Twenty four hours after one of the happiest cricketing days of every year, the launch of the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanac, came the announcement of one of the saddest cricketing days of any year. Richie Benaud OBE has finally gone to the great cricket pavilion in the sky. Or should that be commentary box in the Sky?
For Richie Benaud was a master of all the trades he plied. As cricketer he was good enough to hold his head up in any company of greats who have played the game. He was the first Australian cricketer to achieve the Sheffield Shield double of 2,000 runs and 200 wickets, a feat achieved in December 1961 beating the fearsome Alan Davidson by three months. He was also the first Test cricketer to record the same feat in December 1963. No mean achievement when the next names on the list read Sobers, Botham, Kapil Dev and Imran Khan. Shane Warne is the only other Australian in the first ten names on this particular roll of honour. Like Warne, Benaud was a leggie, and here again he could hold his own with any of the great spin bowlers including Warne, regarded as the greatest of all.
Between 1951 and 1963 Benaud played 63 Test matches, scoring 2,201 runs with a highest score of 122 and an average of 24.45 and took 248 wickets at an average of 27.03 with his best figures of 7 for 72. Over 28 matches as captain of Australia he never lost a series and he also managed to pouch 65 catches, mostly in the difficult gully position. A cricketer then to be reckoned with in any era, but for many he is not known as a cricketer. Nor might they know him as a journalist. Here again Benaud was of the top drawer and one who worked for the defunct Sydney Sun from 1956 to 1969 and for Murdoch’s infamous ‘News of the Screws’ from 1960 until its spectacular fall from grace in 2011. Not many newspaper writers can boast 50 not out, so here too Benaud is in exalted company.
Many cricket fans have never seen Benaud play nor read a word that he ever wrote, but all around the world, and in particular in the two oldest Test playing nations, England and Australia, his name is a household word. For Richie Benaud is one of the greatest commentators on any sport ever to hold a microphone. First on BBC Radio from 1960 and then with BBC television from 1963 onwards. Whenever a Test match was being played from 1952 up until 2013 it seems that Richie was part of it. His hair and his jackets changed not very much, nor his voice which became a little more lispy and wet with age. All of which became objects of fun for impressionists both professional and amateur alike. And Benaud played up to his image, often sensing the joke and fun that was to be had, even at his own expense. He has been described as the voice of cricket, and his voice was certainly instantly recognisable, but more importantly than his oral peculiarities and insightful commentary was this sense of fun and dignity. He is the embodiment of the spirit of cricket: despite the fact that it is to be taken seriously, cricket is after all only a game to be played and enjoyed. Played hard and played to win, but a game of honour and manners, and a game always to be played in the correct spirit. Understanding the vagaries and difficulties of the skills required to perform at the highest level Benaud was never one to be spiteful or jealous of those players after him, which included his brother John, fourteen years his junior and good enough to play three matches himself for Australia in 1972.
Unique amongst Australians he was as loved in the UK as in his home country. The eulogies for him have been as fulsome in the Daily Telegraph in England as in the Daily Telegraph in Australia; the praise for his character and honourable nature as gushing in the Guardian as in the Sydney Morning Herald. He was a true gentleman of cricket and the media, but let us not forget that behind the dodgy neckties, the increasingly wispier and whiter hair (caused I am sure by a surfeit of brilliantine in his playing days – plus ça change from Compton and Benaud to modern players and their hair-dos via Warne and Clarke to Glenn Maxwell) he was a very decent man, but still one with the foibles and weaknesses in every man.
There are old stories about his fussiness of attire and in the fading photographs he carries himself more in the manner of a Michael Clarke than a Simon Katich. There is an element of vanity to be seen and no doubt he and his beloved second wife Daphne had their fair share of extra-curricular fun if stories of ‘what happens on tour, stays on tour’ are to be credited. There are rumours surrounding the crash in 2013 in his classic Sunbeam Alpine sports car that might have a connection to his enjoyment of the occasional glass of Chardonnay. He certainly too did like to make a quid on anything he could including race horses and truly terrible advertisments such as the Meat and Livestock Association Australia Day lamb ad, which was his swan song.
As the autumn nights close in and with another Ashes series upon us shortly I shall return to my new Wisden Almanac. I shall read and reflect upon the five new cricketers of the year and on how much the game has changed since Bill Alley, Alan Davidson, Norman O’Neill, Bill Lawry and the unforgettable Richie were afforded that accolade in 1962.
In his later years as a commentator, Richie Benaud had an audience in the millions. But at the beginning of his cricketing life, in the isolated country town of Jugiong, he had only himself to entertain. Richie first put bat on ball as a five-year-old, playing alone within the four walls of a disused Department of Education storeroom. His father Lou was the sole teacher at Jugiong Public School between 1932 and 1937. The school, around 350 kilometres south-west of Sydney, had 23 students of various ages, some of whom travelled to school on horseback. After school hours, there were no kids around to share Richie’s developing passion for cricket. His father came to the rescue, giving him a home-made bat and a tennis ball, and, clearing out an old storeroom, made him practice his defensive shots. It sounds more like the formative years of Geoffrey Boycott or Trevor Bailey, not a man who would go on to score one of Test cricket’s fastest centuries.
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Steve Cannane, ‘First Tests. Great Australian Cricketers and the Backyards that Made Them.’
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