When, in late 2004, Mark Richardson announced that he was hanging up his boots, it invoked an immediate expression: surprise. He was 33 years of age, and only a few months earlier was the Hero of Lord’s.
Surely, the masses believed, he was retiring too early? Chairman of Selectors, Richard Hadlee, intimated as much – and reiterated his “surprise” in his 2009 memoirs – whilst then-NZC Chairman Martin Snedden felt idem.
Not to worry; the talent was around, and capable of assuming that vacancy… Or so the public believed. The reality was quite different.
Craig Cumming replaced Richardson, while Stephen Fleming moved back to the top – in place of Mathew Sinclair – but the pair lasted just two games, before James Marshall came in and Fleming moved south down the team-sheet. Cumming and Marshall J lasted just one Test longer than Cumming and Fleming had, before Cumming was sent packing with Lou Vincent in his place.
Two games later a fresh change was again in order; Hamish Marshall replaced his twin, and Jamie How came in for Vincent. Those two lasted three Tests – although they didn’t bat in the third – before the selectors decided to blood Peter Fulton (alongside Marshall) in the colosseum of Centurion.
That lasted one match, before Michael Papps subbed in for Marshall, but they too managed just a solitary game, with the three Tests against South Africa bearing three opening partnerships after Jamie How returned in Fulton’s place.
One game bursts appeared to be flavour of the month, as the next game saw Papps out, and Craig Cumming reappear. They were tried twice before How was demoted, in favour of Papps, and the two subsequent Tests resulted in the opening partnership changing in each innings, as Papps-Cumming, Fleming-Cumming, Papps-Cumming (again), and Papps-Vincent were all tried out. After those two games, Matthew Bell returned to Test cricket alongside Cumming.
They got two Tests against Bangladesh before Jamie How returned to play England, with Cumming taking the blow. Those two received stay of execution until the end of the three-match series, with Aaron Redmond then debuting ahead of Bell for the return-series, failing across the three Tests in an English May against an amped up trio of Sidebottom, Anderson and Broad.
They were retained for four more Tests, across series against Bangladesh and Australia, giving them a run of seven-straight matches – selectorial patience almost inconceivable given the fate of their predecessors, and perhaps a statement about the influence of Richard Hadlee leaving the selection table.
But as sure as a dog returns to its vomit, so New Zealand return to opening batsman roulette. It was Redmond who took the fall, being replaced by an in-form Tim McIntosh for the home series against the West Indies.
All this, mind you, came before the year 2008 was out. In the new year How was replaced by Martin Guptill – which lasted three and a half matches, before Daniel Flynn deputised for McIntosh for half a match. McIntosh-Guptill resumed for three more games, before Watling took Guptill’s place for four matches, only for Brendon McCullum to climb up the order. That lasted two games, before Guptill came back for McCullum for an innings, only for McCullum to return in the second innings and the next game. Guptill came in for McIntosh for the next five games, only for McCullum to drop back down the order and be replaced by Rob Nicol, Flynn and Watling. He then returned to the opening slot, where he and Guptill spent the next six games.
Then came a full overhaul, with Fulton making a comeback alongside Hamish Rutherford. After a New Zealand-record 12 matches, Tom Latham replaced Rutherford – only for Rutherford to replace Fulton a match later. That lasted half a game before McCullum subbed in for Rutherford for the second innings; Rutherford then came back, McCullum returned, Rutherford made a reappearance, and finally Guptill got a Test reprieve.
That’s ten years of New Zealand opening batting condensed into 550 words: it fails to truly encapsulate the rotating sensations of disappointment, hope, anger, frustration and rage that every New Zealand cricket fan has felt over the last decade.
It means that the four years Richardson spent at the top of New Zealand’s batting order have been appreciated even more since he’s been reporting events instead of creating them. In those few years – having made his international debut aged 29 – Richardson achieved more in the game than many Kiwi batsmen have managed in linearly-longer careers.
Compare him to Matthew Bell, who played for New Zealand a couple of years before Richardson, and played his last Test four years after Richardson’s retirement.
Richardson played more than twice as many Tests, and averaged 20 runs to the good of Bell, despite the incongruities of time.
When you look at his buffoonery on Sky’s The Crowd Goes Wild, it’s hard to recall a dour, defensive, determined opening bat who put so much effort into his cricket that it almost wore him out. The jovial on-screen persona is totally at odds to what Denis Aberhart (national coach 2001-03) described as “the glue of that team”.
“I was never one of New Zealand’s great cricketers, but I had built a bit of a brand, and I was going to get an opportunity to do some commentary, so I decided to get out now. So it started with commentary, and then I needed a little bit more TV work and was getting a bit of writing, and honestly it went from there. A little bit of luck, little certain things got me other opportunities – The Crowd Goes Wild was a god-send. It’s probably been the one job that has been the most influential on my career – and it’s a job that I don’t try to make sense in … I just try to entertain.”
Although Richardson had wanted to move into media, and had written various pieces while a player, he certainly can’t have expected the success which has followed: Mark Taylor might be a mandolin-playing heat pump salesman, with Stephen Fleming fronting for the same company whilst sharing banter and nibbles with Nathan Astle; but Richardson has become the frontman of a home-renovation reality TV show.
