching a pathway to the boundary. As it crossed the line, each of us snapped back to different realities - 11 men defeated, two men elated, and a crowd in wonder. Viv had cleaned up the game with three balls to spare and finished unbeaten with 164. He had his gloves off and was running towards me, offering his hand. "That was one helluva declaration, skipper, let's go drink some beers." And it was one hell of an innings Viv.

"As if he'd have taken the single anyway," said Macko in the bar at 10 o'clock that night.

I am still asked what it was like to play against Viv Richards. Simple: it was a privilege and exciting. More interesting, I suppose, is what could one do about him? Some days he wasn't so interested and you might be lucky that he hit one up in the air; other days you were helpless. In that game in Swansea, Marshall got him out soon after the incident with the newspaper spectator, caught at the wicket from a perfectly pitched 90 miles an hour outswinger. Show me the batsman who doesn't get out to such a ball, assuming they are good enough to hit it. On a spinning pitch, Viv was a bit hit or miss and you could bait his ego by placing very close fielders at silly point and short leg, but you're afraid for their life.

More generally, you were drawn to his every move, as if in a trance, and you had to shake yourself from it, otherwise there was no chance. This was particularly the case when he bowled. Why didn't everyone just smash that stuff far and wide? Well, partly because it wasn't quite as bad as it looked and mainly because it was Viv. If you ask Mike Brearley and Geoff Boycott about the run chase in the 1979 World Cup final, they will say they messed up by allowing Richards to bowl his 10 overs for 35.

Earlier, I referred to Viv the most charismatic cricketer of the age. Even now when he walks into a room, it fizzes. Shane Warne and Sachin Tendulkar have an aura; Richards has electricity. Seve Ballesteros had it; they say Ayrton Senna too. Tiger Woods has it and Muhammad Ali had it like no other.

Richards' own hero was Joe Frazier - "Smokin' Joe" - who was renowned for never taking a backward step; for taking the blows and for then moving forward at every opportunity. Which was Viv, of course: I'm the strongest among us, so whatever you've got, I've got more. He was confrontational and intimidating; that he never wore a helmet is testament to his mental strength and immense courage. It was a trick that switched the focus back on the bowler. "So what now," he seemed to say, "you gonna try hit me on the head?"

People have said he was lucky not to have played against his own West Indian attack. True, as it was for Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting not to have played against theirs. It is right to say that Richards' record for Antigua in Barbados - Garner, Marshall, Clarke, Daniel at their best - is less good than elsewhere. Which is like pointing out that Sir Donald Bradman averaged only 56 in the Bodyline series. Only 56.

I asked Viv the same question I asked Bradman. Is there a secret to batting? Bradman answered: "Concentration, first and foremost, then courage, character, footwork and speed, of hand and eye." Richards answered: "Keep it simple, head still, watch the ball. These fellas these days want to over-complicate this thing which is batting. Come forward, come at the face of the man who challenges you, show him who's boss, then spring back if you must. Be the boss, because if you don't think you are, no one else will." Viv was the boss all right.