Richie Benaud; tributes to a master

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Yesterday was a sombre day for cricket. Few people have impacted on cricket as much as Richie Benaud, and no one has done it in as many fields of the game.

All of us here at Mind the Windows! loved Richie, and all of us feel his passing with sadness.

A few of us have here tried to compile a tribute to the man who was Richie Benaud.

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Benaud; the bowler, the batsman.
Gavin Fitzgerald.

Before trying his hardest to be an Aussie, Mark Nicholas was a reasonable county cricketer and an excellent broadcaster.

Before ‘oh boy!’ and looking at the ‘rigs of these blokes’, James Brayshaw was a Shield winning cricketer with a batting average that today’s players would be envious of.

And before he was a poker-playing pizza connoisseur who gets ‘thirsty’, Shane Warne was the greatest spin bowler of all time.

It’s hard for cricket lovers of the modern era to imagine Richie Benaud as anything other than the Wise Old Man of Australian cricket. Before suiting up in the off-white jacket and fronting Channel 9’s cricket coverage, before ‘choo for chwenty-choo’, before his impromptu but scathing assessment of the Underarm Incident, before even the 12th Man, Benaud was one of the greatest cricketers Australia had ever produced.

His captaincy record was second-to-none, but with the bat and ball he was just as great. He batted with verve and vigour, bowled with smarts and guile, and was highly respected on all corners of the cricketing globe. He played with the same attacking and aggressive flair that he captained with.

Alongside Keith Miller, he personified the 1950s and kept the pre-war spirit of the game alive. In the 1960s, when he truly confirmed himself as a world class cricketer, he was the only person who kept an aggressive and entertaining essence to cricket.

The image of Richie, with rolled-up-sleeves, four buttons undone exposing a bronzed chest and golden chain, with not a hair out of place, he defined Australian cricket of the era; in the face of the stuffy conservatism crawling through the British game. He was professional before true professionalism.

The records in comparison to today’s beefed stats don’t give enough credit, especially given that it took Benaud several years to become a dependable Test cricketer.

A batting average of 25 in Tests and 36 in First Class matches are underwhelming, but don’t fairly sum up how well he could fight and dig his heels in in the lower order. His bowling average of 27 in Tests is class of the highest order. He’d be what we call nowadays an aggressive lower order hitter, but in the Australian side of the time it was a perfect fit with the other higher qualified batsmen above him.

In tandem with fellow bowling all-rounder Alan Davidson, they led the bowling attack, and with Benaud’s outstanding captaincy were capable of beating all-comers. Richie retired as the highest Australian Test wicket taker at the time with 248 scalps.

Amazing to think that in one season in 1957 Benaud picked up over 100 wickets, peaking during a tour of South Africa – taking wickets at an average of 21, and scoring runs at an average of 50.

He was also the first to pass the 200 wicket and 2000 run milestone in Tests, and was arguably Australia’s greatest Ashes captain, winning them off the English in 1959 then successfully defending them twice.

The great man retired in 1964, and took up a full time career in journalism for which the cricketing public will forever be grateful. His linking up with Kerry Packer to produce World Series cricket in the 70’s changed the game as we know it.

Summer never officially started until Richie greeted us with a marvellous “Morning everyone and welcome to…”

Mourning Everyone indeed. Not just the greatest behind the mic but perhaps the star player of his generation. The voice of cricket is now in the central commentary position in the heavens.

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1960/61, the greatest series?
Dan McGrath.

Richie Benaud was an innovative, aggressive leader in an era of rainy-grey British conservatism that not even Keith Miller could liven up. Alongside Sir Frank Worrell, the first full-time non-white captain of the West Indies, Benaud dragged cricket, kicking and screaming, into a new, brighter era. The Calypso Summer of 1960/61 made cricket sexy again, and Benaud was at the forefront.

The First Test, in Brisbane, was arguably the greatest of them all. The story is well-known — Australia, chasing 233 to win on the final day, collapsed to 6/92. An Australian win seemed impossible, the only potential solace resting in a draw. But Richie Benaud was seldom happy to play for draws when even the tiniest shred of hope remained. Against all odds, Benaud and Davidson took Australia within touching distance of victory. But with time working against them, some frenetic running was matched by some classy fielding by Joe Solomon and the match was tied in a flurry of direct hit run-outs.