Not even Michael Slater’s bizarre appearances on The Footy Show can compete with that.
Retirement itself came because he had “lost my drive” for playing – the signs that the end was nigh had appeared well before the decision itself.
“I came back from England, and had a little bit of a break, and then we had Bangladesh. It was like ‘oh god, I don’t want to go to Bangladesh,’ and I was mentally pretty tired by that stage. Even though I hadn’t played that much Test cricket, I’d played a lot of cricket at a good level, at First Class. I’d lost my drive, and I didn’t want to go out there and bat all day for my runs, so I tried to belt Bangladesh and it didn’t work.”
England had been the peak of Richardson’s career. The team itself was very sub-par, but it still created personal memories for Richardson to cherish – specifically, a Lord’s hundred, following a 93 in the first innings.
“From that point, I’d have to say, my career started to slide pretty quickly. I achieved that [a Lord’s hundred], and it just drained a little bit of aspiration, which I never really got back.”
When Australia happened, Australia really happened – this was 2004, and although Stephen Waugh had called it a day, they still turned out an almighty side: Matthew Hayden, Justin Langer, Ricky Ponting, Damien Martyn, Darren Lehmann, Michael Clarke, Adam Gilchrist, Shane Warne, Jason Gillespie, Mike Kasprowicz, Glenn McGrath.
It was an abused Pick ‘N’ Mix dispenser. Every other nation had complied with their mother’s orders; “only get two, three at the most,” while Australia was the smug kid from the rich family who filled a whole bag-full of a shiny candies and exciting prospects.
How else do you get Hayden, Ponting, Gilchrist, Warne and McGrath in the same XI? Most sides would sell their soul for one of Lehmann, Langer or Gillespie, let alone all three and eight other equals.
“Then, when I went to Australia, I just wasn’t in a mental place to compete – and there was no way I could bang them [like Bangladesh], it was going to be a war of attrition for me to succeed against them. And I just didn’t have the stomach for them, and that side just got absolutely chewed up and spat out by the Aussies. Which, if you go over there not really wanting to be there, you’re not going to have much success.”
The two Tests saw New Zealand fall to a pair of massive defeats, and the usually doggedly consistent Richardson couldn’t pass 19.
“It was half way through the second Test that I’d decided I’d had enough and was going to retire, and it was half way through that Test that I told Flem that I was history. I just, unfortunately, had to play those two games for Auckland before I was allowed to quit. But that decision was made up after the first Test in Australia, really.”
Given Richardson’s indomitable spirit as a batsman – at least, before those final series – it seems bizarre to think that he started out as a specialist spinner, then became a flamboyant middle-order bat, before finally settling at the top of the team-sheet.
Indeed, even before turning his hand to spin, he’d been a useful medium-quick – he’d made age-group sides up to Under-18s bowling swing, and had made the St Kentigern’s High School First XI from the age of 14 with that as his major pursuit.
In his sixth-form year, Richardson decided to turn his arm to turning the ball, and reinvented himself as a left-arm spinner. It was a transition that hit immediate highs.
“Then, in sixth-form I was bowling spin, and that’s when I started to actually get some success – and it was pretty quick actually. From literally one season of doing that, and then I left and started playing club cricket in my seventh form year, and I got in all those under-18, under-19, under-20 sides as a left-arm spinner. It was good, you know? It was going alright.”
In early 1990, he was named for the New Zealand Cricket Council President’s XI against the touring Indians; as the only specialist spinner, with all-rounder Grant Bradburn supporting him, Richardson was being put under immediate pressure.
A First Class debutant, the only specialist spinner, and bowling to those of the ilk of Sachin Tendulkar, Sanjay Manjrekar, Mohammad Azharuddin, Navjot Sidhu and Kapil Dev. Account for the tiny boundaries of Pukekura Park, and it’s evident that Richardson had picked a difficult first-up assignment.
The first innings went wicketless, but he made up for it in the second.
“Yeah, that was pretty cool. I remember that quite fondly actually … Prabhakar, Kapil Dev and Tendulkar – caught bat-pad. At least two of those you’ll bank, tuck away!”
In 1990-91, the following summer, Richardson continued in much the same vein: 15 First Class wickets, at an average of 22. Whispers started – perhaps this was the man to become New Zealand’s Test spinner.
“It was only after two or three years of bowling spin that, all of a sudden, I got into First Class cricket. My mentality was that I wanted to bowl the perfect ball all the time, and I still had that mentality in that first year, because I didn’t play much, I was 12th man often, so when I got my chance I was really keen to take it. Then, what I found, was that at that level guys had better techniques, they were more patient, they’d worked out very quickly that while I could bowl good balls, I’d generally probably bowl a loose one an over. So they’d wait for that loose one, and I’d get hit away. So I started to fear bowling that bad ball.”
It put Richardson’s bowling into virtual freefall, and it wasn’t long until his spinning career was in tatters. After 15 wickets at 22 in 1990-91, his next ten wickets took 82.10 runs apiece.
