1930 - 2015 | NSW | Cricketer & sports commentator
Only Sir Donald Bradman had a greater influence than Richie Benaud on Australian cricket in the 20th century. Benaud was the first all-rounder to score 2000 runs and 200 wickets. He became an attacking and charismatic captain, insisting on bright cricket that brought back the crowds and team success after a period in the doldrums in the 1950s. He became a journalist towards the end of his sporting career and defined television cricket commentary style and analysis in a 42-year career for networks in England and Australia. His alliance with Kerry Packer was one of the main reasons for the success of Kerry Packer’s cricket revolution in 1977.
Had Richie Benaud never uttered or written a word about cricket, he would still have been among its outstanding players and leading personalities. He was a Test cricketer for twelve years, the first to accumulate 2000 runs and 200 wickets, and a captain half that time, unbeaten in a series.
Benaud bowled leg-spin in a great Australian tradition, hit the ball hard with a flamboyant backlift, caught superbly, thought deeply. Above all, in a somewhat straight-laced, even austere period, he was a vivid figure, scorning a cap, exposing a manly chest with a loosely buttoned shirt, demonstrative in his gestures and celebrations.
As Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack observed in profiling him in 1962: ‘If one player, more than any other, had deserved well of cricket for lifting the game out of the doldrums, that man is Richard Benaud.’
Yet it was as ‘Richie’, sage of the screen, pro of the page, that he would become known, turning the last half-century of his life into an endless summer of microphones and musings in alternating hemispheres.
He prepared for this well in advance. At the end of Australia’s 1956 tour of England, he spent two weeks at the BBC gaining orientation in outside broadcast techniques of the new-fangled television, absorbing the corporation’s customs of restraint and tact. He learned to write accurate and economical news stories by dictating to copytakers as a police roundsman on Sydney’s Sun, and became a columnist on London’s News of the World in 1960.
That 1956 English summer was the first in which Benaud guested for the BBC’s Test Match Special: he joined the BBC commentary team three years later, just before he retired from playing.
Benaud also showed aptitude as a photographer, turning a Minolta SR7 with a 400mm lens on controversial fast bowler Charlie Griffith during Australia’s tour of the Caribbean in 1965, and adorning his graphic images with a despatch from Kingston that showed all his old reporter’s terseness:
West Indian fast bowler Charles Griffith throws.
I am quite convinced of this having watched him in action in the First Test match of the series against Australia.
Photographic evidence confirms it.
Benaud was a feature mainly of northern summers until 1977, when he joined Channel Nine as an advisor, ambassador and commentator with Kerry Packer’s breakaway professional troupe, World Series Cricket. This made-for-television spectacle recalibrated the game for modern audiences, with a stress on shorter forms of the game, night cricket and mass marketing; it also gave authorities a sharp lesson in the commercial potential of their game, which others would exploit if they failed to.
Amid all this, Benaud at the microphone was a crucial, calming, continuous presence, enhancing the credibility of the brash new entrant with his measured tones and worldly wisdom. Benaud had long argued for a professionalism in cricket that met the players’ own aspirations; he became one of very few men in Packer’s life that the mogul deferred to.
Packer once rang a commentary box at Bellerive Oval to tell the commentators to talk more, as they were not working for the patrician BBC. As co-commentator Bill Lawry strained for more garrulity, he noted that Benaud sailed serenely on, sticking by a time-honoured code that one should only talk when it was possible to add to the picture.
Change was a constant during Benaud’s time in cricket. He became perhaps ever more himself. His contemporary Bob Simpson thought that Benaud planned his life down to the smallest degree. Certainly his commentary was marked by meticulous preparation, unflustered delivery and binding principles: he concentrated on the game in front of him; he did not talk about his own career; he let the vision do as much work as possible; he was averse to hyperbole; he was ever mindful of being a ‘guest in the viewers’ home’.
He was not a controversialist, although he was still at the News of the World when it broke the spot fixing scandal that enmeshed the Pakistan cricket team in 2010. He maintained friendly relations with players without an excess of familiarity. Michael Clarke never forgot meeting him – the seeming strangeness of being able to converse with that voice to which he had hitherto only listened.
An underestimated aspect of his work was Benaud’s writing on cricket, which began with a fresh and engaging instructional book Way of Cricket (1960). His Tale of Two Tests (1962) remains one of the best inside accounts of Test cricket by a participating player; his Spin Me A Spinner (1963) was a forerunner of the genre of the captain’s diary. Willow Patterns (1968) was a readable tour d’horizon of the game, Benaud on Reflection (1984) a punchy collection of essays on cricket issues. His volumes of late-life memoirs were perhaps consciously unrevealing, preserving a certain mystery, observing a lifetime’s understatement. But what had been true of him in Wisden in 1962 still applied.
Gideon Haigh is an international cricket author and journalist and a foundation member of the Australian Media Hall of Fame.
Richie Benaud in 1967, courtesy of Fairfax.
Richie Benaud, 1990. Courtesy of Fairfax.
Richie Benaud, 2005. Courtesy of Fairfax.
Richie: The Man Behind the Legend, Norman Tasker and Ian Heads (editors), Stoke Hill Press, Sydney, 2005
Remembering Richie, Richie Benaud and Friends, Hodder and Stoughton, London, 2015