Sitting and meeting Swan Richards for the first time is a slightly overwhelming experience.
I love my cricket, but this man really loves his cricket.
Sitting at a long table at the back of his Cricket Kit cricket shop, surrounded by cricket apparel in boxes and cricket memorabilia on the walls, we talk cricket while his phone periodically goes off with one issue to be dealt with after another.
Swan Richards is a cricket identity, and the word that best represents him from my perspective is passion.
Sit with him for any length of time and you will be overwhelmed by his passion for cricket, and for the organisation he set up: The Crusaders.
Born in 1950 into tough circumstances in Adelaide, South Australia, he was removed from his mother’s care at the age of three and moved in with his grandmother.
Unable to speak before the age of five, he was bullied by his own family.
He had minimal schooling before getting special dispensation from the government to leave school at age 11 and go to work.
He was employed by David Rowe and former Australian wicket-keeper and vice-captain Barry Jarman OAM at Rowe & Jarman, the sports shop they ran together.
These two men, Richards says, “built me and looked after me”.
Richards would work for Rowe & Jarman, the leading importer of Gray-Nicolls cricket bats, for 10 years.
In 1971 he headed to England to work for the famous bat manufacturer, living with the Gray family.
He learnt the art of cricket bat manufacturing over a two year period, and then returned to Australia in the early 1970s, this time in Melbourne.
Shortly after his return, he was contacted by Gray-Nicolls again, and employed to set up and run their new factory.
His passion for the bat-making process is still evident over 40 years on, as he can still recount the record number of bats he and 20 other workers totalled for one calendar year: 38,543.
When I commented that they don’t make them like they used to, he responded, “Yeah, they say they make ’em better. I can assure they don’t make them any better.
“Everyone is conditioned to think that bigger is better.
“Keith Miller was using bats weighing 2.3 oz which were as thin as tissue paper and could hit the ball four million miles.
“All it is today is if they mis-time it, it goes a little bit further. The big thing is that they are playing on far smaller grounds and on billiard table surfaces.
“T20 cricket is about hitting sixes and giving great entertainment, so the boundaries are brought in from five to as much as fifteen metres in.”
The phone rang again and, upon his return, the conversation rolled from topic to topic as his mind bounced about with the rapidity of the ball he bounced in his hand.
He is concerned about the future of cricket, with kids starting organised cricket too soon, and then burning out by their mid to late teens, which is when they should be hitting their straps as real cricketers on the verge of the seniors.
He is unsure what future cricket can have in a world dedicated to instant gratification.
The sport, in its purest form, takes time, patience and skill, both to play and watch.
Today’s culture, he says, is generation ‘N’, meaning want it RIGHT NOW, whereby the need to spruik one’s life on social media has with it the need to accomplish more things to spruik.
I am not on social media, and I prefer reading a book to reading what Warnie has to say about anything on Twitter, just as I prefer watching Test cricket to T20 or mixed martial arts, so I would not know.
Swan Richards, however, says the proof is in the numbers recorded playing the game.
Add to this, the influence of parents putting too much pressure on promising kids, as well as the ever present spectre of Aussie rules football, which is fast and welcoming with a culture that is both inclusive and all-consuming.
The result of the above, Richards said, is a drop-out culture in cricket that strikes just as the cricketers should be honing their skill, or even starting out.
Beyond the home-grown issues, is the wider issue of cricket in a global context.
“Cricket is controlled by one country, India,” he said.
“They have all the money, and for them it is all about the money generated from the shorter forms of the game.
“One-dayers and T20s. They have all the money and therefore all the power and what they say in international cricket pretty much goes.
“Cricket Australia has seen how much money and interest there is in the shorter forms of the game, and believes that the best thing for cricket is attaining the best balance between the long and short forms.
“They are working hard at that, and it is important, as Test cricket is the most important form of the sport. Unfortunately, it is the least lucrative.”
I press that we, in Australia, love our Test cricket.
“Oh, yes,” he responds, “Australia and England are very committed to Test cricket, but the money is in the shorter forms.
“Other countries don’t get behind it, and The Ashes is only every two to four years. We love our Tests, but we have to play the shorter stuff to make the money.”
The recent Test series between South Africa and India, the two top ranked Test nations in the world, was undertaken in front of empty crowds.
Swan and I met before this series took place. Add that to the rampant success of this year’s (KFC T20) Big Bash League, and it is pretty clear that he knows his stuff.
To highlight his point about the game being controlled by India and the push for short-form cricket, he pointed out that before the five Test series against England this summer, the Aussies were in India playing an ODI tournament.
Playing in India in 50-over cricket is not the ideal preparation for playing Test matches against the old enemy on bouncy Australian wickets.
Looking back, one has to marvel that Darren Lehmann had the side prepared to play and defeat England at all, let alone as convincingly as they did.
There is no doubting the popularity of the Big Bash, and even the benefits it brings to lower rung crickets by providing income and exposure, but perhaps the balance is still not yet right.