Such a result was inconceivable, so much so that there was no agreed-upon term for a match ending in such a fashion. One cannot imagine a similar chase being attempted five years prior. But the Australian public were hooked. Cricket was back.

The Second Test was a big Australian win. The Third a similarly dominant display, this time from the West Indies. The Fourth was drawn with Australia one wicket away from defeat, the last pair having batted for just short of two tension-filled hours to ward off certain defeat. The Fifth Test featured a Saturday crowd of 90,800 and ended in a tight Australian win, giving Benaud a 2-1 series win.

The cricket was incredible, yet the aggressive nature of both sides and the good spirit in which the matches were played did just as much to capture the public’s imagination. Benaud and Worrell had rekindled a spirit missed for too long, arguably burying the residual demons of the Second World War once and for all. The West Indies were treated as heroes upon exit, with Wisden writing that “Commerce in [Melbourne] almost stood still as the smiling cricketers from the West Indies, the vanquished not the victors, were given a send-off the like of which is normally reserved for Royalty and national heroes.”

In the context of an Australia in which Indigenous peoples were still not afforded full citizenship, and the White Australia Policy was in full effect, it is hard to imagine that this series, so inextricably linked to Richie Benaud and Frank Worrell, did not have some impact on burgeoning civil rights campaigns.

That 1960/61 summer not only revitalised cricket, but it had broader social and cultural significance in a rapidly changing world. Benaud, as well as Worrell, helped drive that change – the first of many times he challenged the prevailing orthodoxy.

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Benaud as captain, and the 1961 Ashes.
Devon Mace.

“Captaincy is ninety per cent lucky and ten per cent skill,” wrote Richie Benaud in ‘On Reflection’, “but, for heaven’s sake, don’t try it without that little ten per cent.”

It was a typically forthright comment from someone who, whether reporting with the written or spoken word, never let his perspective on the game slip.

Despite Benaud’s self-effacing comments did do something of a disservice to his captaincy, however. No captain has ever made as much use of that ten per cent as Benaud, excepting perhaps Douglas Jardine and Stephen Fleming.

That 1960/61 series, covered so well by Dan McGrath above, was a turning moment for Benaud. He’d always been a solid captain, but it took him to a new level.

He then cemented his place as a great of the captaincy domain during the 1961 Ashes.

The way he used himself in the fourth Test was key. The first Test was drawn, with the second and third Tests levelling the series 1-1.

He’d always been a great leader of men, and always utilised his players brilliantly, but it was the moment he defeated the bowling-captain’s greatest obstacle – the use of oneself.

England were 150-1, needing just 106 for victory, when Benaud took over. Coming around the wicket – an idea previously spurned and ignored – he ended up with 6/70, and led his nation to Ashes victory.

Ray Illingworth summed it up best:

“No captain of my time has impressed me more than Richie Benaud. Richie had the gift of making you feel you were a better player than you really were. He made his players believe they could win, even when the cause looked utterly hopeless. Nothing illustrated more clearly Richie’s adroit handling of men than his leadership of the 1961 Australian team which came to Britain. They should never have won the rubber with those players, but Richie instilled into them his belief in themselves – this attitude that “there is nothing we cannot achieve if we set our minds to it”.”

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Taking a standing – Benaud’s pièce de résistance?
Imran Ahsan.

In 1977, the game was lurching towards calamity again when Kerry Packer instigated the rupture by making the proposition to grab the TV rights away from the national broadcaster ABC.

When he was rebuked, he decided to set up a rebel league, and bought the best players. But he couldn’t rely on the players alone.

By then, Richie Benaud was long retired and recognised as an anchor and correspondent.

Benaud became a protagonist in the World Series Cricket story in his own right. He was a compassionate spearhead of men, a shrewd strategist and a PR mastermind.

Quite momentously, he teamed up with the defiance against the cricketing institution and accepted the role as chief commentator on Packer’s Channel 9. The old guard could quite judiciously belittle Packer and the players as egotistical.

