By Anand Vasu
If you have ever made even one run using a Gray-Nicolls bat, you should take a moment and thank Robert “Swan” Richards.
If he is not the greatest bat-maker alive today, he is certainly bat-maker to the greatest. Greg Chappell, possibly the best batsman the wrong side of six feet to play the game; Viv Richards, the most brutal destroyer of bowlers ever to pick up a bat; Sunil Gavaskar, the little man who defied the most manic pace attack ever assembled: they all used Swan’s bats.
Robert became Swan, rather than Bob, ironically, when the man who describes himself as a “scrubber”, put together a sequence of eight ducks for Prospect Club’s sixth eleven in grade cricket in Adelaide. “They told me no one made so many ducks so gracefully, so Swan I was,” he recalls. But Swan’s story is not about runs or bats, although he will tell you nothing else matters. If his rise and rise does not inspire you, nothing will.
At 64, Swan says he still can’t read or write like you and I might, being dyslexic and never quite getting treatment when it might have helped. Born in 1950 into what might politely be described as difficult circumstances, Swan found a way to make life work. “Me mum was working three jobs to support us, but the state said she couldn’t possibly support three children and they wanted to take one away. I hid at my grandparents’ house so I would not be found,” remembers Swan. “I did not speak till I was five. I was what might be called a slow learner today.”
Then came Gepps Cross Special School. Each student received a total of 100 points, 10 for each part of the curriculum. Swan got the full 10 in math, but nothing more than 0 in any other section. “I was put in a class that was nothing more than an experiment,” says Swan. He was one of 15 kids handpicked by the state to be treated differently, in isolation, at the school. Some of Swan’s classmates were violent; almost all were delinquents who had fallen foul of the system. One had got to the programme after he had set fire to three different schools. “They bullied and tormented me. I don’t believe in violence, but I will say the bullying and abuse made me a better person, because I could adapt to it,” says Swan. “It made me stronger. The majority would cave in. But the underdog must get up.”
By the time Swan was 11, he was allowed to get out of the schooling system, having received special dispensation from the state to try a vocational job instead. Barry Jarman, who had kept wicket for Australia, took Swan under his wing, giving him a job at the lowest level in the sports goods store he owned. You can dress it up any way you like, but Swan was essentially sweeping, tidying up shop and got a job and a place to sleep in exchange. But he learnt a whole lot more.
For ten good years, Swan learnt more about Salix Alba Caerulea, better known to us as the English willow tree that cricket’s best bats are made of. Swan learnt that you could use the Kashmir or Australian willow, or trees from Hungary, to make bats too, but that these were not as good as the real thing because the fibre was simply just too hard.
All this while, Swan was also plugging away at his cricket for Prospect, and became good enough to open the bowling and batting. One year, only Greg Chappell had a better bowling average than him, and Swan’s opening partner was Barry Richards, the great South African. Just as the going got serious, though, Swan suffered a horrible accident, hit in the head by a ball delivered by a close friend. “It smashed half my skull open,” says Swan, referring to the multiple factures to the head. “I took it as a joke but I was in hospital eight weeks. The nurses said to me there were points at which they didn’t think they could save me.” Naturally, of course, Swan brushed it off and was soon back to playing.
When he moved to England, Swan was offered a trial with Sussex, but that was a team that included the likes of Tony Greig and Mansoor Ali Khan, the Nawab of Pataudi. Mentors told Swan that he would probably not get too much game time and that he was better served focussing on the bat business. “Len Newbury was the MD of Gray-Nicolls then and he treated me like a son. Len played first-class cricket and gave it away after ten games,” says Swan, recalling the advice he got: “You don’t want to be used, just to make up the numbers. Stay with bats and this will reward you.’” Swan explains how he got down to the brass tacks of bat making. “Newbury then set me to work on miniature bats. We turned the handles from cane, spliced them, did everything as exact replicas,” remembers Swan. “Your hands were bleeding at the end of it because they were so small. But that’s how they taught me, miniature bats from real English willow.”
If Newbury taught Swan the nuts and bolts of the business, Bill Gray showed Swan the business side of things. When Swan returned to Australia to set up and run Gray-Nicolls’ operations there, he also got to work on Crusaders, a team of professionals and amateurs, Test cricketers and schoolboys, who played against all comers to promote the game. “Crusaders is all about the long form of the game. We want to protect that.
The 50-over game and Twenty20 serve a point. But the long form is like a jigsaw that gets put together over a period of time,” says Swan. “They say we might be pissing into a 50-mile gale, but you have to believe the long form is the future. We take the most willing, the fighters. There is a passion to play this form of the game.”In our philosophy, everybody gets a chance. There is no discrimination; rich, poor, black, white, chocolate, Muslim, Jewish … it makes no difference. People understand where I come from. We take the most willing and work it out. The secret of success is wanting something so bad it hurts.”
The likes of Shane Warne and Paul Reiffel and, more recently, Clint McKay and Rob Quiney have all had time with Crusaders. An estimated 2500 players have turned out for Crusaders in more than 1500 matches played worldwide over the years. Swan has set up factories in Jalandhar, Meerut and Sialkot. He has made at least 85 trips to India and more to England. His phone calls open doors at the Prime Minister’s office and he has been photographed with the Queen of England more than once. All this was made possible because Swan loved cricket more than anything else. And the game loved him back just as much, if not more, and gave him the kind of life that should be a shining example to the rest of us.