Benaud, Bill and the field of memories
Seventy-four years after his first visit to the SCG, Richie Benaud looked out across the field. He pondered how much it had changed, and what that first glimpse of great cricketers had inspired.
"I saw NSW play South Australia, Bradman was in the side," Benaud said. "My father Lou brought me out and it was a packed house. We watched all day, we saw Clarrie Grimmett take 6 for 118 and then we got on the old tram outside the ground, went into Central Station and finally got home to Paramatta at night.
"The next day I was out in the backyard, trying to bowl leg breaks like Grimmett, who'd got all the wickets, and like my father, who was also a legspinner, and that was how it all started off. The SCG one day, the backyard at North Paramatta the next."
Benaud was 10 years old that January day in 1940, and at 84 he has battled a year of setbacks stemming from a car accident near his Coogee home last October. The accident left him with multiple fractures, and kept him away from the Nine commentary box last summer, the first such absence since World Series Cricket began in 1977.
His features are frailer, his voice a little croakier. But there is still the neat phrasing, the jutting lower lip, and the dry wit. Asked by Mark Nicholas whether he'd had a rough year, Benaud replied "Well, roughish".
"Progress is slow but I'm very fortunate in a lot of ways to be with Daphne. One of those is that she's a great walker and we're out every morning very early, the sun's just up, and we do a 40-minute walk every morning and that's showing beneficial effects for me.
"The car accident produces the pain with the two fractured vertebrae and what finished up as a crush fracture. But that works out and medical people do wonderful things these days."
Grimmett inspired Benaud to twirl down the leg breaks that would tease out 248 Test wickets, for a time making him Australia's most prolific bowler of all. But another inspiration was Keith Miller, and the debonair allrounder's reluctance to wear a cap has left Benaud also seeking treatment for skin cancers this year.
"When I was a kid we never ever wore a cap ... because Keith Miller never wore a cap," Benaud said. "'Nugget' Miller never wore a cap on his head, so I didn't. I wish I had.
"If I knew, when I was at school and playing in my early cricket days, the problems that would have come if I didn't do something about protection of the head and using sunscreens and all sorts of things like that, I'd have played it differently.
"It's one of those things in life; you live and learn as you go along. Nowadays I recommend to everyone that they should have protection on their skin, on their heads, creams and things like that. I can give you one good reason for that - 84-year-olds don't seem to mend as well as they used to."
Joining Benaud on stage was Bill Lawry, at Nine's cricket launch for a summer that takes in series against South Africa and India before a triangular tournament with India and England and, finally, the 2015 World Cup. Seldom shy of an opinion where Benaud has often sat artfully on the fence, Lawry suspended the warning about skin cancer with a glistening-eyed reminiscence of his own.
"He'd burst through the gate with the shirt open and the Brylcreem and the tan, it was just magnificent," he said. "Forget the skin cancers Richie, you looked beautiful back then."
The laughter this drew from the room was hearty, but it grew louder still when Nicholas lobbed down a softball closing question about the excitement of the summer ahead. There was a beat, and a further query by Nicholas, as silence filled the space Lawry occupied happily for much of the discussion.
"Because I've been dominating the conversation," Benaud deadpanned, "I want Bill to have a word."
Lawry regaled the audience with tales of World Series Cricket's earliest days of television coverage, from the children fetched from West Lakes shopping centre to provide some kind of crowd for the tournament's sparsely populated debut at Football Park in Adelaide, to the television camera shots that revealed the West Indies viewing area at Waverley Park outside Melbourne to be filled as much with young ladies as cricketers.
But Lawry saved his wisest crack for this season preview question, as he cast an eye back to Australia's results in the UAE. "You must have been watching different Test matches than me over the last few weeks," he exclaimed to Nicholas. "No it's going to be a fascinating series who's going to play for Australia, who's going to bat No. 3, who's going to keep wickets, who's going to win the World Cup.
"I'm not a gambler. If I was I'd back New Zealand to play in the final. I think they're the sleepers, but it's going to be great."
With that, Benaud and Lawry retired from the stage. There is no guarantee Benaud will be back to the SCG for January's New Year's Test, but it had been well worthwhile to hear him ponder its impact on his life ... and his on all of ours.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig