Gideon Haigh on cricket's most influential players

Richie Benaud

The wise old king

If we don't remember him as an elite legspinner, a thinking captain or one of cricket's true professionals, it's because of the phenomenal work he has done as a commentator, writer and observer

Gideon Haigh

August 1, 2009

Comments: 23 | Text size: A | A

Richie Benaud portrait, Brisbane, November 24, 2006
If Arlott was the voice of cricket, Benaud was the face © Getty Images
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Players/Officials: Richie Benaud | Kerry Packer
Teams: Australia

"Did you ever play cricket for Australia, Mr Benaud?" In his On Reflection, Richie Benaud recalls being asked this humbling question by a "fair-haired, angelic little lad of about 12", one of a group of six autograph seekers who accosted him at the SCG "one December evening in 1982".

"Now what do you do?" Benaud writes. "Cry or laugh? I did neither but merely said yes, I had played up to 1963, which was going to be well before he was born. 'Oh,' he said. 'That's great. I thought you were just a television commentator on cricket.'" Autograph in hand, the boy "scampered away with a 'thank you' thrown over his shoulder".

It is a familiar anecdotal scenario: past player confronted by dwindling renown. But the Benaud version is very Benaudesque. There is the amused self-mockery, the precise observation, the authenticating detail: he offers a date, the number of boys and a description of the appearance of his interlocutor, whose age is cautiously approximated.

In his story Benaud indulges the boy's solecism, realising that it arises not merely from youthful innocence but from the fact that "he had never seen me in cricket gear, and knew me only as the man who did the cricket on Channel 9". Then he segues into several pages of discussion of the changed nature of the cricket audience, ending with a self-disclosing identification. "Some would say such a question of that kind showed lack of respect or knowledge. Not a bit of it… what it did was show an inquiring mind and I'm all in favour of inquiring minds among our young sportsmen. Perhaps that is because I had an inquiring mind when I came into first-class cricket but was not necessarily allowed to exercise it in the same way as young players are now."

I like this passage; droll, reasoned and thoughtful, it tells us much about cricket's most admired and pervasive post-war personality. It is the voice, as Greg Manning phrased it in Wisden Australia, of commentary's "wise old king". It betrays, too, the difficulty in assessing him: in some respects Benaud's abiding ubiquity in England and Australia inhibits appreciation of the totality of his achievements.

In fact, Benaud would rank among Test cricket's elite legspinners and captains if he had never uttered or written a word about the game. His apprenticeship was lengthy - thanks partly to the prolongation of Ian Johnson's career by his tenure as Australian captain - and Benaud's first 27 Tests encompassed only 73 wickets at 28.90 and 868 runs at 28.66.

 
 
Usually bareheaded, and with shirt open as wide as propriety permitted, he was a colourful, communicative antidote to an austere, tight-lipped era. Jack Fingleton likened Benaud to Jean Borotra, the "Bounding Basque of Biarritz"
 

Then, as Johnnie Moyes put it, came seniority and skipperhood: "Often in life and in cricket we see the man who has true substance in him burst forth into stardom when his walk-on part is changed for one demanding personality and a degree of leadership. I believe that this is what happened to Benaud." In his next 23 Tests, Benaud attained the peak of proficiency - 131 wickets at 22.66 and 830 runs at 28.62, until a shoulder injury in May 1961 impaired his effectiveness.

Australia did not lose a series under Benaud's leadership, although he was defined by his deportment as much as his deeds. Usually bareheaded, and with shirt open as wide as propriety permitted, he was a colourful, communicative antidote to an austere, tight-lipped era. Jack Fingleton likened Benaud to Jean Borotra, the "Bounding Basque of Biarritz" over whom tennis audiences had swooned in the 1920s. Wisden settled for describing him as "the most popular captain of any overseas team to come to Great Britain".

One of Benaud's legacies is the demonstrative celebration of wickets and catches, which was a conspicuous aspect of his teams' communal spirit and is today de rigeur. Another is a string of astute, astringent books, including Way of Cricket (1960) and A Tale of Two Tests (1962), which are among the best books written by a cricketer during his career. "In public relations to benefit the game," Ray Robinson decided, "Benaud was so far ahead of his predecessors that race-glasses would have been needed to see who was at the head of the others."

Benaud's reputation as a gambling captain has probably been overstated. On the contrary he was tirelessly fastidious in his planning, endlessly solicitous of his players and inclusive in his decision-making. Benaud receives less credit than he deserves for intuiting that "11 heads are better than one" where captaincy is concerned; what is commonplace now was not so in his time. In some respects his management model paralleled the "human relations school" in organisational psychology, inspired by Douglas McGregor's The Human Side of Enterprise (1960). Certainly Benaud's theory that "cricketers are intelligent people and must be treated as such", and his belief in "an elastic but realistic sense of self-discipline" could be transliterations of McGregor to a sporting context.

