As the Australian summer of 2014-15 began, the nation mourned the loss of one of its finest rising cricketers, Phillip Hughes. Among the enormous number of tributes was the Channel Nine video montage of Hughes’ life, narrated by a wise, authoritative, yet undeniably sad voice that we all knew. The closing words “Rest In Peace, Son” echoed the heartbreak of losing someone dear and far too young.
The summer has ended, cycling rapidly through autumn towards winter, and the man, the great man, behind that voice is himself gone. Richie Benaud died on April 10 at the age of 84. Unlike Hughes, whose life’s potential could never be realised, Benaud lived out a long and accomplished life in the sport of cricket, playing the game successfully at the highest level before making a career talking about it.
As a broadcaster about the game Richie achieved the highest standards and an identity that reached well beyond the mainstream followers of cricket, yet his style and manner is adopted by so very few of his successors in the television commentary box today. His passing may well see the closing of that bridge between the era of insight, restraint and dry wit, and the era of hyperbole, self indulgence and verbal slapstick.
Even if Richie Benaud had disappeared from public life in 1964, when injury forced his retirement as a player, his efforts would have deserved the highest praise. A gifted all-rounder whose combination of talents was uncommon in the post-WWII game – a disciplined match-winning leg-spin bowler who could bat aggressively in the middle order and was sharp in the field. Given the opportunity of leadership, he took Australia to three consecutive victories in the Ashes, launching a decade of success for a team infused with a positive attitude and not afraid to celebrate each fall of an English wicket.
At a time when only one genre of international cricket existed, not three, and there were five teams to play against, not nine, Benaud played 63 Test matches over a period of twelve years. His 248 wickets were the most by an Australian for almost two decades, his record bolstered by his three centuries with the bat. As a captain he led Australia in seven series, winning five and losing none. The Test series against the West Indies in 1960-61 was one of the most popular of all time, and the rapport with opposing captain Frank Worrell legendary.
But as with all players of the time, cricket was not Richie’s day job. As a journalist with Sydney’s afternoon daily The Sun, mainly as police roundsman, Benaud would develop the skills that would see him become a columnist for the News of the World commencing during his time as Test captain, and ending only when the London weekly was shut down in disgrace in 2011. As an expert Benaud was hired by the BBC as a television analyst and commentator after his retirement as a player. By the start of the seventies he was as much a part of the fabric of televised cricket in England as its theme tune, Booker T and the MG’s “Soul Limbo”.
In Australia he became the front-man for Test cricket in the 1970’s for firstly channel 7 and then channel 10 (or channel 0 in some states at that time), and turning up on the ABC for tea-time summaries as well.
Benaud’s authority and his opinions on the direction of the game attracted Kerry Packer when he was establishing his breakaway competition, World Series Cricket, in 1977. Benaud had already gone down the rebel line, taking an unofficial party of leading international players to South Africa in 1976, holding “Tests” against the ostracised South African side but also doing the unprecedented and playing matches against a Multi-Racial XI. Earlier, in 1970, Benaud had surrendered his life membership of the New South Wales Cricket Association after his brother, John, had been sacked as state captain for wearing the wrong shoes.
Upon joining Packer as his lead broadcast commentator and a senior adviser, Benaud found himself outcast from the cricket establishment, pitting him in opposite camps to, among others, Sir Donald Bradman, but without his presence it is doubtful that WSC could have survived past its first year. His speech, on the eve of the WSC season, to players and staff, seething with anger about he and his wife Daphne had become “non-persons” in the eyes of the establishment, was a moment of inspiration well (and apparently faithfully) dramatised in the 2012 TV drama “Howzat”.
Packer’s “cricket revolution” captured the imaginations of the public, and once channel 9 took over the coverage of official international cricket in Australia, Benaud was the head of a team of commentators, leading ex-players who became stars in the own right, and an ensemble of complementary styles. Bill Lawry’s hyperactivity, Tony Greig’s exuberance, Ian Chappell’s studiousness, along with the likes of Keith Stackpole, Fred Trueman, and Tony Cozier.
Through all that, Richie was the authoritative one. Understated, witty, unflappable. Even when he was promoting the latest Sidchrome Spanners Super Test Competition, describing it as a “very, very good competition indeed”, it was done with the smoothest of professionalism. His use of understatement and pause in television description is a trademark but it should be remembered that he also successfully did commentary shifts on commercial radio in Sydney, where constant description of events is essential.
There is only one moment I can recall Richie displaying anger on television, and that came in his end-of-day summary of the “underarm game” in 1981. He described that final ball of the game as the most disgraceful thing he had ever seen on a cricket field, finishing his sentence by breaking into a smile and saying “goodnight”.
But if anything galvanised Richie’s status as a cultural icon, it came with the help of “The 12th Man” Billy Birmingham in the mid-1980s. Birmingham has lampooned – with total affection – Benaud’s vocal mannerisms and style, to the point where the exaggerated pronounciation of “Two” has become a Richie trademark. On the day of Richie’s death, people were choosing 2.22pm as a minute of celebration of his life.
And then there were the jackets. Richie’s favourites appeared to span every colour imaginable between white and beige. His distinctive fashion sense is commemorated at every Sydney Test match since 2010 by a growing band of supporters called simply The Richies, dressed up in their beige jackets, white wigs, brandishing oversized replica channel 9 microphones. Men, a growing number of women, every cricket-loving ethnic background represented in The Richies.
Richie Benaud meant so much to so many people, and despite his extreme modesty you know he accepted the good humour of it all. And unlike many of his contemporary ex-player-turned-commentators, you could never accuse him of being a curmudgeon.
How would Richie have been different if he had been breaking into cricket today? I think he would have been an excellent Twenty20 player, with his athleticism, innovation and energetic sense of leadership. With the advancements in sports medicine in the past half century, his shoulder wouldn’t have forced him out of the game at age 33.
More poignantly, he would have worn a hat. It was the constant bare-headedness of his playing days that he cited, in one of his last public appearances in 2014, as the reason for developing the skin cancers that eventually claimed his life.
Would he have been the same commentator if he was starting out today? I find that impossible to speculate. His style, as much as we admire it, seems to belong to a time when hyperbole was not the imperative of the commercial world, and it will be hard to turn that clock back. Richie Benaud did not, as more than one IPL franchise Twitter account said in their tributes, “revolutionise” television commentary. He did it properly. Others that followed deconstructed the artistry.
Richie Benaud, as a cricketer and a broadcasting giant, belonged to an era which I now believe with his passing has reached a full stop. We will miss him.