Cricket: Benaud excels at modern art of perspective

The Brian Viner Interview: `I wouldn't want to be England cricket captain, or football captain, or coach. You live or die by the pressure of the media'
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AFTER CHANNEL 4 hammered the BBC by at least eight wickets in the bid for domestic Test cricket, one of their executives boasted that the coverage would be different, that they would not dream of having "three old duffers" in the commentary box. A few weeks later, Richie Benaud was in Canberra, having dinner with his brother John - also a former Test cricketer - when the phone rang. It was Channel 4. Would he consider joining their commentary team? Gently, Benaud reminded them of the executive's pointed remark. And later wrote in a newspaper column that A R Lewis and D I Gower could take care of themselves. But who, he wondered, could possibly have been the third old duffer?

Behind that disconcertingly unflinching gaze, the level, unemotional voice, the terse observations, there lurks a wit as dry and delicious as any Sauvignon Blanc from the land of his forefathers. We meet at the hotel in central London where Benaud and his wife, Daphne, live while in England.

They used to have a large flat in Knightsbridge but gave it up and bought a pad just outside Nice, evidence of the value he attaches to those ancestral roots. He is patron of France Cricket, and can trace his lineage back to Jean Benaud, a ship's captain from Bordeaux who arrived in Australia in 1840.

Old Jean would be proud of his great-grandson. At 68, he is one of sport's most popular and distinguished figures. And yet he is an engagingly modest man, while remaining well aware of his contributions to television commentary lore. "No point looking for that, let alone chasing it," said Benaud at Headingley in 1981, when Botham heaved Alderman for a colossal six. "It's gone into the confectionery stall ... and out again." At another Test match some years later, when the ball again flew into the Leeds crowd, he was silent for a second, then remarked, "I think that's where the famous confectionery stall used to be." Cricket's armchair devotees roared.

As for that unforgettable Headingley Test of 1981, Benaud asserts that "one of the best things Brearley did as captain was have Chris Old go out and make a quick 26 or 28 in the second innings, with Botham at the other end. Under Brearley's orders, he went out and smacked it everywhere." One of Benaud's great assets as a cricket analyst is his ability to cast events in historical perspective. "Years ago," he adds, "I sent Bobby Simpson in late-ish on the second last evening of the last Test against the West Indies, with orders to take to Wes [Hall]. I said I'd take the blame if it didn't work. But he hit 18 off the first over and got us away to a flyer."

In his recently updated memoirs, enigmatically titled Anything But... An Autobiography*, Benaud names Mike Brearley, Keith Miller, Ray Illingworth, Ian Chappell and Mark Taylor as first-class cricket's five finest post- war captains. Characteristically, he leaves himself out. But Australia never lost a Test series during his five-year captaincy. In 1963, moreover, as a hard-hitting middle-order batsman and enormously resourceful leg- spinner, he was the first man in cricketing history to complete the coveted Test double of 2,000 runs and 200 wickets. So unlike Brearley, I mischievously suggest, he more than earned his place in the side as a player, not just as a captain.

"Well," he says, picking his words carefully, "England choose their captain first and then the team. In Australia we have always nominated the best team and then chosen the captain. Even when Taylor was struggling with the bat, he was still part of the best team. But I must say, I wouldn't want to be the England cricket captain, or football captain, or coach for that matter. You live or die by the pressure of the media. There was a great example with Keegan. He'd been in the job for five minutes and the headlines were screaming `the honeymoon is over.'" Benaud gives a rare chuckle. "It's great stuff."

The best captains, he adds, always keep two overs ahead of the game. Do they not also, I wonder, have a particular ability to psych up their team-mates and psych out opponents? "I think psychology is overrated," he says, bluntly. "Very often it is just common-sense captaincy. And I don't think you're using your brain properly if you start shouting at opponents. That's not psychology. Really, psychology is knowing the strengths and weaknesses of your opponents. In the World Cup, Shoaib Akhtar took on Jacques Kallis and then he had a go at Lance Klusener too. So Klusener hit him out of sight. Now there's psychology for you."

