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Richie Benaud, who died in Sydney on Friday aged 84, was an omnipresent figure in global cricket throughout his adult life — in so many capacities it is impossible to define his role succinctly, except to call him the father of the modern game.
He was a brilliant cricketer in his own right, an innovative captain of Australia, a voice instantly recognisable from Manchester to Melbourne, and ultimately cricket’s revered sage, whose name could be invoked to settle any argument about what had really happened on the field: “But Richie said….”
For nearly half his life he lived an endless summer, switching effortlessly between hemispheres to be the lead commentator in both Australia and England. The art of cricket commentary has always been perceived to reach its pinnacle on radio. Benaud mastered it on television: he said as little as possible and made every word count.
He was so identified with the TV coverage that generations grew up — as he would ruefully admit — barely aware he had ever played himself. In fact his most enduring contributions came away from the microphone, in the first half of his life.
Benaud’s forebears were Huguenot but he was born into a cricketing family in the Sydney suburbs, and made his way into the first-class game at the end of 1948. He played his first Test match in 1952, as a 21-year-old. It took Benaud a long while to be sure of his place: he was both a batsman and an exponent of the complex art of leg-spin bowling, and sometimes he was not quite good enough at either. But the force of his personality thrust him towards the captaincy.
It was a thin time for Australian cricket, struggling to come to terms with life after their greatest player, Sir Donald Bradman, who retired just as Benaud was starting out: England, for once, were consistently the better side in the 1950s. And globally the game was beset by staid old ways and negative tactics. Benaud never lost a series as captain, won back the Ashes for Australia and retained them twice, pretty much single-handedly when he bowled Australia to victory at Old Trafford in 1961.
Far more important, in 1960 when West Indies arrived for a series in Australia, he and his opposite number Frank Worrell (West Indies’ first black captain) made a mutual decision to play cricket as if it were fun. The result was a rip-roaring series that transfixed the public, reinventing the game as entertainment rather than a re-enactment of the Western Front circa 1916 (and helping pave the way for one-day cricket). Benaud became an idol in his own right. He was a solicitous leader of men, a thoughtful strategist and a PR genius.
Fast forward to 1977 when the game was plunged into crisis again by the schism caused by the Australian tycoon Kerry Packer’s bid to wrest the TV rights away from the national broadcaster ABC by buying up the leading players. By now Benaud was long retired and established as a broadcaster and journalist (a job he insisted on learning, characteristically, from the bottom up).
Crucially, he sided with the rebellion against the cricketing establishment and accepted the role as chief commentator on Packer’s Channel 9. The old guard could quite reasonably vilify Packer and the players as self-serving. Benaud, with his manifest integrity, was harder to counter. He gave the rebels a credibility without which their ultimate triumph might never have happened.
The bitterness of that two-year civil war was a long time dying, but Benaud’s reputation only grew. For decades, he wrote a column for the British Sunday rag, the News of the World, until Rupert Murdoch closed it in 2011 amid the phone-hacking scandal. He transcended his surroundings and his reputation was never tainted.
Behind the mike, his clipped comments became a seemingly eternal feature of an ever-changing game. When he made a real pronouncement, the earth shook. In a one-day international in 1981, the then Australian captain Greg Chappell prevailed on the bowler (his own brother Trevor) to bowl the final ball underarm along the ground, making it impossible for New Zealand to hit the six they needed for victory. The move was legal but unprecedented. Was it right?
Before signing off on air, Benaud pronounced: “Let me just tell you what I think about it. I think it was a disgraceful performance… it should never be permitted to happen again.” That settled things: it wasn’t.
He always looked ageless, and his voice and looks hardly wavered until a car crash in late 2013 finally forced him out of the commentary box. He was always courteous and helpful, though utterly himself. In 2004, as editor of Wisden’s Cricketers’ Almanack, I asked him to write an appreciation of his own idol, Keith Miller, who had just died.
He said yes. I murmured something about the fee. He got quite cross: he did not want money; he would not accept money, not even a charitable donation on his behalf; this was an obligation that transcended money. I have never, ever had another conversation like that.