Marvellous innings, that

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Remebering Richie Benaud

It was almost as if we expected him to live forever. After all, his was the first voice we heard on each of those exciting Test match mornings; the quietest voice in the commentary box but the one from whom we most yearned to learn; the distinct voice we all attempted to mimic but whose dry wit we never matched. He was much more than a commentator – or a cricketer – and it would be inappropriate to allow those titles to define him. Richie Benaud was the consummate gentleman, the custodian of cricket, and the keeper of the keys to our Australian summers.

The most influential Australian cricketer since Sir Donald Bradman, Benaud’s impact on the game was significant in all spheres of his career. As a cricketer, Benaud turned heads from a young age, prompting the father of the Chappell trio to tell his sons to watch Benaud’s NSW matches at the Adelaide Oval, for if they “wanted to be good players, it would be good to watch good players”. Bridging the gap between fellow Australian greats Bill O’Reilly and Shane Warne, Benaud was a master of the art of leg-spin bowling, even though he was long thought of as a batsman who could “bowl a bit”.

There was talent; but it was his steely determination and workmanlike desire to make the most of his potential – even after an inauspicious start to Test cricket – that saw him reach the lofty heights he did. A true all-rounder, Benaud was the first man to score 2000 runs and take 200 wickets in Test cricket, and was also known for his close-in fielding.

As a captain, Benaud is widely touted as the best Australia has ever had; after all, Australia never lost a series under his watch, and managed to regain the Ashes after a 7-year drought. An aggressive tactician who sought only victory, Benaud’s attacking approach was never more evident than in the first Test in Brisbane in 1960, during the famous West Indian tour of Australia.

A backdrop of gloom preceded the series – dour, defensive cricket (primarily between English and Australia) had led to dwindling crowd numbers, and Test cricket’s primacy was at severe risk. At the outset of the series, Benaud and his opposing number, Sir Frank Worrell, encouraged both teams to play attacking cricket. True to his word, Benaud launched a stunning final-day assault in partnership with Alan Davidson, attempting to take Australia from 6-97 to the 233 required for victory. Even by today’s standards, Benaud’s audacity was astounding; and for his efforts, it was the public who was rewarded with the most thrilling of finishes; the first-ever Tied Test in over 80 years of Test cricket.

The 1960/61 series between Australia and West Indies is widely regarded as the greatest to ever take place in Australia; indeed, perhaps of all time. That Benaud played a crucial role in it was no surprise – as ABC radio commentator Jim Maxwell described him, Benaud has been “the most influential, revered and respected person in the game for 50 years”.

Meanwhile, as a commentator – the only capacity in which the majority of cricket fans today have known him – Benaud was peerless. With a relatively firm background in crime journalism, Benaud had the credentials that many of his ilk lack today. He operated on a strict mantra: “Put your brain into gear and if you can add to what’s on the screen then do it, otherwise shut up”. He was as wise as he was understated, the spotlight and attention infinitely unimportant to him; it was all about the game. His dry wit was captivating, but it was his no-holds-barred approach to anything that detracted from the spirit of the game, or distracted us from the spectacle of the match, that was truly invaluable.

This was no more evident than in the infamous underarm bowling incident of 1981, when Benaud delivered his scathing assessment of Greg Chappell: “Let me tell you what I think about it, I think it was a disgraceful performance from a captain who got his sums wrong today and it should never be permitted to happen again…I think it was a very poor performance. One of the worst things I have ever seen done on a cricket field. Good night”.

Despite his name being synonymous with the Australian summer and the unique voice that echoed through lounge rooms across the country, it is a sad fact that it is just as hard to imagine the commentary box with Benaud in it today as it is to imagine summer without him. As Channel 9’s current commentary team conduct viewer polls on the best kind of pizza topping during a Test match, and more generally establish themselves as a boy’s club that seems to be made up primarily of a clique from the local high school, it is with a smile that most of us will wonder whether they would have had the nerve had Benaud been holding his microphone alongside them.

There will be no other man like him on the field or in the box – as Bill Lawry stated, “The standard he set has been tremendous for cricket, has been tremendous for television and if any young cricketer wants an example of how to behave and perform, I think Richie Benaud is the man.

It is too much to hope for the next generation of captains and commentators to play the game the way Benaud played it, and live by his minimalist mantra over the airwaves; but hope we must.

For it was almost as if we expected him to live forever; and live forever he shall.

Vale Richie Benaud 1930-2015.