Richie Benaud: Much-loved 'voice of cricket' who led Australia to Test glory before becoming a peerless commentator

 

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The Independent Online

“Morning everyone,” came Richie Benaud’s warm greeting, at the beginning of every one of the cricket matches on which he commentated.

Benaud was the voice of the game, the mellifluous timbre to accompany leather hitting willow and the cheer of the crowd. He was the Australian cricketing captain-turned-journalist and broadcaster who brought his immense skill and experience to the game itself in the Fifties and Sixties – and to the world of sports commentary in his subsequent career.

As a world-class bowler, it was his delivery of a cunning and many times devastating leg-spin for which he became known. In his later role, as a commentator, his delivery of words retained the cunning – and was taciturn, even minimalist, ever informed by his playing experience, and with a humorous edge. Summing up that minimalist style, he once said: “The key thing was to learn the value of economy with words and to never insult the viewer by telling them what they can already see.” Or, even more succinctly on another occasion, “If you can add to what’s on the screen then do it, otherwise shut up.”

Benaud was born in Penrith, a suburb of Sydney, in 1930 and attended Parramatta High School. He remembered that his mother’s words, as she watched his diet, unwittingly boosted his sporting career. “She improved my love of vegetables by introducing the phrase, ‘You can’t go out and play cricket until you have eaten all your vegetables’,” he recalled. His father was a keen player, who encouraged his son into batting for the local Cumberland club, aged 16, and the New South Wales youth team, two years later.

He made his Test debut in January 1952 in Sydney in the Fifth Test against the West Indies. The Australian team was well ahead in the Series, having already won three out of the first four Tests, and chose to try out some of its younger players.

Benaud combined classical leg-spin bowling with aggressive lower-order batting and, along with Alan Davidson, the all-rounder who debuted the following year, helped the Australian team’s recovery in world cricket. He was selected for the ultimately unsuccessful  Ashes tour of England the following year and scored 167 not out. But despite these occasional flourishes, it was a slow career start: he would not go on to gain his first five-wicket haul until his 25th Test match.

At the beginning of the 1958-59 season, the team captain, Ian Craig, fell ill – and Benaud took over the role, a surprise choice ahead of the incumbent deputy, Neil Harvey. Faced with recovering the Ashes from the England team – the favourites – the Australians won the first and second Tests, drew the third and won the fourth and fifth, with Benaud contributing 132 runs at 26.4 and taking 31 wickets. He would lead the Australian team for the next six years.

In 1963 Benaud became the first player ever to achieve the Test double of 200 wickets and 2000 runs. When he retired in 1964, after 63 Test matches, his career statistics included 248 wickets and an average of 27 runs. The team had not lost a single series during all 28 Tests of his captaincy.

Benaud had participated in a BBC journalism course during 1956, following the end of that year’s Australian tour of England. On retirement from the game, he joined the News of the World as its cricket columnist, continuing until the newspaper closed in 2011. He was first heard on the radio in 1960, while still a player, and debuted on television three years later. “What I want most from being a television commentator is to be able to feel that, when I say something, I am talking to friends,” he said.

When Kerry Packer (Independent obituary 28 December 2005) founded his World Series Cricket in 1977, breaking away from the traditional international circuit, Benaud was a natural choice to help with the launch, adding authority to what were seen at the time as revolutionary and controversial plans. Packer’s son, James, said of Benaud’s work with the World Series and with his father’s television channel, “Dad and I enjoyed a long, long professional and personal journey with Richie Benaud. He was not only for nearly four decades a much-loved figure in the Nine family, but also in the Packer family... simply a great bloke.”

Adored by cricket fans, a Benaud fancy dress outfit, with a silver wig and huge Channel 9 microphone, became a common sight at every Sydney Test game. His was a style of commentary that lent itself to impersonation, being mimicked by comedians including Australia’s “twelfth man”, Billy Birmingham, and was always taken in good humour by Benaud.

Benaud’s enunciation of the word “marvellous” became a trademark which brought a smile to audiences everywhere. One particularly unforgettable quote of his stands out. “Don’t bother looking for that, let alone chasing it. That’s gone straight into the confectionery stall and out again,” came Benaud’s response to a Botham six, part of his memorable century at Headingley in 1981.

He published an autobiography, Anything But... An Autobiography, in 1988. Reviewing the book, the writer Harold de Andrado described him as “...one of the greatest cricketing personalities as player, researcher, writer, critic, author, organiser, adviser and student of the game.”

He last appeared as a commentator on British television in 2005 on Channel 4. At the outset of his commentary the Oval crowd broke into applause and cheers. “Thank you for having me,” came his response. “It’s been absolutely marvellous for 42 years.”

In October 2013 he was involved in a car accident, when his vintage Sunbeam Alpine mounted a verge before crashing into a wall. Despite sustaining chest and shoulder injuries, Benaud’s response was, “No one was injured. I was more worried about the car than myself.” His wife, Daphne, said: “Richie’s remarkable. At first I was quite concerned, but today he’s looking unbelievably well.”

His return to commentary – he’d signed a deal with Australia’s Nine Network in 2009 – was thwarted a year later when Benaud announced that he had been diagnosed with skin cancer. “I’m coping with it very well, the doctors are pleased,” he said at the time. “I’m going along slowly. The cancers need to be treated,” he added, speaking of the radiotherapy that he was receiving. He used the announcement to provide a salutary warning to others. “When I was a kid we never, ever wore a cap. I wish I had,” he said. “I recommend to everyone they wear protection on their heads. Eighty-four-year-olds don’t seem to mend as well as they used to.” Shortly after, Benaud made one of his last televison appearances in a tribute to Phillip Hughes, who died in November 2014 after being struck by a cricket ball.

The Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, offered a state funeral to the family and led the tributes to Benaud. “He was the accompaniment of an Australian summer; his voice was even more present than the chirping of the cicadas in our suburbs and towns, and that voice, tragically, is now still.

“But we remember him with tremendous affection. He hasn’t just been the voice of cricket since the early 1960s, he was an extraordinarily successful Australian cricket captain. He led our country for five years  in 28 Tests, and he never lost a Test series.”

Richard Benaud, cricketer, journalist and broadcaster: born Penrith, Sydney 6 October 1930; OBE 1961; married firstly Marcia Lavender (two sons; marriage dissolved); secondly Daphne Surfleet; died Sydney 10 April 2015.

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