Ian Meckiff defined Benaud as "a professional in an amateur era", a succinct formulation that may partly explain the ease with which he has assimilated the professional present. For if a quality distinguishes his commentary, it is that he calls the game he is watching, not one he once watched or played in. When Simon Katich was awarded his baggy green at Headingley in 2001, it was Benaud whom Steve Waugh invited to undertake the duty.


Richie Benaud bowls in the nets during Australia's 1956 tour of England
The forgotten legspinner © PA Photos
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Benaud's progressive attitude to the game's commercialisation - sponsorship, TV, the one-day game - may also spring partly from his upbringing. In On Reflection he tells how his father, Lou, a gifted legspinner, had his cricket ambitions curtailed when he was posted to the country as a schoolteacher for 12 years. Benaud describes two vows his father took: "If… there were any sons in his family he would make sure they had a chance [to make a cricket career] and there would be no more schoolteachers in the Benaud family."

At an early stage of his first-class career, too, Benaud lost his job with an accounting firm that "couldn't afford to pay the six pounds a week which would have been my due". He criticised the poor rewards for the cricketers of his time, claiming they were "not substantial enough" and that "some players… made nothing out of tours". He contended as far back as 1960 that "cricket is now a business".

Those views obtained active expression when he aligned with World Series Cricket - it "ran alongside my ideas about Australian cricketers currently being paid far too little and having virtually no input into the game in Australia". Benaud's contribution to Kerry Packer's venture, both as consultant and commentator, was inestimable: to the organisation he brought cricket knowhow, to the product he applied a patina of respectability. Changes were wrought in cricket over two years that would have taken decades under the game's existing institutions, and Benaud was essentially their frontman.

In lending Packer his reputation Benaud ended up serving his own. John Arlott has been garlanded as the voice of cricket; Benaud is indisputably the face of it, in both hemispheres, over generations. If one was to be critical it may be that Benaud has been too much the apologist for modern cricket, too much the Dr Pangloss. It is, after all, difficult to act as an impartial critic of the entertainment package one is involved in selling.

Professionalism, meanwhile, has not been an unmixed blessing: what is match-fixing but professional sport in extremis, the cricketer selling his services to the highest bidder in the sporting free market? Yet Benaud is one of very few certifiably unique individuals in cricket history. From time to time one hears mooted "the next Benaud"; one also knows that this cannot be.

Gideon Haigh is a cricket historian and writer. Some articles in the Movers and Shapers series, including this one, were first published in Wisden Asia Cricket magazine in 2002

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Posted by Sorcerer on (August 4, 2009, 15:10 GMT)

In all fairness, Warne is already a far better commentator than Benaud ever was. Regarding the point of infusing excitement in the game, bill Lawry was always better than Benaud and Ian Chappell had far more incisive comments and analysis.

Posted by oz87 on (August 3, 2009, 20:47 GMT)

Ref Bottom 03/08; and the 80s and earlier commentaries. Yes prior to the modern era the (UK) TV commentaries were pretty dire. Even as boys we parodied Johnson and West. We also saw Laker's 19 for; what a player, what a match - but as a commentator he was very flat. I was almost beginning to agree with 'Bottom about the standard of earlier commentaries; until I remembered Trevor Bailey - a contemporary of Benaud's. Although a radio summariser he analysed the game in the modern way - WHY WHAT WHEN HOW. He was thoughtful, objective and excellent; far more incisive about game tactics, techniques etc than Benaud in the 80s; though possibly too dry for the casual cricket fan. I'm also little concerned about some blogs complaining about the age of some commentators. Eg The Oz C9 team & Boycott. Surely you need to be an ex captain or wicket keeper AND experienced; the likes of Slater etc have neither?

Posted by JGG32 on (August 3, 2009, 10:19 GMT)

Sorcerer, I am afraid I would have to disagree with you that without McGrath and Warne the Aussies of the 90's/late 00's would still have been a great team! At the time they had excellent strength in depth, especially with MacGill as the backup spinner. While not as good as Warne (otherwise he would have played instead!) who knows how good he would have been had he been allowed to play more test cricket when at his pomp?

The fact that the current team is weaker than that of the past 15 odd years is by no means an indication that the team of the 90's minus Warne and McGrath would have been considerably weaker as well, because the players that would have replaced them then e.g. MacGill, are no longer around as they too have retired!

Finally, in my opinion Richie is a wonderful commentator, a refreshing breath of fresh air in an era of hyperbole and verbal diarrhea. A great shame that I rarely get to hear him in the UK anymore!

