Alan Richardson is quoting some figures to me from a game he played for the Minor Counties against the touring Australians at Jesmond nearly 23 years ago. "Ten overs, 2 for 29," he says. It is not a query. I check the analysis but of course he is dead right. There is, though, spice to the recollection. Richardson is not recalling his own figures but those of his new-ball partner, Marcus Sharp, whose bowling he admired that day. Such a memory may seem freakish - Richardson is renowned as a cricket badger at Worcestershire, where he is currently bowling coach. But it is really only characteristic of someone who devoted his early life to becoming a professional cricketer and is now similarly determined to help bowlers like Dillon Pennington and Josh Tongue become the best players they can. And should his young charges become despondent Richardson can always tell them about the four summers late in his own career when he was about the best seamer in the country…
Lancashire's cricketers arrived at New Road on the morning of August 31, 2011 probably expecting Worcestershire to give their Championship ambitions a rigorous examination. Daryl Mitchell's players were scrapping like housewives in a wartime fish queue to avoid relegation and four tough days were in prospect. Yet in that latter regard the visitors were mistaken. Less than five sessions later they were back on the M5 having been thrashed by ten wickets. Some thought James Cameron's 98 was the decisive contribution to the home victory; travelling supporters blamed their own side's inadequacies against a seaming ball; others wondered what might have happened had Stephen Moore not had to return home in mid-match for the birth of his child; the shrewdest judges, though, looked to a 36-year-old seamer whose second-innings 6 for 22 merely confirmed the general view that he was in the nick of his life. "I don't keep many photos," Richardson says, "but I do have a picture of the boys clapping me off when we'd beaten Lancashire. I have fond memories of that game."
The quality of Richardson's bowling in that match was exceptional but it was not unusual. By the end of the season he had taken 73 wickets and would be named as one of Wisden's Five Cricketers of the Year. In his four seasons with Worcestershire before his retirement in 2013 he took 254 first-class wickets at an average of 22.07. "He was the best seamer I played with over a consistent period," says Jack Shantry, then a young bowler on the staff at New Road. "He landed it on a sixpence every single time, he could nip it both ways and he could even swing it if he wanted to. He never gave the batsman anything. He was head and shoulders above almost everyone else and you would have to put him alongside Glen Chapple as one of the best bowlers not to play for England."
Few of Shantry's contemporaries would cavil at his judgement (albeit Chapple was capped once). Most opponents took the view that facing Richardson during his time at Worcestershire was a bloody torment but they also agreed that chatting to him after the match was both an education and a joy. Moreover, he was also popular among other counties' supporters, not least because they saw in his unsparing efforts another reflection of their own devotion. They little knew how right they were.
Even Richardson's bowling action mirrored his utter commitment. After all, no one would deliver the ball like that unless they really had to. There was, many will recall, nothing in the least smooth about the thing. Instead there was a gallop to the crease and a final tangle of arms and legs which Richardson later described as more a double-whirl than a windmill. Ignoring the fact that this makes him sound like an expensive ice cream, the whole affair seemed a biomechanical case-study in how to cause a rupture. Indeed, one wonders what visitors to the ground thought when they saw Shantry's action at one end and Richardson's at the other. What Worcestershire coach Steve Rhodes saw, however, was that both men knew their craft and were dedicated to it; he watched where the ball landed and what it did thereafter; the process by which it had arrived there became a secondary consideration. All the same, supporters might be puzzled as to why Richardson's action had not been modified when he was filmed as a youngster. The answer is that he had not even been coached, much less filmed, until he was 17. He thought he bowled like Brett Lee.
Many professional cricketers do not remember their amateur careers very well; Richardson recalls his in great detail. He played his first club games for Little Stoke in the North Staffordshire and South Cheshire League but even in that environment his promise was not properly recognised until after his adolescence. "In club cricket I had to work very hard to get a bit of time with the ball and I didn't expect to be a first-class cricketer," he said. "So I really did appreciate it when things went well and I hope that came through in the way I played."
Richardson's commitment certainly seemed plain to Derbyshire's coaches when he was taken on the staff in 1994 but he admits that he was totally out of his depth and ended up playing one first-class game in two years. The problem, however, was that he had fallen in love with the game and was determined to make a career out of it if he could. Rather than go to university, he opted to play for both his club and Staffordshire in the English summer before travelling to Australia to play grade cricket in the winter. In order to finance that lifestyle, Richardson took whatever odd jobs he could find. So he screwed studs into golf shoes, he worked in a warehouse, he was a landscape gardener. In truth he did whatever he needed to do to sustain the possibility that he might once again become a first-class cricketer; only this time he was resolved he would be ready for the challenge.
