Cricket: Benaud's words of Wisden

James Rampton at Edgbaston meets cricket's icon of the commentary box
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Richie Benaud puts down his BBC microphone after a commentary stint and makes a dash for the door of the box. He has an urgent appointment commentating for Australia's Channel Nine, whose studio is sited across a precarious scaffolding walkway spanning the roof of the Edgbaston pavilion. At the door, however, he is waylaid by his fellow commentator Tony Lewis, who hands him a fistful of fan mail. "Thanks, I've got so much time to spare," pants Benaud with a smile before walking the plank to Channel Nine.

The Australian television commentator had occupied an earlier break on Thursday by recording a link for the evening's highlights, before tapping away feverishly at a laptop - he's a one-man publishing industry - and gulping down a lunchtime sandwich (it was 4pm). On Wednesday evening he had managed to squeeze me in for an interview between jetting in from the south of France and a meeting and dinner with his BBC producers.

How does he manage to keep so many cricket balls in the air at the same time? "I just need to write it all down," he laughs. "As long as my eyes stay all right and I can still read, I'll be OK."

Benaud is a man much in demand. But that is only fitting for a commentator acknowledged as the best in the business. He has an enviable economy with words, never using two words when one will do and only speaking if he thinks what he says will actually add something to the pictures - a lesson certain, more excitable, commentators might heed.

His simplest locutions - "got him" when a wicket falls, or even "morning, everyone" - have become catchphrases. They are parroted by aspiring impressionists and children in school playgrounds across the land. A stall at Edgbaston on Thursday appeared to be doing a roaring trade in Benaud postcards. Unusually for an Australian, he has taken on the status of a British national institution.

That is certainly how his fellow commentators view him. Benaud is spoken of in hushed tones as a "guru" or an "icon" - descriptions, incidentally, that the modest Australian hates. "He's the best," David Gower states simply. "He doesn't waste words. `Think before you pick up the mike' is one of the little gems of advice that he gives. It's so easy just to rabbit on without knowing where you're going. Richie has the knack of always knowing where he's going."

Lewis is also a founder-member of the Richie Benaud Appreciation Society. "He has great intelligence," Lewis reckons. "I know because I've played under his captaincy for a Commonwealth team. He has a meticulous attention to detail. He is also able to act like a schoolteacher and say, `What you want to see is this', as if he had a blackboard. He has a wonderful command of words; he always finds the right phrase." (I still recall him describing an Ian Botham hook shot in 1981 as "like swatting a fly".) "It's because he trained as a journalist," Lewis contends. "When he was young, he was a court reporter."

Under duress, the man himself concurs with that assessment. "My strength is knowing what not to say," says Benaud, after some coaxing. "There's so much opportunity to keep talking. If I am able to pull it off, it's because I started off as a journalist in 1956. If your editor says to you, `I want a story about Fred Smith in 400 words,' it's no good putting in 750, however great you think the story is. I was taught then how to condense a story, and I've always found that of great value in television, especially as you're often being counted down to zero. If you mess that up, you put things out for the rest of the day."

Benaud's calm under the fire of a director shouting "3,2,1" in his ear is typical. Edgbaston on Thursday was en fete. The fall of every Australian wicket was greeted by Barmy Army chants of "you're not singing anymore" at the Antipodean element. The TV gantry, too, was buzzing; everyone from a Blue Peter presenter to Botham - who appeared to have a mobile phone surgically attached to his ear - was swarming around.

Yet throughout the commotion Benaud was supremely unruffled. When late on in the afternoon the camera cut to a phalanx of Aussie fans who seemed to be trying to beat David Boon's in-flight record for lager consumption, Benaud raised the merest of verbal eyebrows. "They look happy enough," he mused. "Maybe they only came in after the Australian innings." The authentic sound of his master's voice.

In his work, Benaud adheres to Polonius's advice: "To thine own self be true." "The secret of good commentary," he observes, "is being yourself. A lot of people ask me, `Could you give Fred or Charlie or Elizabeth some tips about commentary?', and I always say no. Everyone should commentate in their own way. I have enormous respect for Dan Maskell, Henry Longhurst and Peter O'Sullevan but, if I were to try to copy them, I'd be gone. I still watch as much television as I can; I'm constantly trying to improve. It's like playing: never a day goes past when I don't pick up something of value."

The man's enthusiasm for a game he has covered for the BBC since 1960 is infectious. "After all these years," says Lewis, with no little awe, "he still finds the tiny details of cricket fascinating and sees things that no-one else has spotted."

So how on earth does this 66-year-old keep up the keenness of someone half his age? "There's something brilliant every day I watch," he says. "That's why I love it so much. You can have a morning like today when eight wickets fall, and then in the afternoon someone can score a hundred. You'd have to be crazy not to be enthusiastic about it still. What more could you want in life?"

With that, Benaud hurries back to his commentary position.