The up-coming Test series against South Africa will be played without any Sheffield Shield games for over two months, and with only one tour match.
Still, it is comforting to know that our nation’s cricket administrators are committed to Test cricket.
While the fear for the future of cricket and concern over its governance was very much present, this seemed to me to be born of his love for and dedication to the sport.
His life has revolved around it.
In 1977 he, along with David Richards (former CEO of the International Cricket Council) and Ray Steele (former President of the Victorian Cricket Association and Treasurer for the Australian Cricket Board), set up a travelling cricket team called The Crusaders that exists to this day.
Its mission is to help facilitate the growth of promising Australian youth Cricket by pairing them with and pitting them against first-class cricketers.
The passion for cricket glows from within him when he speaks of The Crusaders.
Some of the cricketers to have graduated from The Crusaders ranks include Shane Warne, Paul Reiffel, Matthew Elliott, Damien Fleming, Clint McKay, Rob Quiney, Aiden Blizzard, Simon O’Donnell, Peter McIntyre, Jayde Herrick, additional to this some English players – Paul Collingwood, Ryan Sidebottom, Vikram Solanki, and Jamie Dalrymple.
These are some exceptional cricketing names, but they are just a few amongst the more than 2500 cricketers who have represented The Crusaders over the past 37 years in schools across Victoria and South Australia, as well as international locations such as the United Kingdom, France, Austria, Belgium, Russia, Italy, Hungry, Denmark, Germany, Netherlands, Spain, Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia.
One can’t help but feel that, whether these young men participating in these tours develop into top line cricketers or not, their lives will be richer for the presence of The Crusaders and their leader, Swan Richards.
Looking around the walls of the cricket shop in which our meeting is held, some of the photos of the locations and the people that The Crusaders have journeyed to and met could easily make a cricket lover jealous.
Swan is photographed with Queen Elizabeth II on several occasions, Sir Michael Parkinson, numerous other luminaries as well as Prime Ministers Bob Hawke and John Howard.
In fact, every Prime Minister in its time has been the patron of The Crusaders.
As we talk I am repeatedly boggled by the cricket royalty whom Swan Richards calls friends.
Greg Chappell and Don Bradman stand out amongst the list.
When questioned on Bradman, Richards said, “I knew him very well, personally. I saw three phases of Bradman, I knew in my lifetime.
“A very distinguished, aloof man.
“The second was a superb old man; when you get old you mellow. He mellowed and was very generous and it was easy to deal with him.
“His wife, Jesse, I knew well, a wonderful lady. They would have me over and we would talk.
“It was all very friendly. And then, when Jesse died I saw a third man, which was a sad old man who wanted to die. I didn’t go that much after that.”
When I asked if he had ever asked the Don why he was twice as good as everyone else, he said, “Well, ability is one thing, but what makes a champion?”
“Determination?” I respond.
“This,” he said, pointing to his head, “and this”, he said, pointing to his heart.
“He was bloody determined. He wouldn’t let them get him out. Just an incredible determination.
“He just wanted to make run after run after run. But in today’s cricket, there is just too much cricket going on.
“He averaged 100, but he did it in 52 Tests over almost 30 years. He simply couldn’t be as effective today with the amount of travelling and the cricket that is played.
“He’d still pound ’em though.”
You could easily read from this that Swan Richards is living a life with the rich and famous.
However, as I prepare to leave we see that a young man has entered the front of the shop.
Richards walks up to him with a huge grin on his face and puts his arm around him.
“I’m told that the young man is from Papua New Guinea, and will be bowling leg-spin in that day’s Crusaders match.
The warmth with which the young man was enveloped speaks volumes for why Richards has succeeded in a game with a lot of down time amongst young men.
Cricketers and cricket lovers spend a lot of time together, and they have to get along.
Richards clearly made it easy for people to feel welcome.
Later, as I left, I would have a few moments alone with the young Papua New Guinean.
His English was stilted, but I asked if he was enjoying his cricket and he said he was; his grin backed his statement up.
I told him my brother bowled some good leg-spin too.
“For Australia?” he asked with eyes wide with excitement.
“No, mate, for Heathmont,” I said.
After this brief conversation, I was reminded of a statement Swan had made relating to the future of Australian cricket.
He had said that cricket in this country was far too white, and that if it was to progress, it would need to go out of its way to diversify by getting into multicultural community.
It was interesting and pleasing to see that he was taking his philosophy and putting it into action.
Swan Richards has so far led one heck of a life, travelling the globe in the interests of cricket and the people who play it and love it.
I learned a heck of a lot from him, from the intricacies of cricket administration, to the breadth of the cricket world, to the pitfalls confronting the game.
I think the biggest thing I learned from Swan Richards is that a person can achieve a great deal, seemingly from very little, on the back of their passion.
This article first appeared on One Week At A time.