"As soon as I could attack both edges of the bat it felt like a different game. I was going on 36 when I made the change and I was a bit fearful about it ... I look back and think I was such a dingbat for not doing it sooner"
Three years after his release by Derbyshire, Richardson was offered a contract by Warwickshire. Although far less naive, he was still taken aback by the professionalism of the set-up at Edgbaston and the scale of the operation at a county that clearly expected to win things. Over the next five seasons he would bowl alongside players like Shaun Pollock and Allan Donald. Although not enjoying the success he experienced later, Richardson found he was comfortable among international cricketers. Not that he forgot Little Stoke or Staffordshire. He has never been that sort of person.
Nevertheless, when Warwickshire won the title in 2004 Richardson's involvement was peripheral. He played seven first-class games, took six wickets and admits that he had become complacent about such things as fitness and his own skills. Although he will never deny what he owes to coaches like Bob Woolmer and John Inverarity, it was time to move on and the chance to make Lord's his home was precisely the spur he needed.
Having regained his former level of fitness and reassessed his career, Richardson enjoyed considerable success in at least two of his five seasons with Middlesex. There were 57 Championship wickets in his first season and 42 in his third, after which he received his only representative honour when he was called into the Lions squad to tour India. His accuracy and ability to extract bounce whenever the Lord's pitches offered such luxuries now attracted the utmost respect on the circuit. The problem was that Richardson's time at Middlesex was plagued by thumb, elbow and ankle injuries which caused him to miss parts of three campaigns. Despite his popularity among the supporters in St John's Wood he decided to turn down the offer of a player-coach role towards the end of 2009 and signed instead for Worcestershire. He was 34.
For almost his entire career Richardson had been renowned as bowler who could nip the ball back into the right-hander. "Neil McKenzie played me like a really poor offspinner," he says, recalling the game against Hampshire that persuaded him fundamental change should be made. But the truth was that conversations with the Australian bowler, Stuart Clark, had already encouraged him to rethink his grip on the ball with the aim of moving at least some deliveries away from the right-handed batsman.
"Previously I was only really attacking one edge of the bat," he says. "But then I began to experiment by gripping the ball with my fingers spread a little more and the seam canted towards third slip. Without expressly trying to do so, I ended up bowling a lot of wobble seam. I didn't know which way it was going to move but a lot more were moving towards the slips. As soon as I could attack both edges of the bat it felt like a different game. I was going on 36 when I made the change and I was a bit fearful about it but by that time I was telling myself it didn't really matter. I look back and think I was such a dingbat for not doing it sooner."
The results of Richardson's change were expressed both in cold statistics and warm tributes. During his time with Worcestershire he took five wickets on 14 occasions; in his previous 13 summers as a first-class cricketer he had managed the feat only nine times. "He was my go-to bowler throughout that entire period and I was very fortunate to be his captain," Mitchell says. "He was phenomenal in any conditions. Even on the flattest of pitches he would go for two an over but if you got him on a wicket that bounced and did a little bit he was a nightmare the way he'd get it to nip around off the seam both ways.
"He was very much the spearhead of our attack and I'm not sure he would have had that at either Warwickshire or Middlesex. He took the new ball every time for us and I think he thrived on that. The young players looked to him to lead the way and he absolutely did that. Naggingly accurate, he was the role model for all the aspiring bowlers like Jack Shantry and Joe Leach. They would have taken a lot from his attitude and he was a great sounding board for me as a skipper."
While Richardson is scrupulous to acknowledge what he owes to all his former clubs and counties it is fairly plain that he feels at home at New Road. It is obvious, too, that the young fast bowlers at the club will benefit from his experience and example. "From Richo's conduct in the dressing room after a game you could never tell whether he'd taken five-for or none-for," Shantry says. "And as a young pro at the time that was very reassuring. He was also very generous with his time. He was confident but not ego-driven. He made you feel a better person for being in his company."
Company, of course, has been rather scarce recently but Richardson hopes Worcestershire's younger players will have learned self-reliance during their weeks of isolation. When they return he will be ready to prepare them for whatever is left of their season. "When they are in the academy system they are told where to be and what to do," he says, "so this has been a good exercise for some of them."
"That journey Alan took via three different counties before he came to us would have brought him into contact with a lot of bowlers and a lot of coaches," Mitchell says. "But he was a coach when he was still a player. He's one of those who lead by example."
For more Odd Men In stories, click here