Sir Donald Bradman described Barry Richards as "the world's best-ever right-handed opener". He backed that up by including Richards in his best ever team, published after his death. The sporting boycott of South Africa due to apartheid saw Richards play only four Tests in which he scored 508 runs at an impressive 72.57.
A criticism often levelled at him is that at times he found the game too easy and became bored. To watch Richards in action was like attending a tutorial on how the game is meant to be played. He played his shots in classic mode, right out of the textbook, and was a joy to watch. Ashish Magotra caught up with the South African legend in Port Elizabeth.
Do you think South Africa's team in the 70's was the best that ever played cricket?
From the batting and fielding point of view we would have competed with anyone. But if we had one real weakness, it was the lack of a good spinner. We would have struggled against a really great side. But in batting, fielding and fast bowling departments we could have taken on the best in any era.
What was it like opening with Graeme Pollock?
He was a tremendous batsman. Vivian Richards and Graeme Pollock were probably the best I ever saw in terms of natural talent. I did not really open with him too often as we were arch-rivals in domestic cricket. But in Tests he made it a lot easier and took the pressure off you. He took the bowling by the scruff of the neck and was a pleasure to watch.
There is a story that talks about a young boy batting in the nets. He smacks his coach for a six and the coach points to his feet and asks, "See where your feet are?" The boy with a mixture of arrogance and youth replies, "See where the ball is." How important is foot movement when you talk about batting?
It depends on your eye and reactions. I think guys can get away with bad footwork in the sub-continent where the wickets are slow and low and you can hit through the line. In England, you need to be much more precise and that's why sub-continental batsmen struggle in England or South Africa where the ball seams off the wicket.
Do you think the art of batting has been diminished by the advent of one-day cricket?
Depends on what you want to see. People who have been brought up on it do not worry about the aesthetics, the high left-elbow and precise footwork. Those are the things that do not make a difference, if you make a lot of runs. If you don't have a great technique but score then people will watch you play. It's a very commercial game now and the players are professional, under contract to perform. They have to figure out ways to score runs. They are lot fitter, have heavier bats and fielding restrictions in the first 15 overs help in hitting over the top, which is what people do.
You made your mark in county cricket in the late 1970's, opening the batting for Hampshire with Gordon Greenidge. Do you think the quality of county cricket has fallen in recent years?
It was different in those days. The wickets were not covered and that made it quite difficult to bat. These days they cover the wickets. But the problem is not the batting, nor is it the spin bowlers or the fielding but the fast bowling. There just don't seem to be any good fast bowlers around.
Have would rate this Australian team to great teams in different eras?
It is always hard to compare. But this Australian team has everything a great team would need, they have good batting, bowling, spinners and pacemen. They certainly are up there. But at the end of the day, it's just something we like to talk about. The stats are overhauling the game completely. I like to visualize a batsman and then say whether he is good or bad. I would not like to read his statistics and then say how good he is. To me Adam Gilchrist is the best batsman in the world not because he has got the most runs but because he plays the game I like to watch.
You said you consider Gilchrist to be the best batsman in the world. Virender Sehwag plays a very similar brand of cricket. Where would you rate him?
Sehwag is not as consistent. He is very good on the sub-continent but struggles elsewhere. He played very well in New Zealand, which was good but he has struggled in this World Cup. These kinds of players are always interesting to watch but they will always be a little inconsistent. That's part of their fascination and attraction for me. Lara is another one who is a little temperamental and does not always produce the goods.
Tendulkar is another one, but he has reached an age where he is more consistent. And perhaps he does not play as many extravagant shots as before. But in this World Cup he has gone out and decided to play the 'old' way. It's been terrific as a result. I hope he continues to do it.
They say a spinner becomes better with age. Would you say the same holds true for batsmen as well?
Yes, to a degree. When you are young, you have got young eyes and can play extravagantly without the pressure of expectations. Probably, the batsmen's prime years are between 25-31, you are still young and fit and have a few years experience behind you.
Graeme Smith, 22, is the new South African captain. Are you surprised by the move?
I was surprised he was taken on so quickly. I would have liked to see him cement his place in the side and then given the captaincy. But the South African have a easy time ahead. First they go to Sharjah to play on flat wickets and then Bangladesh. They are not a very good side. The real test of Smith's captaincy will come during the England tour, it could make or break him not only as a captain but as a player. I would have liked someone with a bit more experience but there are obviously things happening in the background that we don't know about. It is causing concern in South African cricket.
How do you see the captain's role in modern-day cricket?
It depends on what you want to do. I don't think you need a coach. If you have a leader who can lead by example that's the way to go. If you have somebody on the field who just says yes sir, no sir, that's not very good leadership. A coach should always support the captain, rather than vice-versa. I think the captain can play a leading role in making his side team better. So captaincy is very important.
The two leading skippers in cricket today, Stephen Fleming (New Zealand) and Ricky Ponting (Australia). How do you compare them?
Fleming has got to be a little bit more innovative than Ponting because he does not have the same talent that Ponting has to work with. He has to think up new ideas, strategy, manage bowlers and that's probably why he has the edge in captaincy. He has a good support group and the support of his teammates.
How would you compare the four skippers of the sides in the semi-finals: Ponting, Sourav Ganguly, Sanath Jayasuriya and Steve Tikolo?
Tikolo has done a great job. For someone who does not have the same experience as the other three, he has done a great job of inspiring his team-mates. His bowling changes have been good, he attacks when he should, keeps people up when he should. He captaincy has been commendable.
With Jayasuriya, I think on the sub-continent he tends to get a little defensive, he should be more attacking.
Ganguly is growing on the job and he is getting good support from John Wright. They are a good combination but it remains to be seen if he becomes a really great captain.
Can this Australian side be beaten?
Of course, they can be beaten. It's just having the mental attitude that you can beat them. They know they can be beaten but they don't think about it. The mental edge they have over sides, sometimes counts for so much.