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Richie’s Endless Summer

Today, Friday, 10 April 2015, we heard the sad news that many cricket followers have been bracing themselves for: our greatest living cricket treasure has died. Richie Benaud has left this earth, passing away in his sleep, aged 84 and a half. While all men are mortal and Richie has been ill for some time, the loss is keenly felt. Richie holds a special place in the hearts of cricket lovers all over the world, especially those in Richie’s homeland of Australia. I would also hasten to add that would be followed by the English in a very close second place.

It is fitting and expected that the tributes are flowing and I will add to the torrent some of my own reflections and memories. Depending on age and experience, Richie Benaud means many things to many people. Richie Benaud had an impact on the cricket world as a player, journalist, writer, commentator, reformer, mentor and icon for more than 65 years. This started from his selection for NSW in 1948 up until his death in 2015. To put the longevity of Richie’s influence into perspective, consider that this period coincided with the very end of Sir Donald Bradman’s active playing career.

This morning I considered what I should express on that dreaded medium of Twitter, short and sweet as required. I decided on declaring that Richie Benaud was my first cricket love. It was also an enduring love. Some will know that my love of cricket began in the summer of 1975-76 when I was eight years old. On reflection, Richie was probably not my very first cricket love. While Richie was a commentating super star in England well before 1976, it was not until World Series Cricket that Richie appeared seriously on Australian television sets. Therefore I must deduce that it was probably Jeff Thomson that was my first cricket love or at least, crush. Call it puppy love if you like but Richie was the real thing. My memories of cricket from my earliest days, through my formative years and on to years of immersion but never saturation cannot be separated from Richie Benaud.

I lived in the Parramatta district until high school. Richie and his father (Lou) were legends at the Cumberland Cricket Club. The team bus used to pass Richie Benaud Oval on the way to interschool cricket on Friday afternoons. Richie was born in Penrith in 1930, an area that I have in inhabited for the past two decades. These things in small ways add to my personal connection with Richie but the main thing is that Richie featured in my living room, on my TV, for more than three decades.

I was really too young to understand the so called ‘World Series Cricket revolution’ or the ‘Kerry Packer cricket war’. It was much later, as I become somewhat of a student of the game and read many cricket books (including Richie’s own works) that I understood the significance of those years. I appreciate now that my first summer of cricket was spent looking at the batsman’s rear end every second over because the ABC only had one camera. It must have been the case but I don’t remember it. And at the time of WSC, all I knew is that I had to watch channel 9 to see my heroes – the Chappells, Lillee, Marsh, Walters and co. And naturally, Richie was central to the picture.

Richie’s part in the success of WSC cannot be underestimated. He was the face of WSC once it went to air and was central in preparations. Kerry Packer chose wisely in employing Richie Benaud as a consultant. But on the other hand, there could have been no more obvious choice, given the requirement. Benaud was a legend of Australian cricket – one of the greatest captains, leg spinners and all rounders (but hold that thought). Added to that he was a journalist by trade, a seasoned television commentator already, an astute operator and over the years he had recognised injustices dealt to the players by the ACB. He gave Packer’s organisation credibility with the players and vast expertise in sports TV journalism.

Given that Richie played such a lead role in WSC, it is interesting that this did not seem to tarnish him, even in the short term. I don’t ever recall any suggestion or have never come across anything in writing that Benaud had been mercenary, cynical or selfish or had harmed the game. I like to think that this is partly because Richie had always been one to support the cause of players – WSC was not ‘out of the blue’. I noted in his autobiography, Anything but an Autobiography, several instances where he had been outspoken or critical of injustices to players in the past. Example include:

  • The ACB cancelling a privately sponsored “B Team” tour of India because the player payments put the ACB in a bad light.
  • Players having in their contracts a clause that stated they could not play 1st Class cricket anywhere but in Australia for 18 months after an Ashes tour (simply to stop players from playing professional County cricket). Benaud took exception to this draconian condition in 1953.
  • Unfair schedules imposed on touring teams such as the West Indies in 1953
  • The condescending attitude of the ACB towards perceived lesser cricketing nations such as New Zealand and South Africa (this was back in the 1950s). Benaud was embarrassed about remarks made by the board questioning the quality of the South Africans in 1952.

Looking back, I think history shows that in the long term, WSC was good for the game of cricket and I am glad that Richie played a significant part in reforming cricket. I have observed that during war, technology advances in quantum leaps. At the beginning of WWII, some airforce planes were still biplanes. By the end of the war, just six years later, the first jets were in the air. In peacetime, that advancement may have taken 20 years or more. Similar rapidity and invention were seen in the WSC ‘war’ as Packer threw huge amounts of money into surviving and winning. Night cricket, professional and innovative television coverage, stump mics, slow motion replays and yes, coloured clothing all advanced cricket, which did have some catching up to do, decades.

