Thursday 22 March 2018

Richie Benaud: Sultan of spin bows out after a great innings

The voice of cricket should be remembered for many reasons, writes Vic Marks

Richie Benaud in Dublin
Richie Benaud in Dublin

It is not often that the death of an 84-year-old sportsman, who has not played his game for 51 years, is the lead item on the news in a foreign country. Yet that was the case with Richie Benaud, whose passing has touched anyone who possesses the slightest interest in the game of cricket.

The outpourings of affection and admiration have since cascaded, many of the tributes coming from those so young that they were scarcely aware of his prowess as a cricketer. Indeed his achievements as a player were arguably his greatest contribution to the game despite all those years behind the microphone.

For all the sepia-strewn memories of the 1950s and '60s, cricket was in danger of stagnation in that era. Safety-first tedium in Test cricket was all too prevalent. Upon his elevation to the captaincy of Australia in 1958, Benaud promised, no doubt in measured tones, that he would play an attacking game. And he delivered.

In the 1960-'61 series between Australia and West Indies, who were led by Frank Worrell, the game of cricket was rejuvenated. There was the tied Test in Brisbane, the ticker-tape farewell to the West Indies team from a nation relieved that cricket was fun again. Benaud and Worrell had given the lead.

Benaud was the first overseas captain I can remember. In 1961 his Australia side retained the Ashes thanks in large part to an astonishing victory at Old Trafford. England were cruising towards victory, 150 for one needing 255. As a last resort he bowled his leg-breaks from around the wicket. Nine Englishmen fell for 51 runs, six of them to Benaud.

Back in the dressing room, Benaud, beer in hand, looked over at Neil Harvey and just burst out laughing. As he later rationalised, captaincy is 90 per cent luck and 10 per cent skill "but don't try it without that 10per cent". Benaud could see the funny side all right, as one of his admirers has noted this week. Ian Chappell, who has been at Benaud's side since the Packer days, said: "Some people would say to me: 'I wish Richie had a sense of humour.' They were wrong, of course. But he was as dry as they come."

He has been venerated as a commentator on television even though he was the antithesis of the modern breed. Or perhaps that veneration came because he was the antithesis of today's broadcasters. He hardly ever referred to his playing days; he only spoke if he could add to the pictures; he shunned hyperbole and his opinions were carefully considered and generous. By the end he had a sphinx-like quality leaving the viewer to interpret the latest pearl.

I worked with him once on TV, in 1989, and was, of course, awed by the prospect and open to any snippets of advice. At the time the BBC were using large fluffy microphones (there may be a more technical term) and I recall Richie saying: "If you have the tip of your nose just touching the microphone you'll probably have it just about in the right place." That was it and self-evidently that gem has stayed with me for almost three decades.

Later, even after Richie had stopped broadcasting in England, he would be stationed in good time in the press box on every Saturday of a Test match to write for the News of the World, an association that lasted for half a century.

He was meticulous and utterly committed to the end. Indeed Benaud was in print the last time the News of the World went to press, on July 10, 2011. "Each evening Daphne (his wife) and I raise a glass and offer a toast to someone," he wrote. "Last night it was: 'To the old News of the World'."

For the rest of us, the toast this weekend is to Richie Benaud. Yours was an absolutely marvellous innings.



Richie's Irish adventure

Richie Benaud only played in Ireland on one tour. The tail-end of the 1961 tour to England saw Australia play two two-day games against Ireland at Ormeau, Belfast, from September 15-16, and at College Park, Dublin, from September 18-19.

Benaud made 39 and one in Belfast, and six in Dublin as the Aussies, respectively, drew and won by 282 runs.

As the second game in College Park was the last game of the Australian tour, Benaud gave his tour blazer to the Ireland captain, the 21-year-old Alec O'Riordan. This photo was taken by Alan Little, using his brother's Box Brownie. Ger Siggins

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