Mark_Richardson
Illustration: Vasim Maner

Mark Richardson’s cricketing story doesn’t come across as normal. In fact, given the scenarios, it is abnormal and even illogical. How else would you describe a left-arm spinner batting at number 10 giving up his trade only to become a Test opener? This, while representing a country that has – historically – been highly ill-suited for openers.

While Richardson’s shot-making, the lack thereof rather, wouldn’t draw spectators, his race with the slowest player of the opposition team after the end of a series often would. Amongst ardent cricket followers, he is famously remembered for his gut-wrenching yelp after cramping up while batting. And for his over the top celebration after picking up his first and only Test wicket. He also has a hilarious shadow practice botch to his name.

For many, instances such as these have become enduring memories of Richardson. Yet there’s something about his batting that nobody ever talked about. At best, he has been termed effective – nothing more, nothing less despite an average close to 45 in 38 Tests (which is terrific for a Kiwi batsman). Through conventional stats, Richardson’s contributions as an opener is very much uncharted. When seen through the Impact Index sieve, however, the finding is extraordinary – no batsman in Test cricket history has seen off the new ball as well as Richardson has (min: 30 Tests).

IN THE ZONE AND LEAGUE

New Ball Impact is a parameter which judges a batsman’s ability to see off the new ball – either by occupying the crease for a certain period of time, and/or by scoring runs against the new ball. And in 139 years of Test cricket, no batsman has had a higher New Ball Impact than Mark Richardson (min: 30 Tests).

This claim can be verified to an extent even through conventional numbers. In his 65 Test innings, Richardson spent a total of 10,139 minutes at the crease. On average, this translates to a stay of 156 minutes per innings – which amounts to almost two and a half hours of batting. In other words, more than a session’s time. Batting through the morning session is one of Test cricket’s most overused clichés and Richardson’s average duration at the crease suggests that he would, more often than not, bat it out.

Based on available data, Richardson’s average innings stay is the most for any batsman in Test history. He is closely followed by Rahul Dravid who, on average, spent 154 minutes per innings. Richardson’s feat is even more astonishing given his role as opener and the occupational hazards associated with it.

To top it all off, Richardson played almost half of his Tests in New Zealand. Prior to his Test debut in 2000, historically, openers averaged only 34 runs in New Zealand – the lowest amongst all major Test playing nations. It shows, a) New Zealand’s struggle in finding quality openers and b) the travails faced by openers in New Zealand. In a way, it can then be summed up, Richardson was the best batsman against the new ball in the toughest possible conditions in the world – a stunning achievement.

Furthermore, Richardson’s ability to occupy the crease naturally influenced partnership building. No surprises, therefore, that he was involved in three of the four most successful batting pairs for New Zealand during his Test career. In fact, Richardson was at the crease for 6,421 runs out of the 19,188 runs New Zealand scored during his career. In other words, he was involved in partnerships worth almost 34% of New Zealand’s total Test runs.

Amongst other illustrious openers, Geoffrey Boycott was also at the crease for 34% of England’s total Test runs during his career, Jack Hobbs was involved in 33% of the runs and Matthew Hayden, 31%. Amongst non-openers, Rahul Dravid was involved in 36% of the total runs scored whereas Sachin Tendulkar was involved in 29%. This shows that Richardson is amongst the very best in Test history.

Vs India, 1st Test, Wellington, 2002: Asked to bat on a tricky track, India collapse for 161 runs in their first innings. New Zealand’s reply is also labored as only one batsman manages to cross the 50-run mark. Mark Richardson, in his 245-ball and 407-minute stay, scores 89 runs and is the eighth wicket to fall. New Zealand manage to snatch a match-defining first-innings lead of 86. The pitch continues to be treacherous and India fold for only 121 runs in their second innings. New Zealand knock off the target (36 runs) with ten wickets to spare. Given a match average of close to just 18 runs per wicket, Richardson’s performance stands out. This also remains the highest impact performance of his Test career.

PLACE IN NEW ZEALAND’S HISTORY

For a minimum of 30 Tests, Mark Richardson is the third-highest impact batsman in New Zealand’s Test history (after Kane Williamson and Craig McMillan) and his country’s highest impact opener. He is second only to Williamson when it comes to proportion of runs scored (with respect to match context) and building partnerships.

Interestingly, while consistency is a hallmark one would link with Richardson – with a rather high failure rate of 47% – he was not amongst the five most consistent batsmen for New Zealand. It could, perhaps, be attributed to suggestions that Richardson would take criticisms quite personally. Maybe it took him more time to get over a poor run of form and regroup mentally. That might explain his relatively high failure rate despite his stupendous achievements. Pressure wasn’t a problem once he got going. Scoring tough runs came to him quite naturally.

Openers generally don’t have high Pressure Impact in Tests as they come out to bat without any scoreboard pressure. A number 3 batsman, or someone from the middle-order, is more prone as he must, invariably, walk in at the fall of a wicket. Given New Zealand’s continuous worry with the opening slot, Richardson was often required to shore up an end and absorb the pressure of wickets falling around him. He was so remarkable in this regard that no opener in the history of Test cricket absorbed more pressure than Richardson while scoring a similar or higher proportion of runs.

Vs India, 2nd Test, Hamilton, 2002: On a precarious track, India collapse for 99 within 40 overs after being asked to bat first. New Zealand, in reply, manage only 94 as Richardson faces 37 balls for his 16 runs. India, in their second innings, set a target of 160 — a potentially match-winning effort given the conditions. Richardson contributes a crucial 28 in the final innings and sees off 71 precious balls, batting close to two hours while surviving 24 overs against the new ball. New Zealand go on to win by 4 wickets. That the teams had cumulatively lost 13 wickets before the 24-over mark in the three innings that preceded the chase further amplifies Richardson’s contributions in the match.

What transpires eventually is that, given his incredible achievements, Mark Richardson’s place in Test annals is not documented to the extent it should be. Opening is often considered to be the toughest job in Test cricket and huge reserves of mental fortitude are expected in someone who aspires to be an opener. In his old interviews, it is this aspect of Richardson’s psyche that shows clearly – his ability to have an uncluttered mind.

One of Richardson’s best Tests came against England at Lord’s in 2004 where he scored 93 & 101. After the match, however, he felt that cricket was taking a lot out of him. Six Tests later, he retired – without any second thought. He kept the interests of his team ahead of him even at the time of his retirement. On another occasion, when a journalist reminded him of his poor conversion record (4 centuries, 19 half centuries), Richardson replied, “I would like more kudos by getting more hundreds, but it’s more important to score runs for the team and form partnerships. It’s more important whether the team wins than what’s in the 100 column. I’m not motivated by runs or stats, I just concern myself on how I bat and that the team wins.”

It tells you a lot about his mindset and it reflected in his batting. A resolute, unwavering mind determined to blunt the next ball in action. That Richardson completely gave up a more lucrative ODI career to fuel his Test ambitions showed that he was aware of his forte and the team’s requirements, and didn’t allow his mind to be cluttered.

In accordance with his character, Richardson – in his commentary stints -keeps joking about how his Test bowling average is superior to Richard Hadlee’s. Sadly, his Bowling Impact is almost 200 times lower!
Sorry about that, Mark. But we hope that cricket aficionados remember you for all the right reasons, as they ought to. If not, the loss would be squarely ours.

 

 

 

 

Soham Sarkhel