All of the above means that my introduction to Richie was as host and commentator. I was presented with a man in his late forties, wearing a stunning array of pastel jackets, sporting quaffed hair, brown, leathery skin and who spoke like, well, Richie. I had no real inkling of his playing credentials initially. But I still adopted him as my spiritual cricket father. I guess this was because of his presence, his brilliance in the commentary position and the reverence with which he was held by everyone. There is no doubt in my mind that next to Bradman, Richie Benaud is Australia’s most important cricketer.

When I first saw Richie’s This is Your Life episode, I was in for quite an education. It was filmed in 1975 but I must have seen a re-run a few years later. With the egocentric innocence of a child I did not realise Richie was a legend on the cricket field. It had not clicked that he was a cricketer first, then a commentator. To me, he was the face of Australian cricket where the stars were Lillee, Thommo, Marsh and Greg Chappell. For that matter, at such a tender age, I hadn’t really contemplated cricket before 1975. How much I had to learn and how much enjoyment I have had backfilling that knowledge for the past 40 years. To find out that Richie could bat and bowl like a champion and had been the Test captain and had all sorts of records (I think at the time he was the only player with more than 2000 Tests runs and more than 200 wickets) took me by surprise but I am sure that I still did not appreciate the gravity of Benaud, the player. And I don’t think I even knew what a leg spinner was at that time.

In the intervening years I have learned that Richie Benaud was a swashbuckling batsmen, an aggressive and skilful leg spin bowler and an astute and flamboyant captain. He was the only significant, let alone great, Australian leg spinner between O’Reilly and Warne – a period of about 45 years. Richie Benaud was captain of Australia in one of the most celebrated Tests series of all time – the 1960-61 series against the West Indies. From the extraordinary tied Test in Brisbane, throughout the five Test series, the cricket was closely contested and thrilling and the manner in which the game was played was breathtaking. This was largely due to Benaud’s style and cricket enjoyed some halcyon days. Richie Benaud never lost a Test series as captain.

The West Indian tour of Australia was closely followed by perhaps Richie’s finest personal hour on the cricket field. He captained the team to a 2-1 series win in England to claim the Ashes and he bowled the team to victory in Manchester, on the final day to take a 2-1 series lead (which proved to be the final margin). England needed 256 for victory and collapsed from 1/150 to all out for 201. Benaud took 6-70 and routed the upper and middle order in a dramatic spell, bowling around the wicket, into the rough.

A brief summary or Richie Benaud’s Test career:

Tests: 63
Runs: 2201
Centuries: 3
High score: 122
Average: 24.45
Wickets: 248
5wi/10m: 16/1
Average: 27.03

Matches Win Lose Draw Tie Win%
Benaud’s captaincy 28 12 4 11 1 42.86%

Every cricketer and his dog (and his ghost writer) now writes books. Even back in Richie’s day, it was common for players to release autobiographies and playing manuals but Richie was a professional journalist and he produced many books. I have two of them on my shelves: the beautifully named Willow Patterns (1969) and Anything but… An Autobiography (1998). You can learn a lot about Richie from Anything but An Autobiography, even from the title itself. The story is that Richie’s publisher approached him about producing another book and Richie’s reflexive response was “Anything but an autobiography”. And Richie is on the one hand an understated and modest man – he certainly came from that era where chest beating in an autobiography might be distasteful. But on the other hand, the content of the book juxtaposes its title because it is, in fact, an unashamed autobiography. Richie was a confident man and the truth be known was not short on flair and charisma. This can be lost on those who think of Richie as an older man with grey hair, wearing pastel coloured jackets. But look at the old footage of Benaud calling the shots on the field, bowling with his shirt unbuttoned and looking like an irrepressible force. Richie was a confident man and the truth be known was not short on flair and charisma.

Richie was purposeful and driven in all areas of his life. With cricket, he honed all areas of his game including fielding. His father instilled in him to be the best fielder there is because you never know when that might give you the edge with the selectors. In this, he was ahead of this time. Another example was the insights offered into the preparation for the 1959-60 tour to Pakistan and then India. Benaud realised that even though Pakistan promised that the three Tests would be played on turf pitches, that the possibility existed that they might, in fact, be played on ‘the mat’. That’s right, in 1959, Test cricket was still played on mats in some parts of the world. To cover this eventuality, the team practiced in Australia on mats and developed a bowling strategy where part time bowler, Slasher Mackay was an integral part because his skidding style would be suited to bowling on mats. You probably already guessed that they did play on mats, the series was won 2-0 and although Benaud was the leading wicket taker, Mackay was just behind Davo with 10 wickets at 19 apiece. It is impressive planning and execution.

