Batsman looked every inch the right man to win our ‘bet of the century’

Barry Richards batting

Barry Richards batting - Credit: Archant

Retro Sport with Roger Mann:

In the days before supermarkets changed our shopping habits, every town had a greengrocer in its main street.

In Bideford, Peter Adams’s shop did a huge amount of business, and his order became so crucial to the viability of our North Devon round, that I always phoned him myself.

Peter was the chairman of the local cricket club, and a nice long chat about cricket always assured me of a big order!

One day, in 1971, he asked me if we would like to bring a team from Torbay to play an end of season match in Bideford. I accepted, and it became a regular annual fixture for the next 27 years.

In order to attract extra spectators to the game, we offered to strengthen our team, each year, with a well-known professional.

We reasoned that it was a legitimate business expense to satisfy a good customer, so the company could pay whatever fees were necessary.

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This initiative became popular with both teams, and England cricketers, Alan Smith, Tom Cartwright and Arthur Milton graced the occasion in the first few years.

Before long, we were playing in front of much bigger crowds whenever we visited Bideford’s seaside ground in Westward Ho!

In 1976, we hired Ken Shuttleworth, the Lancashire and England fast bowler, to play for us, and we lost heavily!

Ken had bowled at half pace and had given his wicket away having a slog. He had quite rightly reasoned that it was an end-of-season friendly, and that the camaraderie mattered most.

After the match, in the pavilion, I faced plenty of good-natured flak from our hosts.

“Well! Once again your superstar has found us too good for him!”

“We know our pitch too well for any of them!”

“For six years now you have brought along your hotshots, and not one of them has scored a century against us!”

“I’ve just been taking pity on you,” I replied. “There’s plenty of lads out there who could score a hundred on this ground!”

The argument went back and forth until I had to call their bluff.

“Right then, we’ll bring a player with us, next year, who will score a century against you lot, no problem... but, if he does, you must pay half of his fee!”

Reg Rawle, the club secretary, was called over and the deal was sealed with a handshake.

As I boarded the coach for the trip home, I thought to myself “Oh dear! What have I got myself in for, this time?”

Christmas came and went, and by early the following spring, I realised that I had to make some plans.

We needed an experienced batsman who could adapt to the surface, who was money driven, and who would be free in mid-September.

For once, I didn’t care whether he was a nice friendly bloke, or not. We had written our mission statement, and this chap had a job to do!

In the mid-1970s, professional cricketers were paid so poorly that even the very top Test players were pleased to earn a bit extra by turning out in local friendly games.

We could choose whoever we wanted, since we would be only paying half of his fee anyway... or so we hoped!

I considered the options. Geoff Boycott would take too long to score a hundred, Zaheer Abbas would be too flashy, and might get out, and Viv Richards would be back in Antigua by mid-September.

Then, I realised that our first choice had been obvious all along. It had to be the South African, Barry Richards!

Richards was now 32, and was one of the best three batsmen in the world. It was his benefit year, so he would be chasing extra cash, and would be available because he was about to leave Hampshire to join Kerry Packer’s new World Series Cricket.

I contacted him through Hampshire CCC and we agreed terms straightaway.

He had never been to Devon, and said that he was looking forward to it already!

During the summer, we fixed up a couple of celebrity endorsements, and visits, to help his Benefit Fund, and he agreed to stay with my wife and I from the Thursday, until the following Monday, to carry them out.

On Thursday, September 15, 1977, my doorbell rang, and a tall, muscular, bearded, man reached out his hand to greet me. He looked every inch the right man to win our ‘bet of the century’!

Next week - don’t miss the second part of this story