Shoaib is nevertheless a fantastic prospect, he adds, yet he doubts whether the young Pakistani quickie will ever clock the magic 100mph. "It wouldn't surprise me if, in a Test match, he gets up to 97 or so. But 100? I don't think so. There's no guarantee that the standard of cricket will get better. Because of improved training techniques, you can say that someone will run faster, or swim faster, but in cricket the ball always has to hit the ground. Jeff Thomson never did it and I thought he was appreciably quicker than anyone else around. The only one who might have been quicker than Tommo was Frank Tyson. But Tommo was very, very swift. He had the purest action of anyone I've ever seen. Slow him down on videotape sometimes. It's like a wonderful catapult. Actually, I've heard that his son bowls with exactly the same action and is also fairly swift, apparently."

With the eager and able likes of Tommo Jnr coming through the ranks, cricket is in fairly healthy shape, Benaud believes. He is an enthusiastic modernist who has welcomed innovations such as World Series Cricket and coloured clothing, innovations which have had other men of his generation spluttering into their pink gins. Moreover, he has a neat response for many of those who lament Test cricket's transfer to a commercial network. "Most of the criticism has come from newspapers," he says. "And as soon as I find a newspaper editor saying that there are too many advertisements in the paper and making a philosophical decision to have only news on his pages, he will have my full attention." Fair comment. All the same, there are bees in Benaud's own bonnet.

"I think the white ball situation needs to be addressed," he says. "I've been stressing for years that administrators need to spend whatever you like, a million dollars, to find some way of impregnating the ball with white paint to keep it shiny. When you think that a game at the MCG will pull in 70,000 people paying, let's say, 20 bucks a head. That's Aus$1.4m (pounds 570,000) in a day, and if they happen to be using the white ball that day, you could say that it would be cost-effective. They should say, `this is what we want you to do. We want you to get a gun and fire some paint into the ball, so that as it wears there is another layer of shiny white paint.' But they keep saying they've tried, that it can't be done. Well, I'd like to hear the best paint scientist in the world say it's not possible."

It is reassuring, somehow, to find a man pushing 70 suggesting that cricket should solve its problems by taking forward rather than backward steps. But that is not to say that Benaud doesn't regret the demise of certain standards of behaviour. Shoaib-style sledging, for example, was rare in his day, although not unheard of. In his book he recalls batting in the famous Old Trafford Test of 1956 - the one in which Jim Laker took 19 wickets - and resorting to gamesmanship by extravagantly patting down the pitch, which the Australians considered, in Bill O'Reilly's words, "a disgrace".

In response, the England bowler Tony Lock sent a beamer whizzing past Benaud's left ear, and loudly followed it with "pat that one down, you little bastard!" Then, of course, there was Fred Trueman. "Yes, Fred would always have a word with you, on the field and off. When I got a pair at Headingley in 1961, Fred put his arm round me and said, `don't worry son, them balls would have got a decent batsman out, too.'"

Benaud smiles, indeed comes dangerously close to a laugh. When he says that the present could learn from aspects of the past, you believe him, largely because he is such a progressive and usually embraces change so wholeheartedly. When we part, for instance, he scribbles down four e-mail addresses at which he can be reached. There is nothing remotely fuddy- duddy about him, which is also, of course, the secret of his longevity as a broadcaster.

"In my playing days," he continues, "everyone was too concerned with trying to play good cricket to bother sledging, and after what Locky said, David Sheppard was soon in our dressing-room apologising. But then cricket is just a reflection of the world in which we live, and ours has become a sledging society. I thought Michael Bonallack said something very sensible the other day, to the effect that there are things said on the cricket field that would never be said on the golf course. Golf remains the only game where you call a penalty on yourself."

Benaud, a 12 handicapper, is himself a keen golfer. In fact I first met him at the US Masters a dozen or so years ago where, to my undiluted joy, he gave me a private update on how England were getting on in the West Indies, practically pinning me with the "Benaud look" to one of Augusta's towering pines. "Botham scored 56 from 62 balls... pretty good effort, that," he said, or words to that effect, and my young knees nearly buckled.

He used to be able to drop in on the Masters between his commentating commitments, but since 1994 the cricket schedule has been too demanding. And if he had his way, it would get even more demanding. "It would be of great benefit to cricket to have a world Test match championship," he says. "Logistically, it is almost impossible because matches would have to be played home and away, and they would have to work out a points system. It is a problem. But I would like to see it solved." If he were a full-time administrator, I have a feeling it might be. But I think we all know where he belongs. On Channel 4, of course.

*Hodder & Stoughton, pounds 6.99