The voice of cricket has called his last

10/04/15 Category: Blog, News Posted by:

by Andrew Ramsey

The unmistakable and often imitated sound of Australian summers set the bar for conveying the beauty of the game over the airwaves

In keeping with his minimalist mantra that has now passed with him from the commentary box to our collective memories, Richie Benaud’s most profound call of a cricket match endures because of what he didn’t utter.

The final day of that history-making 2005 Ashes Series, as England stood poised to reclaim the urn for the first time in almost two decades, paused in its final stanza to pay tribute to the game’s voice who was bowing out after describing the game to UK audiences for more than 40 years.

During the final drinks break on the fifth day of the fifth Test, in front of packed terraces ready to ride a rising wave of patriotism, The Oval’s ground announcer issued the news that Benaud would no longer would be heard on British television with the international game set to migrate to pay-per-view broadcasters.

The crowd rose as one to show their appreciation.

The Australian players, washing down the unfamiliar taste of imminent series defeat with plastic-bottled sports drinks, turned to the broadcast boxes at the Vauxhall End and joined the applause.

But it was only in the final minutes of his ultimate on-air stint that the yardstick for those commentating on televised cricket worldwide diverted briefly from the word pictures he painted with such sparing elegance for a rare moment of self-indulgence.

Squeezed, as it turned out, between a  brief insight into the game’s first star-player-turned-media expert’s musical taste (citing the Sarah Brightman-Andrea Bocelli duet ‘Time to Say Goodbye’) and the moment when Glenn McGrath skittled Kevin Pietersen’s stumps to shift the focus back to cricket.

Whether Benaud was relieved or rankled by the sudden switch in discourse the wicket triggered, only he will know though it seems unthinkable he could have swayed to the latter.

Certainly he missed scarcely a beat in making the transition.

“Thank you for having me, it’s been absolutely marvellous for 42 years, I’ve loved every moment of it and it’s been a privilege to go into everyone’s living room throughout that time,” Benaud said, without a trace of emotion despite his well-known distaste for sport on pay-TV.

“What’s even better, it’s been a great deal of fun … but not so for the batsman – McGrath has picked him up late in the day he’s got a beauty through Kevin Pietersen.”

And with that he simply finished his final shift at the microphone, handing over sans fanfare to those who were to follow – his long-time commentary contemporary Tony Greig and the man once deemed the only personality sufficiently smooth and studied to fill Benaud’s shoes in Australia, Mark Nicholas.

But as the Australian public wakes to the prospect of summers without Richie, it has become increasingly obvious that nobody – former international player or career presenter alike – carries the quiet gravitas, the audience affinity and the unlikely charisma that Richie Benaud brought to cricket.

As a player, his record spoke for itself which was just as well because, unlike so many former greats who now earning a living from talking about their chosen sport, he was loathe to vacate the current playing field to frolic in the ever-sunny meadow of past personal glories.

“The problem with relying on nostalgia for commentary is that people only remember the good things,” he once noted, seemingly calling out those who delight in running the forensic blue light over the shortcomings of others while conveniently airbrushing out their own.

But even though, as a bowler who stood as Australia’s leading Test wicket-taker for more than 15 years and a Test captain who provided the template of aggressive, enterprising leadership for those who built their legend on his legacy, Benaud’s on-field feats were eventually outshone by his celebrity.

In contrast to the modern convention of players who distrust and dislike the media until such time as retirement makes it almost a compulsory career change, Richie Benaud was a trained journalist before he became a renowned cricketer.

He was part of the engine room of Australia’s booming afternoon newspaper industry in the early 1950s, in the fledgling years of his first-class career, as a police roundsman on the Sydney Sun.

Taught by old-school ambulance-chaser Noel Bailey not to waste a single letter of hot-metal type when filing a story and the art of composing those yarns in his head before young Richie dictated them down a phone line to a copytaker, it was brevity rather than bombast that became his trademark.

“Most of those listening to a commentary want a commentator to assist them to understand precisely what is going on out there,” Benaud recalled in recent years.

“If I’m able to do that then I’m very happy.

“Bear in mind that two of the most annoying phrases a viewer hears are, ‘as you can see on your screen …’ and ‘of course’.”

Those who shrilled about Michael Clarke’s recent foray into the Channel Nine commentary box while still serving as national captain (albeit in convalescence) overlooked the fact that Benaud began working on BBC-TV in 1963 when he was Australia’s skipper.

Though in that role he was not called upon to pass judgement on his contemporaries.

Indeed, Benaud’s lengthy and deservedly decorated time as a commentator was noteworthy for the paucity of times he used his position to pass withering judgements on the players who almost universally recognised the professionalism and even-handedness in his public statements.

Not that he was reluctant to administer a rebuke when he believed events dictated.

When then Australia captain Greg Chappell instructed his younger brother Trevor to roll down an underarm delivery rather than risk his team missing an ODI win over New Zealand, Benaud noted: “I think it was a disgraceful performance from a captain who got his sums wrong today.”

“It should never be permitted to happen again (it was) one of the worst things I have ever seen done on a cricket field.”

But the popular recollection of a much-loved cricket presence will remain his capacity for understatement in circumstances that regularly send his successors into paroxysms of front-bar histrionics.

“And he’s done it,” Benaud observed after several moments of hypnotic silence, his voice barely rising a semi-tone after Shane Warne tilted back Mike Gatting’s off-stump with a leg-break that was to define a career.

More often than not, those exquisitely-timed observations came dusted in a heavy coat of deadpan that gave the impression those who came to see the lucrative appeal of Benaud impersonations had been beaten the punch by the man’s own penchant for self-deprecation.

“Media were never allowed into an Australian dressing room until I became skipper,” he once ventured.

“I changed that and invited them in at the close of play each day, thereby confirming for many administrators they had appointed a madman as captain.”

Asked as to the qualities most required of an international skipper given Australia never lost a Test series under his leadership, Benaud thought for a moment before surmising: “The hallmark of a great captain is the ability to win the toss, at the right time.”

“Captaincy is 90 per cent luck and 10 per cent skill – but don’t try it without that 10 per cent,” he offered when pursued on the same theme at another time.

For an urbane, vintage sports car-driver who grew from Penrith in Sydney’s western extremities to spend his northern summers flitting between British broadcast commitments and his home on France’s Cote d’Azur, Benaud curiously found himself as the avuncular idol of rank and file cricket fans.

It was probably because he exuded authority yet eschewed pomposity.

He brought cricket credentials to cricket commentary but understood that their value was to help inform rather than to be waved about like dressing room memories at a sportsman’s night.

But perhaps most poignantly, he became the television medium’s undisputed voice of cricket because he knew when to let the game speak for itself.

That is why he will be sadly missed, and his passing widely mourned.









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