An anecdotal account of how one had to pose as a publicity man for an umpire's benefit match to interview Sir Viv Richards in 1997
Sir Viv Richards was in town last week, ahead of his trip to Goa. Pic/Rane Ashish
How times have changed! Twenty Aprils ago, I had to pose as a publicity man to land my first interview with Viv Richards; now Sir Viv. There was no PR manager, no particular desire on the cricketing legend's part to appear in the papers, no pre-approved questionnaire and no time limit once the tête-à-tête finally took off.
Last week, it was all arranged by a public relations firm. But buried beside the spontaneity of old, were those 'will-he-talk?' pangs, which once afflicted journalists like myself, every time we set out to interact with subjects who did not expect the approach.
In the first week of April 1997, former Test umpire Piloo Reporter walked into this newspaper's office in Lower Parel to inform us about his benefit match at Valsad in June of that year. It was a joint benefit match with Dara Dotiwala being the other beneficiary. Reporter was still in the process of inviting top players to grace the testimonial game.
My immediate boss suggested he invite Richards, who was in town then. Reporter, who umpired in five Tests that featured the West Indies, hesitantly agreed, sat down and dialed the number. We all knew that it was Richards who picked up the phone when Reporter stood up abruptly, still to complete saying, "Viv."
Richards asked Reporter to come over the following Saturday. I was instructed to accompany Reporter and attempt to interview the great Antiguan. I decided to pose as the benefit match's publicity-in-charge, who dabbled in journalism. While traveling with Reporter in a rickshaw from Andheri station to actress Neena Gupta's Versova home, where Richards was staying, I discovered he had his own set of fears. The genial umpire wondered whether Richards would play in the joint benefit match at a place not accessible by air. Secondly, would he agree to be part of it since Dotiwala had annoyed him with his leg before wicket decision in the Delhi Test of 1983? Richards later described it as a "nasty" LBW decision.
When we reached the flat, Richards didn't take too long to emerge. I watched him walk from another room like he did to the crease, but this time he had a smile on his face and he gave Reporter a mighty hug. He sat down and expressed his delight over Reporter's continued association with the game.
Reporter introduced me as the publicity man for the event and he agreed to come for his benefit. It didn't matter to him if it was in Valsad. Dotiwala's mention did not cause a flutter either. It was time for me to break some ice. I reminded him of his huge fan following in India and how readers would be interested in his views on contemporary cricket. He agreed to do the interview and spoke from his heart about how the West Indies were going through a transition and they would dominate world cricket again. He didn't see a problem with a bowler (Courtney Walsh) leading the team and was certain that Brian Lara would get the captaincy someday.
He was hopeful that the current bunch of West Indian cricketers would lead the way for a new era and that the presence of the "level-headed" Shivnarine Chanderpaul was good to have in a line-up of stroke players. "Nothing lasts forever. I'm certain we didn't start off as winners. We came up as a successful team in the 1970s and 1980s and obviously, things are not looking up as they should be. We lost a lot of good players at one particular stage and this creates a vacuum in terms of your rebuilding process. It's very cruel to ask a present-day fast bowler to be a Michael Holding, Joel Garner or a Malcolm Marshall," he said.
Sachin Tendulkar, Brian Lara, Mark Waugh and Aravinda de Silva were his favourite batsmen – ones he would pay to watch. He rued the fact that class act Aravinda was not getting the high rating he so richly deserved. "When you don't have success as a team, no one really sees your potential. I always felt that he had the class, but it was not fulfilled because he was in a poor team to begin with. But now that Sri Lanka have been successful, you have certainly seen the best of De Silva," he said of the 1996 World Cup star. Meanwhile, Reporter was sweating over the time I was consuming through the interview. His nudged me to say it was not advisable to go on. I ended it after 13 questions.
We left Versova with mixed feelings. While I got my most memorable interview, I had a Saturday evening deadline to meet. Reporter was happy the legend agreed to be part of his benefit but was left wondering whether Richards would make it to Valsad.
A few days before the benefit match, he received a phone call that said Richards had to leave India for an assignment. Reporter was disappointed, but not as dejected as he was when the monsoon hit Valsad early and his benefit match was washed out. I thought about April 12, 1997, before interviewing Richards yet again last week. Under the watchful eye of a PR rep, this interview was a lot shorter than my first one and came at the end of a string of back-to-back interactions with other journalists. Times certainly have changed!
mid-day's group sports editor Clayton Murzello is a purist with an open stance. He tweets @ClaytonMurzello. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org
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