May 29, 2016

Cricket writers who inspired me

The likes of Wooldridge, Benaud, Cozier and Gray were fine company and great to read and listen to

Richie Benaud could recite a column on the phone without notes, hesitation or grammatical error © Mark Ray

It's a toss up whether I became a cricket writer because my grandfather, former Australia captain Vic Richardson - who I admired greatly - was one, or because English was the only subject where I didn't spend the whole lesson gazing longingly out of the window at the playing fields.

For more than four decades I've enjoyed writing on the game and been inspired by some of the characters in the press box. Sadly, their numbers are dwindling and the cricket world is the poorer for their passing.

First to go was Ian Wooldridge, a lyrical English sportswriter who spent many years on the cricket circuit. He described the defiant Australian opener Bill Lawry as "the corpse with pads on", after a back-to-the-wall Lawry innings against England in 1961.

Wooldridge's wicked sense of humour wasn't reserved for the players. "It's cheaper to get a divorce than ring home from an Indian hotel," he lamented once, prior to the introduction of cell phones.

I met Wooldridge through his friend Richie Benaud, who left us in 2015. In addition to being a renowned television commentator, Benaud was also a trained journalist, who honed his trade as a police roundsman for a Sydney afternoon newspaper.

Benaud never ceased to amaze with the way he could recite a column on the phone without notes, hesitation or grammatical error. What wonderful training for an outstanding career as a television presenter.

True to his image as a "salesman for the game", Benaud wrote a column promoting the 1961-62 New South Wales versus South Australia Sheffield Shield game at the SCG. He then played his part as captain of NSW, who amassed 400 during Saturday's play and entertained a crowd of nearly 20,000 fans.

The two most recent departures both have a Caribbean connection. First, the renowned voice of West Indies cricket, Tony Cozier, was silenced. Then Bob Gray, an Australian cricket writer in the '60s, who was married to Grace, a lady he met on the 1964-65 tour of the Caribbean, died in Sydney last weekend.

I had the pleasure of working with Cozier on many occasions. I marvelled at his ability to dash out an insightful column after a day's commentary. And then he'd greet us at the bar later in the evening. Coze's commentary and writing were a wonderful mixture of insight and historical knowledge, with the occasional dash of humour.

He enhanced the first World Series Cricket day-night encounter by singing "Blue Moon" when a cameraman presented a full-screen shot of a waxing gibbous.

Tony Cozier could dash out an insightful column after a day's commentary in time to join his colleagues at the bar later in the evening © PA Photos

Gray was primarily a cricket writer but versatile and colourful enough to cover the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico. The opening part of his initial offering from there was a classic: "I'm typing this column from my new hotel room. How do I know it's new? Because the cement mixer is still in the room."

Gray retired from writing in 1968, when he married Grace, reasoning he shouldn't tour once he got hitched. His wedding was a memorable occasion on the Sunday (rest day) of the Lord's Test. It became notorious in cricket folklore because Australia were bowled out the following day for a paltry 78. This calamitous incompetence was blamed on Gray's wedding in a tongue-in-cheek piece by Wooldridge, who, as an attendee, knew exactly what time the last Australian player left the reception.

Cricket might have changed dramatically since those times but so has coverage of the game.

The Sydney afternoon papers' deadline from Perth, where the 1962-63 Western Australia XI v MCC match was played, was a nightmarish 5am. At close of play Benaud and Gray, who were writing for competing papers, faced a dilemma. Dinner first and then write, or vice versa?

They chose dinner first, and when Benaud, having filed his column, couldn't rouse Gray, he thoughtfully dictated a piece to his mate's newspaper. A couple of hours later Benaud was awakened from his slumber by an irate editor yelling down the line: "You've bloody well been scooped by Gray."

The second half of my cricket life has been a thoroughly enjoyable experience, enhanced by men like Wooldridge, Benaud, Cozier and Gray.

Former Australia captain Ian Chappell is now a cricket commentator for Channel 9, and a columnist