LIZZY AMMON pays tribute to Richie Benaud, the cricketer, journalist and broadcaster, who has died, aged 84
It was always summertime when Richie Benaud was broadcasting.
The former New South Wales and Ashes-winning Australia cricket captain, accomplished and respected sports journalist, in print for the News of the World as well as a broadcaster, who was also a coach and mentor who provided the leg-spinning link between Bill O’Reilly and Shane Warne, died in Sydney yesterday. He was 84.
Benaud transcended the generations. Even those with little or no interest in cricket will have heard someone uttering the much-mimicked words “Morning everyone”, with a gentle Aussie twang.
Just those two words on the first morning a Test match evoked so much anticipation and excitement because when Benaud spoke, you knew that summer was here and everything was going to be just wonderful.
As a player, and captain, Benaud was one of the best, not only of his generation, but of all-time. On the field, Benaud always fought hard to win and he understood what cricket meant to all those who were watching.
Born in Penrith, New South Wales in 1930 to a father of French descent – hence the surname – and Australian mother, Richie Benaud made his first-class debut aged 18, and played his first Test in 1952.
With his crafty and well-honed leg-spin, he captured 248 wickets in 63 Tests, and was an attacking lower-order batsman who hit one of the fastest Test centuries, as well as being a brilliant gully fielder. He was the first cricketer to achieve the Test double of 2,000 runs and 200 wickets. As Australia’s Test captain from 1958-59 until his retirement, with a shoulder injury in 1964, he never lost a series.
Once his playing career was over, Benaud moved to the press box, though he had trained as a journalist and studied how broadcasters worked before making that transition. With microphone in hand, Benaud’s dictum was never to speak unless he could add something to what the viewers were seeing, something which modern-day television commentators too often overlook. “My mantra is: put your brain into gear and if you can add to what’s on the screen, do it. Otherwise shut up,” he said.
Benaud always offered unrivalled knowledge and passion to his commentaries, and to his weekly columns in the biggest-selling Sunday newspaper in Britain.
He wasn’t afraid to say when he believed that something was wrong though. He was calm but clearly angry when he described Australian all-rounder Trevor Chappell’s underarm bowling to prevent New Zealand scoring a match-tying six off the final ball in a 1981 one-day international as “the worst thing I have ever seen on a cricket pitch”.
For anyone who had the pleasure to meet him or work with him, he was unfailingly polite, warm and kind. Generous with his time and his advice, Benaud was always willing to and wanting to talk about the game.
But whether on the pitch or in the commentary box, Benaud was able to convey and evoke emotion in a way few others have been able to. It is no coincidence he became an icon with hundreds of cricket fans turning up to Test matches with beige jackets and grey wigs on.
On air, he rarely resorted to anecdotes about himself or about his own playing days unless they clearly added something in terms of analysis. He never tried to be funny although he certainly could raise a chuckle. You’d never have heard the phrase “in my day” come from his mouth and there were no rose-tinted glasses worn by Benaud. He embraced change where he felt it would be good for the game, and enjoyed seeing the game develop and progress.
Indeed, Benaud is credited with being among the influential figures involved with one of the most significant changes in the last 200 years of the game, the introduction in 1977 of Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket.
In his own way, Benaud was a thoroughly modern man.
While Benaud as commentator was usually understated, you never got any less of a sense of the emotion of an occasion. Indeed, that very understated nature meant that, when Benaud spoke to say that something had been good, or outstanding, you knew that he really meant it. It was in this way that he could raise your excitement levels without having to resort to raising his voice to shouting levels.
A patriotic Australian who clearly he took great joy from Australia success, he also took great joy from any success by any team or individual, as the clips of commentary from Ian Botham’s 1981 Headingley innings show, delivering spontaneous lines which live on in the memory as much as any of the shots played: “Straight into the confectionary stall and straight back out again”. Benaud was, simply, a good sport.
His career as a television commentator in Britain, first with the BBC, last with Channel 4, lasted 42 years, through to the end of the 2005 Ashes series, though he continued to work in Australia. Richie Benaud was peerless, and as the tributes pour in for him, it feels almost unfathomable that we will never hear him say, “Morning everyone” again.
Since a car crash in October 2013, he had been fail and weakened, and in November last year he announced he was being treated for skin cancer. Yet 84 is a “marvellous innings”. If anyone deserved a century, it was Richie.
- Richie Benaud is survived by his wife Daphne, sons Greg and Jeffery from a previous marriage and brother John. The SJA sends its deepest condolences to all Richie’s family, friends and colleagues