Cricket: A master behind the mike as well: Jasper Rees on Richie Benaud, exemplar among players-turned-commentators

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The Independent Online
THE only false thing about Richie Benaud is his teeth. His own fell victim, needless to say, to a cricket ball, which collided with his mouth 40 years ago. That must have been the last time anyone hurt a hair on his head, and even then it wasn't deliberate. In the global village of international cricket no one has a bad word to say about him. Mud just doesn't stick. You can't even hold it against him that he has worked for the News of the World for 30 years: it's just another of his columns, of which there are 15 a week.

He has the perfect career, the perfect life: round-the-world, round-the-clock cricket, with a break in April for the US Masters in Augusta. This year he missed it for the first time in ages: he had just bought a place in the south of France, the land of his forefathers, and he and his second wife Daphne, who was once Jim Swanton's secretary, took themselves off for a month's intensive language course. Even in the pursuit of leisure he is meticulous and hard-working. He's probably learning to be just as terse and pithy in French. If only Peter Mayle had done the same.

The longer of tooth will remember Benaud as the best Test captain cricket has ever seen, a leg-spinner of great guile and a later-order batsman of some efficiency. But to most of us he is a broadcaster who took the guile and efficiency he used on the square and redeployed them in the box to become the best television commentator cricket has ever seen. Even his lone entry in the first edition of Private Eye's Colemanballs 'The hallmark of a great captain is the ability to win the toss at the right time' is wisdom dressed in clown's clothing.

'He's very, very astute,' says David Norrie, the cricket correspondent of the News of the World and not a man known for mincing his words. 'He knows cricket inside out. When everybody's predicting that one thing's going to happen he very rudely calls it wrong. That's his great strength. He's the best at what he does: minimum of words but very effective. I trust his judgement implicitly.'

Ask anyone else who knows him well and you get a permutation of the same glowing list of attributes. Are there no imperfections? Sceptics might fancy that he sees himself as the scourge of modern cricket whose sardonic tone of voice betrays a seething scorn for all things tacky and debased about modern cricket. Whatever was happening on the pitch, it was possible to imagine that Benaud thought he could orchestrate it better if someone would just throw him a pair of flannels and the ball. Wrong, apparently. Even at 62 he's one of cricket's modernists. After all, he jumped on to Kerry Packer's revolutionary circus and has been the respectable face of Channel 9 in Australia ever since.

'He did all sorts of things one didn't actually approve of,' Brian Johnston says. 'He could have been the first to start kissing players: I remember I asked him about it once and he said, 'If kissing gets them to play better I'll kiss them.' '.

'He is a great critic of the ICC,' says Norrie. 'He puts the boot into them three or four times a year. When Raman Subba Row, the chief executive of the TCCB, grabbed him and said, 'We're really worried: the demands on the players are ridiculous. How do we solve this problem of playing too much cricket?' Richie just said to him, 'Play less.' That's very much his style.'

OK, so he's not a stuffed shirt. Maybe he's a puffed one: there is some evidence for this in the way that, when rain has stopped play and he's chewing the cud with Tony Lewis, his eyes swivel smoothly away from Lewis towards the camera, and suddenly he has metamorphosed from a pundit into a presenter, hosting his own slot and saying, in the language of his forefathers, 'Regardez moi'. Again, unfounded. 'It's a mixture of a conversation piece with the person talking to him and a conversation piece with the viewer,' Keith Mackenzie, who has produced BBC TV's Test coverage since 1983, says.

Still, that unique tic is a godsend for impersonators, and after 29 years on our screens there are enough of those. We all know someone who does a decent Benaud, lilting delicately up and down the economical phrasing like a singer reading off a subtly modulating score. And yet he's not done easily. A comment like, 'And I really don't know what's going on out there,' is quintessential Benaud, and very difficult to deliver. The memory plays tricks but something like it sticks in the mind from a Test when India, captained by Venkat, were making a mess of things in the field. In quick time and varying measures it briefly conveys authority, disapproval, incredulity, wit and, above all, restraint. You have to be quite a communicator to pack all that into one sentence.

The first step on the way to where he is now was taken in a customarily thorough manner. At 19 he had a job in the accounts department of The Sun in Sydney and did court reporting throughout the 1950s, so he was no stranger to the media. But in 1956, after the Ashes tour of England, he stayed behind and put himself through a three-week course in commentary with the BBC Light Entertainment Department. 'He came on with us,' Johnston recalls. 'At that time it was Denis Compton, myself and Peter West, and he 'learned' from us, but I think he was better than any of us.'

When he retired in 1964 he turned down the Australian Prime Minister Bob Menzies's offer of a safe Liberal seat in Parliament and turned to the microphone full time. He has not missed an English summer since. If you listen to his contributions to 25 Not Out, his video of favourite Test matches, it is evident that, while the presentation of cricket from hairstyles to graphics has changed out of all recognition, Benaud's poised delivery was in place from the start. (And one highlight from 1973, showing an England team including Illingworth, Lewis and Boycott, shows just how senior he is in the box.)

'He's got the great virtue of doing what we were told when I first joined television in 1946,' says Johnston. ' 'Only speak when you can add to the picture.' You listen to a lot of television that isn't like that.'

'His style and our style go very well together,' says Mackenzie. 'With commentators it's what they don't say as opposed to what they do say. The skill is knowing when not to talk, and to be able to self-edit.'

The other skill, in his case, is managing to conceal the vaguest hint of glee when the Australians are trouncing us. One very much doubts that he would have become the voice of English summer if he had enjoyed local humiliation too audibly. 'Richie is never biased about one side or the other,' says Mackenzie. 'He's not waving the Australian flag every time a wicket goes, and off camera he is as impartial as he is on.' It is this patrician aloofness that allows him to be elder statesman in the two most antithetical commentary boxes in the world - the tight-lipped one marked BBC, and the excitable one marked Channel 9.

Having said that, if he stepped into a radio box you suspect he'd be all at sea. He just doesn't have the gift of the gabble as perfected by Johnston or John Arlott. Somehow, you can't see him thanking Mrs Perkins of Burton Bradstock for her imaginative gift of chocolate cake. If you watch an Emburey maiden pass by without comment, you could only be listening to the silence of Benaud. He's not just a commentator. Like his compatriots Clive James, Barry Humphries and Germaine Greer, he is an antipodean who has become an ineradicable part of the Pommie picture. And like summer itself, you just want his stint at the microphone to go on forever.

(Photograph omitted)

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