“All of a sudden, my mentality went from just running in and wanting to bowl a great ball, to not wanting to bowl a bad ball – and that’s a really bad way of thinking. So it really did deteriorate very, very quickly over the following year.”
After the failures of 1991-92, Richardson sought new pastures in Otago: it wasn’t for the typical cricketing reasons, but instead had far more to do with the man-love he expresses for Kelly Slater on The Crowd Goes Wild.
“I didn’t know what I was going to do, really. I went over to England before doing that, and while I was in England, Wellington – because I’d lost my place in the Auckland team – got hold of me, asking if I wanted to go to Wellington, and Otago asked me if I wanted to go to Otago. They thought I’d been treated poorly by Auckland – but I hadn’t, I’d played my way out of the side. I was bowling junk.
“But I thought, well, I’ll give it a go. And I started bowling well in England, because I was sort of out of the environment, and it was quite fun. But why I chose Otago over Wellington was simply because I was a good surfer in those days, I loved surfing. Dunedin had better surf than Wellington, so the surfing was what made up my mind for me – and it was a bloody good move in the end.”
It was in 1994 that Richardson pushed himself into contention for cult-figure status; in a game for Otago 2nd XI against the Canterbury seconds, he faced up for the last over with 33 required. He hit five sixes in a row, and finished it off with a three. Easy.
“Yeah, I remember that. When I first went to Dunedin, I was struggling to hold my place in the Otago side – I was in-and-out, bowling left-arm spin, batting about nine or ten. But I started to bat number three for my club, and started scoring a lot of runs – and getting more runs than wickets. When I got picked for that second XI side, I thought I was picked as a batsman, but they had me batting at seven I think, and I had to bowl my ten overs. So I was playing more as a bowler, and I was quite pissed off actually. Because it wasn’t representative of the form I’d shown in club cricket.
“We were dead-and-buried against them, and I think I got through to about fifty at about a run-a-ball. There weren’t many runs coming from the other end, and we were well out of it. It came down to the fact we needed 33 off the final over – and I just managed to hit five of them right out of the screws, and nicked the last one down to third-man where we could run three. It was freakish, but it was a freakish thing that gave me another go in the top-side, in the one-day side.”
That return to the one-day side didn’t set the world alight, but it was enough to get him back into the sights of the selectors, and he – purely by chance – got the nod for a First Class recall, against Central Districts. In the style we came to later expect, he proved himself valiantly; batting almost six hours for 122.
“There was a little bit of a story behind that. On the back of that freakish last over against Canterbury Second XI, I got into the Shell Cup side as it was in those days, but I struggled, and I wasn’t really in the four-day side. The guy who batted three for us was a guy called James Allan. He was very much an academic, and that was important to him. He was graduating, when we were due to go on that trip to Napier to play Central Districts.
“He pulled out – he took graduation over playing for Otago. Because I’d been in-and-around the scene, I got the call-up. I remember everything was booked under Mr J Allan, not myself. So I got a go, and they put the normal five up to three, and I slotted in at five. And I scored a first-innings century – it was the first century I’d scored in any form of cricket, and it was a First Class one! I was stoked, and that was it, that launched my career as a batsman, really.”
In those days, Richardson was a flashy middle order bat – and even had slight thoughts about getting a shot in the national one-day team. It wasn’t until he climbed up the order that Richardson put the shots away, and became the ultimate cut-block-leave specialist. But while he was scoring runs, and had distant thoughts about the one-day side, international cricket certainly wasn’t something Richardson was expecting.
“Nah. Well, you do [think about international cricket] when you’re playing provincial cricket – I was probably more thinking one-day cricket. I was quite a flamboyant player in the early years, played a lot of shots, scored my runs at a reasonable clip – for what was a reasonable clip in those days. I was just wanting to do well, get a place in Otago, help them win games.
“You always sort of think you might be able to go to the next level, but I wasn’t an idiot, because the New Zealand team was very, very stable, and the middle order was Astle, McMillan, Cairns, Fleming, Twose was there-or-thereabouts. I really wasn’t going to force my way into that team.”
But while international cricket wasn’t at the forefront of Richardson’s mind, he had his eyes on a different prize – an opening slot. Despite scoring plenty of runs in the middle order, he wanted to get his name to the top of the team-sheet.
“It wasn’t because I could see a gap in the opening role for New Zealand, I always liked the idea of opening the batting. I was always angling with Otago to let me have a go as an opener, but [Glenn] Turner who was the coach never really would. It wasn’t until I asked to be taken on an A tour as an opener, or not at all, that all of a sudden the shot at Test cricket came along.”
If taking Tendulkar, Kapil and Prabhakar in an innings on debut signalled part one of Richardson’s career, and the 33-in-an-over was what lifted the curtain on the second act, it was certainly that New Zealand A tour that opened the door to phase three.
With national coach David Trist taking control of the side, it was the perfect environment for Richardson to prove his mettle – even with his, ah, best mate Scott Styris as skipper. So a Test squad to Zimbabwe came calling – and a place in the XI beckoned next, after the small matter of a triple century…