Richie decided long before his playing career was over (eventually in 1964) that he could continue his life in cricket as a journalist. He remained after the 1956 tour (not to play County cricket, of course) but to be trained by the BBC as a journalist. From that time onwards he took every opportunity to further his experience in journalism. And didn’t that pay off? It rewarded Richie and untold numbers of cricket fans for decades. I heard Phillip Adams suggest that, “Journalists could once be defined as clerks of fact, when they were not encouraged to be idiosyncratic in style and opinion. But in the era of celebrity journalism that has profoundly changed. Clerks of fact now have the most emphatic differences in style and even more emphatic opinions”. Adams was referring to mainstream journalism but I think he offers some insights into the world of cricket commentary. Richie was a clerk of fact. A professional. The genuine article. Contrast that to the Channel 9 commentary today and you can see that it is fortunate that viewers are so parochial or the likes of Warne and Slater would not have a job.

Richie’s background and training was reflected in his commentary style, his writing and speech. What really set Richie apart was that he knew how to use TV as a medium. Remember that when he started as a TV commentator, TV was relatively new. Richie’s initial exposure to commentary would have been radio and that is a very different ball game. Richie knew that. I found this quote on the internet today and Richie sums it up best, “Put your brain into gear and if you can add to what’s on the screen then do it, otherwise shut up”. I enjoyed some blissful silences while Richie was in the commentary chair and that is one of the things I miss most already.

Richie was very well spoken but his turn of phrase and dry wit could be very, very funny. I will share a couple of my favourite examples. The first was from an interview prior to that famous 1960-61 series where Richie said, “To say that it is a privilege to lead my team against Frank Worrell’s West Indians understates the position.” It is a simple statement and probably reflective of the time but I think that the turn of phrase, the generosity and the class are wonderful.

My other favourite is of a more humorous nature and is from the ABC production – Cricket in the 70s: The Chappell Era. The scene was Lillee and Thommo pulverising the Poms and breaking many limbs. Richie was describing the new boy, English opening batsman, David Lloyd’s bravado and related that,  “Lloyd claimed that he could play Thompson with what you might say was his… appendage. And wouldn’t you know it, he went about proving it”. This is immediately followed by footage of Thommo hitting Lloyd square on, right in the box and going down for the count. It is great TV. Well done the ABC.

As Richie’s endless summers continued with Channel 9, the BBC and later Channel 4, Richie’s star knew no bounds. He was a household name in Australia and England and eventually in the entire cricket world. I don’t want to make this about Billy Birmingham (The Twelfth Man) but you have to wonder how much he aided Richie’s super stardom. I know that as a young man, for me the line became blurry between what was really Richie and what was The Twelfth Man’s Richie. For example, did Richie really say, “How’s the hair? The hair OK? And what about the suntan?” I think not but sometimes that distinction had to be a conscious decision.

Richie participated in about 500 Test matches as player and commentator. If you do the maths, you will find that is just under seven years of Test match cricket. But all things must end. It was not all that long ago that Richie smashed his Sunbeam Alpine – October 2013 – and he never really recovered from the injuries sustained in that accident. In fact, the silence was deafening.

Nothing was heard of, or from Richie for the summer of 2013-2014. This continued into the summer of 2014-2015 until we received a couple of glimpses of Richie. The first was a recorded tribute to Phillip Hughes, following his tragic death. The second was an update from Richie, almost like a three minute documentary. I saw it just once during one of the Tests. While strolling around Coogee with Daphne, Richie spoke about his health, what he was up to (not much), showed us the pranged Sunbeam in the garage and tried to sound positive. But I have to admit the site of Richie made me shed a few tears. He was emaciated and very frail and it looked like he was not long for this earth. I guess at 84, and given the little that was known, this should not have been surprising. It just hits hard when an irreplaceable icon is lost. And it seems even harder with sporting icons because the very thing they are loved for is the physical abilities they displayed in youth. Of course, in Richie’s case it was far more and that is why the love is deeper.

I have heard it said that Richie did not see a winter for more than 40 years and I believe it is true. He has left this earth just before the onset of winter in Sydney and even though we miss him terribly, I like to think that Richie is now enjoying an eternal summer.