Benaud, with his obvious veracity, was tougher to tackle. He gave the rebels an authority without which their ultimate conquest might never have happened.

Benaud is of those exceptional cricketers that gave so much to the game past his playing days. Not only his summer presence will be missed, but also the foundation that was based upon the difference, the class and the fineness which brought joy to the commentary box – and the world cricketing landscape – will be sorely missed.

And WSC wasn’t the only time he went against the grain.

In 1976, when a ‘rebel’ team toured South Africa, he agreed to go as manager.

It was controversial. It was frowned upon. But he did what he thought was right.

They encouraged and helped coloured players, and even demanded the representation of coloured players in the sides they played against.

He believed he’d done something to help South African cricket, especially for those on the receiving end of the South African policies of the time.

And criticism didn’t matter a dot to Richie Benaud, all he was concerned about was doing what he thought was right.

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The jacket, the voice, the pause.
Devon Mace.

Richie Benaud’s final years will always be remembered as the days of commentary.

Despite the influence he had on world cricket with WSC, and with the South African rebel tour he took part in, those have since faded into the background.

What do we remember instead? “Marvellous”, “morning everyone”.

And, of course, “Glenn McGrath is out for two, just 98 short of his century.”

His voice always brought a sense of calm to pandemonium. He rose above the commentators around him, and turned the spoken word into an art. For radio commentators, it’s much easier – you can describe what you see, because the listener can’t.

For a television commentator, you have to help the viewer enjoy the spectacle. That means less noise, less description, less dribble.

Instead, we get far more.

But Richie always stood above it. Whether in England for Channel 4, or Australia for Channel 9, his voice was that of summer itself.

As he had his Sinatra-esque farewell, with neither he nor producers finally willing to say his days had come to an end, we never got to say goodbye to Richie. Perhaps it’s just as well. He would’ve preferred fading out slowly, easing out of sight, rather than making a big deal.

Many remember him signing off for the final time in 2005; “it’s time to say goodbye”. But for me another 2005 reference remains my favourite.

As all those around him – from spectators to players to media – erupted in a fit of energy and bedlam and mayhem, he remained calm and composed.

“Jones… Bowden!”

And then as Vaughan celebrated and the crowd rose to crescendo, he left it at:

“Kasprowicz the man to go.”

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The English perspective.
George Collyer.

Richie Benaud was a hugely popular cricketing icon, not only in Australia, but across the world, especially in England where “the voice of cricket” commented for the BBC, Channel 4 and then Sky in his last stint in England as a commentator in the 2005 Ashes after starting out 42 years earlier for the BBC shortly after his playing career.

Donning that white jacket and standing out from the rest of his colleagues, Richie’s commentary was iconic; he was gentle, yet laconic and to the point.

222 will always be remembered as ‘Chu Chu Chu’ and cricket has lost one of its most loved and cherished figures.

Rest in peace, Richie.

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Richie’s legacy.
Devon Mace.

“We can no more get an idea of Trumper’s winged batsmanship by looking at the averages and statistics,” wrote Sir Neville Carudus, “than we can find the essential quality of a composition of Mozart by adding up the notes.”

So it is with Richie Benaud. As a captain and leg-spinner, he was always to be revelled among the upper echelons of the Australian game.

We’ve already spoken here about Benaud’s ability as a leg-spinner, as a captain, as a cricketing leader, and as a commentator. We discussed 1960/61 against the West Indies, the 1961 Ashes, World Series Cricket, and his ever ongoing Sinatra-esque farewell.

Where will Benaud sit among the game’s greats? As a player, he will be but another page in the history books. It’s happened to the greatest of them all: Davidson, Ranji, Trumper, even Hobbs.

But Benaud’s involvement was more than that. The way he commanded his team, and led the cricketing world during the World Series Cricket days, followed by his ever astute commentary on the game means that he will never be forgotten.

His impact upon our sport has been rivalled only by WG Grace, Sir Donald Bradman and Sachin Tendulkar. The influence he has had means he will never be estranged from the game. Just as ‘WG’ has never been apart from the game, neither will Benaud.

Intertwined with the game in life, and in death.

A fitting tribute to a man who never sought such fame.

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