Richie Benaud: The voice of cricket

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Published: April 19, 2015 12:15:07 AM

The passing away of former Australian cricketer and commentator Richie Benaud has created a vacuum, which is unlikely to be filled in the near future

It was classy of Sky Sports: the voice of football paying an emotional tribute to ‘Mr Cricket’. “The passing of Richie Benaud will leave a huge gap in the lives of all sports lovers.

“The millions of listeners he charmed will never hear his like again—the unique combination of wonderful words, the upholding of playing the game properly, a tremendous journalistic sense of what the action meant, all topped off by his inside knowledge from being a great cricketer and captain.

“For those of us who have tried to follow in his footsteps, there has been no better example of how to broadcast sport. It is a crusade for perfection which is impossible to achieve but no one has come closer than Richie.

“As a flatmate of Test captains Bob Willis and Geoff Howarth, I was fortunate to be in his company occasionally. He was always generous to young cricketers and their friends,” Martin Tyler eulogised.

Benaud had transcended his sport. Very few do that. You need exceptional skills to cast a spell over a global audience for more than half a century. Benaud knew how much to tell and when to pause.

Balance and neutrality defined his work. The self-styled ‘special ones’ would do well to check an Oxford dictionary regarding the use of superlatives.

Benaud was a mighty fine leg-spinner, terrific captain and a pretty handy middle-order batsman for Australia during his playing days. He took 248 wickets at 27.03 and scored 2,201 runs at an average of 27.03 in 63 Tests. Australia never lost a series under his charge. But he became larger than life in his role as a broadcaster. No cricket personality had commanded such respect after Sir Donald Bradman. Benaud’s presence honoured the game.

His passing away, beautifully described as the ‘final pause’ by my colleague Bharat Sundaresan, has created a vacuum, which is unlikely to be filled in the near future.

English is a language of understatement and Benaud believed in economy of words. His style made us realise how a pause could complement a full-on visual. He described a side-on game in front-on manner and it made him a revered guest in everyone’s living room.

The Daily Telegraph once came up with a story on how a reporter had asked Benaud if his bare head (when he was a player) had anything to do with him endorsing Brylcreem. “I’m not prepared to say.” Pause. “Nor will I tell you what the fee was.” Even in his dry wit, he was grace personified.

Benaud began his reporting career in 1956, covering the crime beat for News of the World. He made his first radio commentary for BBC in 1960. After hanging up his cricket boots in 1965, he became a full-time broadcaster, dividing his time between BBC in the UK and Nine Network in Australia, as Kerry Packer’s cricket revolution started to redefine the game. Without Benaud’s support, the change wouldn’t have happened. He respected the old, but embraced the new. Flexibility was one of his strengths.

Benaud became the voice of BBC cricket before moving to Channel Four in 1999. And when he began his final commentary in England at the Oval in 2005, the crowd reacted with spontaneous applause. The players stopped and clapped. “Thank you for having me. It’s been absolutely marvellous for 42 years.”

He refused to work for pay TV and left the Old Blighty. But we still had the privilege of having him during international cricket Down Under. The journey had been brought to a halt by a car accident in 2013. Soon after, he revealed that he had skin cancer. A magnificent voice-over tribute to Phil Hughes was his last public contribution.

Mark Taylor, in his early days as a TV commentator, had once described a dropped catch as a tragedy. A tap on the shoulder and a piece of advice: “The Titanic was a tragedy, Mark. The Ethiopian drought was a disaster. And neither bears any relation to a dropped catch.”

When Greg Chappell directed his brother Trevor to bowl underarm to New Zealand’s Brian McKechnie in the 1981 World Series Cup final at the MCG, Benaud was not on air. He came for the post-match wrap-up and tore apart the then Australia captain. But even his castigation had a certain amount of dignity. “I think it was a disgraceful performance by a captain who got his sums wrong today, and I think it should never be permitted to happen again.” Underarm bowling was subsequently banned from cricket. Throughout his broadcasting career, he remained absolutely impartial. It endeared him to viewers, cutting across geographic boundaries. “There are no teams in the world called ‘we’ and ‘they’,” he maintained.

Not often do we see the death of an 84-year-old former cricketer and broadcaster spark such outpouring of grief. But Benaud was cricket’s voice and conscience. To paraphrase former British prime minister John Major, summers and winters will never be the same again.

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