All Out Cricket editor Phil Walker pays tribute to the immortal Richie Benaud.
All who know cricket know Richie. Everyone will have their story. Literally. We’ve all got our Richie moments, stored up there as evidence of cricket’s untouchable grace. For those of a certain age – and this counts for most of us, for he spanned the decades – the game and its frontman were inextricable. We’ll all have our favourite Richie-isms, and there isn’t a cricketing soul out there who hasn’t tried the accent for size. Let’s all try it again today.
He gave cricket to the TV age. A match was not a match until Richie called it such. He got cricket so deeply as to almost embody it. But it wasn’t just the game that he gave you, tied up in the mastery of form. No one before or since has ever actually spoken like Richie Benaud. I grew up in the video age; I was seven when my Botham’s Ashes ’81 VHS dropped in, presented by Richie from the snug of a bar, in conversation with a cheroot-smoking Botham. He was the poet of these tapes, a language teacher and an advocate, all in one.
They’ll want to go looking for that, let alone fetching it,
What a marvellous catch that was; he took it two hands, it wasn’t even a one-hand grab,
Well, I s’pose it’s only logical; if you need 24 to avoid the follow-on, why not get them in four hits?
It’s gone straight into the confectionery stall, and out again,
My story’s unremarkable, but it’s mine. I was only a few weeks into this job of being paid to speak to these figments made flesh, and it was all a little weird. Richie was releasing his new DVD, having selected his all-time XI. We met at a hotel in London, Richie’s favourite, where he and Daphne always stayed when he was in London. I chanced a coffee and waited for him to come down. He was much taller than I thought he’d be. I find most cricketers are. I was a kid, flappy and loose but tight-limbed, not yet ready to summon the delusional self-faith to ride out the irremediable oddness of a scenario where, less than six months after breaking down Hamlet into EastEnders plotlines for special needs kids at a Leytonstone comprehensive, I was sharing coffee and talking to Richie Benaud, Richie bloody Benaud, about why Sydney Barnes makes it in just ahead of Malcolm Marshall. I’d only ever talked to my mates, and maybe some mates of some mates, about Malcolm Marshall. It’s probable that I’d never talked about Sydney Barnes with anyone.
So he was taller, broader across the shoulders, more upright than the beige, sage Buddha of BBC legend. He had the bearing of a once great cricketer, and the aura of a forever great frontman. In those six years when he was Australia’s captain, from 1958 until his retirement from the international game in 1964 – walking away with 248 Test wickets and three hundreds – he did more than any other captain before or since to establish Australia’s principles of expressive cricket. He never lost a series as captain. And he never buttoned his cricket shirt to the top. I refuse to believe these two facts are unrelated.
He turned soon after retirement to journalism. He actually began as a traditional newsman at the News of the World, before moving on to the sports pages, and for all the TV work, he kept his spinning fingers inky in the weekend’s newspaper for all those decades to come. But of course, for most of us, he belonged to TV. It matters not how deeply runs your admiration for someone you’ve never met; if TV is your own physical bond with that person, they unavoidably take on the glories of caricature, and for me, just like for all of us, Richie inhabited all of them: the silky leg-spinning leader in the long-sleeved sweater; the Anglophile who married his English secretary; the dashing allrounder turned all-round observer, revered as one of Australia’s pillars and yet free to call out hypocrisy when he saw it; the Billy Birmingham stooge; the ageless Yoda; the Quiet Australian; the voice of cricket. He could be persuaded by Packer’s brass, repulsed by Chappell’s under-arm, in despair, as a “free-to-air man”, about Test cricket going behind a TV paywall and disconcerted by the angle of Murali’s elbow while always, without fail, remaining in thrall to what the game can be in this best of all possible worlds. No cricketing soul before or since has eclipsed Richie Benaud’s integrity.
It’s the most versatile game ever created, he said to me this day, positing the idea that in his humble opinion we were witnessing a golden age – a period of unmatched brilliance, of creatively bold shotmaking and rambunctious, results-driven Test matches liberated by teams scoring four runs an over. It was 2004. On the cusp as ever, a presence both ancient and modern, Richie could see where the game was taking us because he felt it in his bones, and you know what, he wasn’t scared, not one little bit. At that point in time he had either played in, watched or commentated on a third of all the 1,600-odd Test matches ever conducted. He told me, with a glint, that Flintoff was a serious cricketer. He said that England could surprise a few people when the Ashes came round in a year’s time. He saw to it that this kid in front of him would be ok. There can be humility in grandeur.
And he was right, of course. We still had 2005 to come. About to join the acolytes hanging around the confectionery stall was a whole other audience, all eyes on the drama, all ears on the man. In the UK, he sparkled right up to the end. The final day of that 2005 series was also Benaud’s last as a ‘free-to-air man’ on a terrestrial station showing live cricket over here. In his final stint, with the series decided and the shadows lengthening, he offered a few humble lines. “For 42 years,” he said, “I’ve loved every moment of it. And it’s been a privilege to go into everyone’s living room throughout that time. What’s even better is that it’s been a great deal of fun.” At which point Kevin Pietersen is bowled by Glenn McGrath; “But it’s not fun for the batsman…” He introduces the next commentary team and hands over the mic. Gone.
He sparkled almost to the end. Even before news came through last November that he was being treated for skin cancer, a car accident in October 2013 had weakened him, and towards the end he’d been rarely heard in the overcrowded saloons bars of Channel 9’s comm boxes, where deftness of touch, nuance and pause increasingly feel like relics of a lost and classier time. And now he’s gone. The words remain, though. The words endure.