'It's the beginning of an era for England'
After 42 years as the voice of the English summer, Richie Benaud is preparing to commentate on his last Test match in England. In an exclusive interview, Benaud spoke to Cricinfo about life in the commentary box, and his thoughts on a thrilling summer of Ashes cricket.
In your new book, the first chapter is titled "Time to say goodbye" ... Are you trying to tell us something?
It is time to say goodbye because I won't be doing any more television in the United Kingdom. I'll still be doing free-to-air television in Australia; that's for three years. I've got a three-year contract with Channel 9 which will probably be extended as well. But The Oval Test match will be my last match of televised cricket in the United Kingdom.
Obviously that's to do with the end of Channel 4's coverage. Any regrets that you're leaving before you're ready?
No, no. I'm always happy to retire at the right time, as I did when I was playing. But I do have regrets that Channel 4 are not continuing with the cricket because I think that, from the production and direction point of view, that they've been quite magnificent in the six years that they've been doing it.
What are the major differences between C4, and your two other main employers, BBC and Channel 9?
The situation has been that, when Channel 4 won the cricket rights in 1999, they initially copied Channel 9 in Australia. But Channel 4 have been so good that Channel 9 have had to copy some of the things they've done. It's been very good telly. I've seen both areas. Channel 9 were groundbreakers in television after World Series Cricket in 1977 and they have continued on in that way - they're always ahead of the game. But C4 have been simply brilliant.
Do you think Sky will adopt many of their ideas when they take over terrestrial coverage next summer?
I've obviously got no idea. I think Sky will go ahead and do whatever they think is best and will provide the best coverage they can produce for the people watching. It would be very stupid to do otherwise. They will want to do as good a job as they can so they can get as much praise for their coverage as Channel 4 get for theirs.
What's your gut feeling about the implications of the Sky deal?
It's of no consequence when you ask a question like that. There are only two groups of people who have control over that. The first is the government of the day and the second is the ECB. It's the ECB who persuaded the government to take cricket off the restricted list. There's no point in asking anyone except the ECB and the government, and then possibly it might come back to free-to-air at some stage.
Would you urge the government to return Ashes cricket to that restricted list?
I wouldn't urge anyone to do that. It's the business of the government and the cricketing body itself. What I can tell you though, I'm very grateful that over the years I've been able to work on free-to-air television in Australia, and in March 2004, the Australian government produced legislation that ensured major sporting events will remain on free-to-air. That was quite a big thing at the time it came out, and it was welcomed by a lot of people in Australia.
As a fan of the game and a writer, I have been going to pieces during the final stages of the last three Tests! How have you managed to keep your cool on air?
I was on air when Kasprowicz was dismissed at Edgbaston, and again as McGrath and Lee battled their way through those last 24 balls at Old Trafford - and if you put them back in that situation, they'd be knocked over 99 times out of 100; it was a fantastic finish. Then the commentary changed at 6.30 at Trent Bridge and Michael Atherton and I were on, so all the situations were quite different as regards commentary style.
At Trent Bridge you hardly needed to say anything. When we came on it was 18 runs to win, and we would simply go to the scoreboard. It doesn't matter on radio because you have to keep talking all the time, but as a TV commentator, you've got to be careful not to rattle away and give information that is totally superfluous to the situation. All that was needed was runs to win, 18, Australia need four wickets, and maybe an explanation that if England win then Australia have to win at The Oval to retain the Ashes. Michael Atherton made a very good remark about Ashley Giles having a chance to be a hero, but apart from that Atherton and I said nothing because the people back in their living rooms wouldn't want to be burdened with all kinds of chatter at that time. They had the picture on the screen and all they wanted to know was the situation. It's been said to me: "You and Atherton didn't say much in that last bit. Were you nervous?" No, we weren't. We were just being courteous to the viewers and making sure they knew precisely what the position was.
How much of an honour was it to be voted the runaway winner in the Wisden Cricketer commentators' poll?
It's a great compliment from the people who have been watching over the years and I very, very much appreciate it. One of the reasons is that I've been coming over to England for 42 years now. I spent a long time with the BBC and then with Channel 4, all on free-to-air. And a lot of the stuff I have done with Channel 9 in Australia has come back to England as well, be it Ashes matches or one-day internationals. But it's something that I'll treasure.
What's next for you? Semi-retirement?
It's not retirement, I can assure you! What I won't be doing is television in the United Kingdom. Daphne, my wife, and I will be over in England in the next couple of years. I want to keep writing if I can. I love writing because it's the first thing I did before I did any television. I will be concerned with various cricket things, but the only thing I won't be doing is television in the United Kingdom.
You could hardly have picked a more thrilling match to bow out on. How has this series ranked among the ones you've played and witnessed?
I always thought that there've been two or three bests, really. The best Test series in which I played was the tied Test series when Frank Worrell brought his side to Australia in 1960-61 - that was the best from a playing point of view. The best as a commentator for me(and Jim Laker and I always agreed on this) was the 1981 series, and in particular the match at Headingley, Botham's match. And from a totally selfish point of view, the match I most enjoyed was Old Trafford 1961 when we came from nowhere and managed to retain the Ashes. Now, it's my view - and people may disagree with it - but I think this series shades the 1981 tour. And that's saying something, because a long time has passed since then. I've always held the view that `81 was the best but now I think that this series has just gone ahead of it in my mind.
Talking of 1960-61, do you see certain parallels between the timing of these two series, in terms of their importance for image of Test cricket?
