Tuesday, 11 November 2014

1986: Viv Richards' 56-ball Test century

When Misbah-ul-Haq recently hit a 56-ball century against Australia in Abu Dhabi he equalled a Test record that had stood for 28 years. That particular innings was played by a man who is an all-time great, one of the five Wisden Cricketers of the Century, and a knight of Antigua and Barbuda. Sir Vivian Richards' assault on a floundering England during the final Test of the 1986 series in the Caribbean was as thrilling and exhilarating as the fast bowling attack the West Indian skipper had at his disposal, one which had pounded England into submission during the series. And to top it all, the record was achieved at St John's, Antigua, the home island of the great man himself.

Like Misbah and the 57-ball innings of fury unleashed by Adam Gilchrist at Perth in 2006/07, Richards' knock was very much a case of kicking a team when they were down. England, stunned by the numerous blows inflicted on them during the series, were rendered senseless by the barrage from Richards, one final cruel twist of the knife as the tourists undoubtedly dreamed of the flight home. For once on that tour, England had actually looked as if they may well get away with a draw during the fifth Test. That was until the Master Blaster strolled to the crease and lived up to his nickname.

A bit of context. After winning away in India and the Ashes at home in 1985, England left for the West Indies in a relatively confident mood. "Now we are going out there with our confidence restored," said Gower on the eve of the flight to the Caribbean. "We have a squad selected for the job with varied bowling and we hope strong batting. At least the top six in the order are established, with recent success behind them". Even Times Cricket Correspondent John Woodcock gave England a chance: "England can certainly win, but only by batting really well". There was just one problem with that plan.

The tour got off to the most appropriate of beginnings, England blasted out for just 186 and 94 against the Windward Islands, and despite better displays against the Leewards Islands and Jamaica, the first ODI in Kingston gave England's players and supporters a sign of what was to come. The splattering of Mike Gatting's nose via a Malcolm Marshall bouncer robbed England of their vice captain and a key batsman, and must have spread fear through the rest of the dressing room. From an English perspective, the forthcoming Test series would make as pretty viewing as Gatting's rearranged nose.

Blasted out for just 159 and 152 on a frightening Sabina Park pitch by Malcolm Marshall, debutant Patrick Patterson, Joel Garner and Michael Holding, England suffered a disastrous ten wicket defeat from which they never recovered. Further losses by seven wickets, an innings and 30 runs, and ten wickets left the tourists in tatters, as the tour lurched from one disaster to the next. Ian Botham was embroiled in sex and drug allegations, forced to defend himself on Breakfast Time in front of Frank Bough. David Gower's captaincy style and his "optional nets" policy also came in for heavy criticism. By the time England reached Antigua, the omnishambles was beyond a joke.

England were vulnerable and the last thing they needed was one last round of punishment. Perhaps mindful of another chastening batting experience, Gower inserted the West Indies. Not the wisest of decisions. A total of 474 (Haynes 131, Marshall 76, Holding 73, Harper 60) left England with only pride to play for, but when the visitors managed to reply with 310, dragging the innings up until half an hour before lunch on the fourth day, time looked like it may well be on England's side.

With a lead of 164, Haynes and Richardson put on 100 for the first West Indian wicket in 25 overs, before the entrance of the swaggering genius of Richards. In a situation tailor-made for the great man, Richards was about to embark on a remarkable innings that would break a Test record that had stood since 1921-22, and send an ever expanding crowd into raptures.

"Richards strolled out, had a couple of sighters, then drove, flicked and whipped the ball as he pleased," wrote Scyld Berry, as the innings commenced. Indeed after two dot balls (boring) Richards was off and running with a 3 and then the first of seven sixes. After just ten balls of his innings Richards had moved ominously on to 24, with Ian Botham and John Emburey about to feel the full force of the Master Blaster in full flow.

It would in fact be Richard Ellison who had the first six smeared off his bowling, the Kent bowler, who had thrived in English conditions at the end of the 1985 Ashes, promptly removed from the attack with figures of 4-0-32-0. Richards then displayed his mighty power, hitting Emburey for a six and a four, both times taking a hand off the bat handle, but still managing to clear and make the boundary rope respectively.

After the initial surge, Richards was relatively quiet for the next twenty deliveries, scoring only 21 with just the one four. His 35th ball saw him get to his 50 in style though, another six sending the reported 5,000 crowd wild, and as news of the innings spread across the island, car horns blared louder and louder on the streets, and the carnival atmosphere grew in the stadium. If the first fifty had excited the islanders, then Richards' second would send them delirious.

Freed up even more after reaching his fifty, Richards' next five deliveries faced went for 15, before he laid into his Somerset colleague Botham with relish. One Botham over cost 19 runs, during which Richards smashed a delivery into the upper tier of the stand over extra cover, as Beefy jokingly pointed to Graham Gooch that he should position himself on the roof of the stand. Richards moved on to 96 from 50 balls, 43 runs coming from just 15 balls since he had reached his half century, and a remarkable century was within touching distance.

Botham, who was in search of the one wicket he needed to equal Dennis Lillee's Test wicket record, described the helplessness felt when Richards was in the zone. "I'm often asked how you bowl to Viv in that mood," Botham wrote in Botham's Century. "You didn't. You prayed. The main strategy was to try and bowl dot balls, stop him scoring and hope that, with the crowd on his back, he might get frustrated. That was Plan A. There was no Plan B". With Plan A firmly destroyed, Gower was forced to spread his field, at various points sending nine men to field on the boundary. It didn't deter Richards one bit. In fact it seemed to drive him on even more.

As statisticians frantically searched for the record books, it soon became apparent that in terms of balls faced, Richards was about to crush the existing record of a century off 67 balls by Australia's Jack Gregory against South Africa in 1921-22. In fact, Richards had been one hit away from his hundred from the 49th ball onwards, taking a relatively pedestrian seven balls to reach the landmark. As he swept Emburey for four to bring up the record, Richards whipped off his maroon cap and raised his bat aloft in triumph, as fans streamed on to the playing area - one bringing a parrot along with him - and hugged their hero. Richards eventually slumped to his haunches, taking a moment to regain his breath after what he had just achieved.

A further six and a single followed, before Richards decided that enough was enough. His innings of 110 from just 58 balls gave England a laughable target of 411, or a little over a day to survive to prevent their second successive 5-0 series loss to the West Indies. 79.1 overs later, the annihilation was complete. England, dismissed for just 170, had lost by 240 runs, Richards unsurprisingly claiming the man of the match award, as the pressure building on his opposite number grew and grew.

"Plundered in 83 minutes out of 146 while he was at the wicket, it had to be, by any yardstick, among the most wonderful innings ever played," stated the Wisden Almanack, which helpfully printed every ball of the innings (0036126141021104120111202111000101624441120066461200210461, in case you're interested). The Daily Express described the knock as "an extraordinary exhibition", with the Mirror indicating that "it was a wonderful way for one of the greatest batsmen of all times to make history".

"I had no idea it was as fast as that, or that I'd broken any kind of record" said the man of the moment after his remarkable scoring feat. "I went out knowing we had to get enough runs on the board as quickly as possible so that we could get England in again". King Viv certainly managed that, with only 15 dot balls in the 58 deliveries he faced, as the West Indies declared on 246/2 from just 43 overs (at a rate of 5.72), giving his pace attack ample time to bowl at a demoralised England batting line-up.

Richards' innings was the cherry on top of the icing on the cake, an ideal ingredient in the perfect series for the all-conquering home team. That the record has still not been surpassed since is testament to Richards' display on that April afternoon, even more so in this modern era of faster scoring rates and batsmen educated in the ways of Twenty20. Naturally it may be beaten one day, after all, records are there to be broken. If Richards and Misbah do lose their joint record though, it will certainly be worth watching.


  1. Richards was just awesome. And to think that, arguably, he is only the third-best post-war West Indian batsman!

  2. Yeah...1 and 2 are also Richards, then come Sobers and Lara at 4 and 5.

  3. Arguably? No arguments. He still is No. 1 and will ever be so.