The captain of India’s Test team and the vice-captain made sure they were in the lobby of the luxury resort they were staying at, 7.30pm being the appointed hour. Virat Kohli, fresh from a shower and showing off his considerable biceps and tattoos, took his place next to Ajinkya Rahane, more restrained and sporting more conservative full sleeves. Both were engrossed with their phones, passing the time till something mildly magical happened.
An SUV, possibly a Land Rover, pulled in to the reception area and immediately it was clear that someone special had rolled up. In the crush of the crowd, it wasn’t obvious who the big man was, but, when he stepped out, it was fairly clear. In Antigua, there is only one King, and that’s Sir Isaac Vivian Alexander Richards.
Dressed in black jeans and a similarly nondescript tee, the greatest marauder of all times touched down to Earth. Originally, the evening was meant to be shared by Kohli and Rahane, a quick chat and a high five, but, it got expanded to others from the team.
While not an official interaction, Anil Kumble, the coach, was aware that Sir Viv was going to meet a few of his boys, and was in no way opposed to that happening. To give the Board of Control for Cricket in India their due, this was a bit of a grey area – not an officially sanctioned event, and yet the charm was in that. When King Viv met Prince Virat, there was a relaxed air that set the tone perfectly. To be on the safest side, the BCCI’s media manager was present, watching from the sidelines, subtly noting what was happening, but never interfering. His suggestion that the players join Sir Viv for a photograph ensured that a larger group was involved in the moment.
The interaction, informal as it was, showed just how much India’s young guns respect the legends that came before them. And, while it was only Kohli and Rahane who had the date with Richards, it was seamlessly expanded to include anyone else who was in the vicinity.
KL Rahul, Shikhar Dhawan, Stuart Binny and M Vijay were all in earshot and quickly roped in, much to their delight. “I played with this young man’s father,” exclaimed a buoyant Sir Viv, arm around Stuart, indulging in a nostalgic moment recounting his own career.
When he shaped to take the crease like a batsman, Sir Viv did so with the ease of a ballerina, his substantial presence notwithstanding, and it was immediately clear how he managed to torment bowlers in his prime. “When you defend, you do so to send a message to bowler. When you leave the ball outside off, you’re telling the bowler something,” said Sir Viv, unconsciously getting into the most gorgeous side-on batting stance you could imagine. “When you’re at the crease, you’re the man, and each of you should remember that. Let the bowler do what he can, let him stare and glare, but he has to turn around and walk away to bowl the next ball. You don’t have to.”
It was quite clear that almost no ball would’ve gotten past Sir Viv when he was in that mood. While Dhawan mimed that extravagant pick up shot that was a Richards signature, fetching the ball from outside off and hitting it into the stands over midwicket, the Big Man was at his quixotic best. “You’re a quiet one aren’t you?” Richards asked Rahane, including him in the cricket satsang that was unfolding in the most impromptu fashion. “For a little man you hit the ball very far.” Rahane’s eyes glowed as he smiled more shyly than any blushing bride you might encounter.
If the players were awed at being in the presence of cricketing royalty – and they left this to no doubt, lining up like fan boys to take selfies, having been at the other end of the same spectrum most of their adult lives – Richards made sure that they were at ease. A major black power symbol, back in the day when he needed to stand up for what mattered, Richards is still no zealot. Quoting Mohammad Ali, ducking and weaving like he could easily float like a butterfly or sting like a bee, Richards laid it out to an engrossed audience. “Skill can and will take you so far. But when skill fails you, what do you do? Will. You can will yourself through.”
Without repeating verbatim what exchanges followed, it’s fair to say that India’s finest were most enriched by the brief passage of play they shared with King Viv. Kohli, waiting patiently before the event, smiling quietly when it unfolded and listening raptly through it all, showed just what he is made of. This generation of Indian cricketers may be tattooed, vocal and irreverent, but that does not mean they are all blissfully unaware of their place in the game. If ever a selfie can be a mark of respect, and respect given involuntarily and gratefully when no such thing was demanded, this was it.