Posted by Sorcerer on (August 3, 2009, 7:46 GMT)

Benaud's commentary was incisive at times but largely very predictable and mundane. It could be considered to be very informative though for those not in much knowledge of the intricacies of the game though as he had the habit of stating the batting score and the obvious.

I recall some years ago when England team was at an ebb overall - times when they were facing an even weaker WI side in England with Caddick running amock and claiming many dismissals; at the end of the match Benaud remarked amusingly that this was the end of a very absorbing contest betwene two "fabulous" teams - an opinion immersed in melodrama and exaggeration as both the teams wree playing very average cricket and without much blazing grace.

Also, he used to get upset when the comparison of any team was made with The Aussie Invincibles of '48....even the juggernaut that was the early 80s WI team was not considered by Benuad to be anything near the Aussie team - an opinion contested by many.

Posted by Woody111 on (August 3, 2009, 3:32 GMT)

I'm bemused by some of the criticisms of Benaud's commentary as I've always found him to be as informative as most. The technology available to the likes of Holding, Atherton and co. for the current Ashes is far more developed than the 80s when it was more likely to be binoculars that gave a commentator closer vision of what was happening in the middle. Many of Benaud's fellow commentators offered little in terms of technical discussion (including Lawry) and it is unfair to compare more modern day commentators like Taylor with Benaud who pretty much invented TV cricket commentary. He still had a go at using the myriad of tools like hot spot and hawkeye and it should be understood most of his life has been lived prior to the invention of the computer. Cut the guy some slack!

Posted by Charisma on (August 2, 2009, 20:27 GMT)

I had the distinct pleasure of seeing Benaud bowl at the Ferozeshah Kotla in 1959. He captained a fabulous team that had Davidson, Meckiffe and Rorke as the awesome trio of fast bowlers. When thefast bowlers had ripped through the fragile lineup, Joshi continued to defy theAussies. Along cae Benaud and quickly wiped out all resistance. Wonderful bowling though my preferred team was at the receiving end! He may be remembered now only as a commentator but for those lucky enough to have seen him in his heyday, he was a great legspinenr and a smart captain.

Posted by Sorcerer on (August 2, 2009, 17:06 GMT)

Benaud was cricketing voice for long along with Jack Bannister. But you could not help thinking he was biased for the Aussies as once he admantly stuck to his idea in late 90s that were it not for McGrath and Warne, Aussies would still be awesome as they supposedly had great replacements - we are all witnessing how wrong and misplaced that notion was.

Posted by daz8669 on (August 2, 2009, 11:01 GMT)

Australia has only one cricketing knight - Sir Donald Bradman. It is high time that we have our second cricketing knight - Sir Richie Benaud. His services to cricket as a player and more importantly (for those of us born after the completion of his playing career) as a broadcaster have shaped the game as we know it. He is the voice of cricket in Australia, and as the other comments would suggest he is the voice of cricket around the world. This should be recognized with a richly deserved knighthood.

Posted by SidArthur on (August 2, 2009, 9:52 GMT)

Thank you oz87 I'm glad this is not a complete Richie love-fest. Richie perhaps did not lack insight on the greatness of Warne, but he certainly did not like to admit it. Once on air Bill Lawry (commentating with Richie) in a obvious attempt at trying to get a ride out of Richie said "Warney might be the greatest leg spin bowler of all time - what do you think Richie?" - to which Richie said nothing or offered a slight grunt. Bill took a bit of risk here seeing that Richie might have ended his contract, and it would have been back to pigeon racing for Bill. Fact is Richie takes himself way too seriously - but I won't go on - done here.

Posted by oz87 on (August 2, 2009, 0:49 GMT)

I've always had a hugh admiration for Richie as leg spinner and captain ever since we played out Benaud+Davidson v Trueman+Statham as boys.

However I've never been entirely satisfied with his TV commentaries which contained only the briefest of summaries on WHY a bowler/batsman was so good/poor on a particular day; or the effectiveness of a captain's field placing &/or bowling choices.

Most disappointing was the lack of insight on air into the greatness of Warne and how he would go about his art - with the help of Taylor or Waugh. He obviously knew it, but we the listeners didn't get the benefit of it. YES I was listening…

I hate writing such a negative on such a great player, but ever since Compton, and I think Richie, gave a TV master class on how batsman approached bowlers and vice versa; I've felt a little let down. Healy, Grieg, Lawry, Chappell, Taylor and Boycott are superb at describing AND anticipating the nuances within the chess match that is Test cricket

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Gideon Haigh Born in London of a Yorkshire father, raised in Australia by a Tasmanian mother, Gideon Haigh lives in Melbourne with a cat, Trumper. He has written 19 books and edited a further seven. He is also a life member and perennial vice-president of the South Yarra CC.

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