Richie Benaud August 1, 2009

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

"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.

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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