Relying, owing to the playing conditions of his time, to a great extent on the break-back (a fast ball moving from off to leg) his model action, relatively long (apparently curved in pictures) run-up and high arm allowed him to gain sharp lift on fast pitches even from the full, straight length he always bowled. Though he played during a period when cricket was changing as rapidly as it ever has been, Richardson never "went in" for anything new as his career declined, yet the seeming ease with which his tall, powerful frame was able to do the most phenomenal bowling feats has had him often seen as the ideal model for a fast bowler even years after he died.
Richardson first played for Surrey, his native county, in 1892, and showed promise with some superb performances in minor matches, notably fifteen wickets against Essex. However his first-class record that season was only moderate.
However, with Surrey's bowling mainstay for the previous decade George Lohmann declining rapidly in health, Richardson made an amazing advance in 1893 to be the second-highest wicket-taker in the country. Performances of 11 for 95 for Surrey against the touring Australians and 10 for 156 in the third Test, and especially the great speed and stamina showed in them, already marked Richardson as one of the game's top bowlers. Although early in the year it was thought by many that his delivery constituted a throw, Richardson worked so well on straightening his arm that no adverse comments were heard again. In 1894, Richardson cemented his reputation with consistently irresistible performance on the many treacherous pitches of a wet summer: he would have reached 200 wickets but for a thigh strain in June and his average of 10.32 has never been equalled since. Yet, it was his tireless performances in Australia during the 1894/1895 tour - maintaining great speed all day under extremely hot weather and heartless pitches - that truly stamped Richardson as the best fast bowler in the world. In the first Test at the SCG, he bowled an amazing 55 overs without losing his speed, and in the last his energetic bowling without help from the pitch directly won England the match.
The following year, with the Oval wickets becoming very easy for batsmen, saw Richardson go from strength to strength both in dry weather and when the pitches became treacherous after mid-July. Despite having to bowl 8491 balls at a great pace, he never showed any sign of losing his form and set a new record in taking 290 wickets (bettered only by Tich Freeman, a slow bowler, in 1928 and 1933). In 1896, Richardson's wonderful bowling - fast, straight, and never anything other than perfect length - on a very true Lord's pitch dismissed Australia for 53 and won England the match. The following Test at Old Trafford, which England lost by three wickets, was Richardson's most famous feat. After bowling a remarkable 390 balls in the first innings in perfect batting conditions (taking seven for 168), Richardson, amazingly, was, when Australia were set 125 to win on a pitch showing no sign of wear, able to bowl 178 balls without a rest, take six for 76 and almost win England a seemingly lost game. It is said that he did not bowl one bad ball during this spell of three hours, and it is unfortunate for him that J.T. Hearne had almost his only off-day of the summer in that match, and that a dropped catch occurred when Australia were in trouble at 7 for 99.
Neville Cardus immortalised the scene when Australia crept home by 3 wickets. "His body still shook from the violent motion. He stood there like some fine animal baffled at the uselessness of great strength and effort in this world...A companion led him to the pavilion, and there he fell wearily to a seat."
David Frith suggests the truth was somewhat more prosaic. Richardson was the first off the field and had sunk 2 pints before anyone else had their boots off.
Though he was not required on a wet wicket in the last Test (and nearly withdrew over a pay dispute), Richardson was named a Cricketer of the Year and in 1897, showed himself still in a class of his own on good pitches, taking 273 wickets at the same cost as in 1895. In the four consecutive seasons 1894 to 1897 he had taken 1005 wickets, a figure unapproached by any fast bowler before or since.
Naturally, Richardson was chosen to tour Australia in 1897/1898, but this is where his great years ended. Though he always seemed fit and lithe, the reality is that Richardson was always a heavy drinker and around this time, apparently, the habit got out of hand and his weight began increasing, thus reducing his amazing speed and stamina. He produced one magnificent performance on the disappointing 1897/1898 tour, but as soon as he returned to England, his decline was plain for all to see. Indeed, in the first two months of the season Richardson accomplished almost no performance of note, and even when he improved from the beginning of July onwards, Surrey could no longer rely on him to bowl over after over after over on the extremely true Oval pitches: his body could no longer carry the amazing workload of previous years. In a few games late in the season at the Oval, against Yorkshire (when Surrey inflicted that county's biggest defeat on record on a near-perfect pitch) and Warwickshire (when he took a career-best 15 for 83 on a pitch offering no help), he appeared as potent as the bowler of 1897. His haul of wickets in the County Championship fell from 237 to 126 and their cost from about 14 to over 21.
However, Richardson showed some improvement in 1900, increasing his haul of wickets from 98 to 122 and bowling as well as ever at Leyton, whilst in 1901 on the best of wickets almost throughout the year he was the same tireless, honest worker of his prime years, taking 159 wickets including excellent performances against the South Africans (11 for 125) and Yorkshire (7 for 105 in one innings). The following two summers were all against fast bowlers, and Richardson naturally suffered. He still remained a strenuous worker, and when helped by the pitch (as at Sheffield in 1903) Richardson could still show glimpses of the great mid-1890s bowler. Nonetheless, it was clear to all who observed him that his weight would catch up with him soon, and in 1904 Richardson bowled so ineffectively that he was dropped at the end of May and not re-engaged by Surrey at the end of the year.
At the time he lived in Bath, and played once for Somerset in 1905, but it was clear from his failure then that he could no longer play serious cricket. His weight gain, combined with a congenital heart abnormality, resulted in a fatal heart attack at the young age of 41, whilst on a summer walking holiday in France. According to a number of sources (including Herbert Strudwick), he had been in good health and spirits before leaving England. A widespread rumour that he had committed suicide was disproved by research carried out by Ralph Barker.