Yes, there is a parallel. In the early and mid-1950s, we had two ordinary series. Len Hutton retained the Ashes in 1954-55, then I was made captain after Ian Craig got hepatitis, we regained them in 1958-59 and went to India and Pakistan. We had a pretty good side in those days. But it was a case of having gone through a couple of reasonably turgid series as regards run-getting and fast-scoring, until the West Indians came out. I saw Frank Worrell being interviewed on the tarmac at the airport and he turned to me and said: "One thing we will do, no matter what happens with the results, is we will have a lot of fun." And then he walked onto the aeroplane. Those are prophetic words if ever I have heard them.
In your new book, you set aside a whole chapter for Andrew Flintoff and Michael Clarke. Do you feel Flintoff has surpassed your expectations in this series?
No, he hasn't surpassed them but he's done what I believed he could do. I've always had a very high regard for Flintoff as a cricketer. The remarkable thing is that he played 47 Test matches without playing against Australia. How could he do that in days like these where you are playing a Test match every time you turn your head somewhere in the world? Clarke is a different type of cricketer. He's a batsman rather than an allrounder. But Flintoff, the key to him was the bowling and whether or not he could lift it from the way it was a couple of years ago. The last 18 months in Australia I have been saying to people if the England pace bowling attack stays fit and bowls well then England have a very good chance of winning and people kept saying "Benaud has lost his marbles!" But the reason is, I've seen England more than any other Australian because I've been over here each year and witnessed their improvement for myself.
Was there one moment in particular when you thought they'd got what it takes?
I was in Barbados when they beat West Indies to win the series and when Matthew Hoggard got his hat-trick. I wasn't in the box, I was sitting in the stand at midwicket with Daphne my wife, and I knew then that we were looking at a bowling attack that could pose problems. I've always had a high regard for Harmison, ever since he came out to Australia and bowled 18 wides in the first game at Lilac Hill. It was supposed to be a friendly, but to judge my the umpiring, you would have thought it was a one-day international with the World Cup at stake. They were calling anything that was a millimetre past the left pad and Harmison didn't quite recover from that. But I've watched him closely - he's still a long way from his full potential, but gosh he's been bowling well - and Flintoff has been doing a great job as an allrounder.
Has the rapid decline of some of the Australian bowlers come as a shock to you?
Jason Gillespie has a technical flaw in his bowling at the moment and if he corrects that - even though he's played so many Test matches - I see no reason why he can't come back. He's got a major flaw in his instant of delivery which we picked up on television on Channel 4 and pinpointed, but I don't know if anyone's working on it or not. But if he gets that right that I see no reason why he can't come back. But so far Jason, who has been a very good cricketer for Australia, hasn't bowled well. We've had McGrath injured twice, and we've had, at the same time, England's bowlers improving match after match until they've become very high quality.
Does it surprise that the Australians haven't appointed a specialist bowling coach?
I think they do have a bowling coach. I know England have Troy Cooley, who's been very very good for England. But Australia have specialised coaches like John Buchanan who can do the same thing. Gillespie doesn't have an insurmountable flaw in his technique, but it's something that needs to be addressed and worked on.
As a legspinner yourself, you must be delighted to watch Shane Warne's performances on this tour.
Shane's not a young man anymore but he's bowled beautifully all the way through the series. You can discard the fact that he didn't take a wicket in the second innings at Old Trafford, because he was simply bowling into the rough outside leg stump, not worrying about the wickets, but trying to keep the runs down so that Australia didn't have all that many to chase on the last day. So he was bowling to a plan, even if in that case it was a negative plan. I think he's bowled beautifully. He's bowled in a slightly different fashion from past tours. He doesn't bowl as many flippers or wrong'uns as he did, but he's developed other balls for these English pitches such as that delivery with much more side-spin than normal. He's almost back to what he was when he came into the game in 1991. I think he's done a terrific job.
You once said you wished you had bowled more like Warne than Benaud? What did you mean by that?
I was asked a question as to the relative merits of legspinners over the years, and I said that Shane Warne was the greatest legspinner ever to have played the game. I was talking about various techniques and the fact that Bill O'Reilly had given me some very good advice when I was getting started in 1953. When Warne himself was starting out on his career, we met at a golf barbecque that Bill Lawry had organised, and I passed on that same advice, adding that it would take him four years to achieve. Well, Shane's so good that he did it in two years. Having seen him bowl, and studied him very closely, and been associated with him - particularly in his earlier days when he was on his way up in the game - I added that, if I had my time over again, I would bowl more like Warne, and less like Benaud. That would involved a slightly changed grip of the ball and all sorts of little technical things, but the quote is correct.
So, what's your prediction for The Oval?
Neither you nor I have the slightest idea of the answer to your question. No idea at all. Anyone even half-thinking of making a prediction would be out of his mind, when you take into account what happened at Edgbaston, Old Trafford and Trent Bridge.
Fair enough, but in your opinion, is this the end of an era for Australia, the start of an era for England, or just a glorious one-off?
It's certainly the beginning of an era for England. What I want to see at The Oval is a result. I don't want a draw because of bad weather or negative cricket. What I want is a result. I want to see either England win the match or I want to see Australia win the match, because I think the series deserves it and I think the public deserves it. There's nothing we can do about it, mind you, because you do get draws in Test cricket, but that's what I want to see - a result.
Because I've been so keen on the way England improved in the last two years, I believe they'll go on, because they've got a relatively young side. As for Australia, there would be changes anyway because some of the side are starting to get injuries. But one of the significant things I thought at Trent Bridge was that Shaun Tait showed that he has a great deal of potential. I though in the second innings that he might have caused great trouble, because he was bringing the ball back in from outside the off stump very sharply through the air, but he just couldn't quite get his line right. It's only inexperience, and I hope that they leave him alone. He's got a slightly unusual action, but I don't want to see him changed at all because I think he's got a lot of potential. Warne has been talking about going on till 2007, while McGrath - as we've already seen this summer - bowls quite magnificently when he's fit. There will be changes, but one thing you can be sure of, there won't be any panic.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo