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Tim de Lisle
We decided to work it out. Given the inflation in the international game, it was probably someone involved in a professional capacity over the past 30 years. We decided not to count watching on television, nor any Tests but official ones between male teams. During the winter, while professional cricket-watchers were scattered around the world, we fired off e-mails to a few likely suspects. Some didn't fancy the idea; others were too busy - watching cricket. But enough were intrigued for answers to trickle in.
Tony Cozier, voice of the Caribbean since time immemorial, came in at 266 Tests. Patrick Eagar, doyen of cricket photography, worked out the figure from his computer reference system ("what a dweeb"): he had watched, more closely than most, 265 Tests. Bill Frindall, Test Match Special's Bearded Wonder since 1966, could be relied upon to keep his own score: 252 ("I have also watched an entire Women's Test in Adelaide"). D. J. Rutnagur, who specialises in India, knew he had started in 1951- 52, but could only guess at his tally - "over 300". Graham Morris, the photographer, thought he was in the 300s too: "Sorry to be so vague, only I have never been a bedpost notcher. This is like being asked to do one's expenses for the last 20 years - without the obvious advantages."
The first definite 300 came from Qamar Ahmed, the Pakistan expert: he had just reached his triple-century, with a wave of the pen, at Cape Town. Christopher Martin-Jenkins did some sums ("1972-2002: all Tests in England") and came up with 302. It was the highest exact figure so far, but if even CMJ wasn't much above 300, who would be?
The same three names kept coming up: Richie Benaud, 72, a fine player who has been commentating ever since, in England and Australia, in one never-ending summer; E. W. (Jim) Swanton, whose cricket-writing career ran from the 1930s to his death, aged 92, in 2000; and John Woodcock, 76, today's elder statesman of cricket writing, who was the Times correspondent 1954-87 and still pops up there, radiating genial authority.
I rang Woodcock at home in Longparish. How many Tests had he been to? "About 400 for The Times, so it would be over 400 now. There was a time I think when I had watched half the Test matches ever played, or very nearly. It came and went very quickly, can't remember when." His most recent Test had been at Lord's last summer, against India. The first had also been against India - 66 years earlier, in 1936. "I went up from my prep school."
What about Swanton, his old friend? "Oh, Jim's way behind. We discussed it once and he was on about 270. He never went to Pakistan, and I think he only saw two Tests in India - on Tony Lewis's tour [1972- 73], when England won on Christmas Day. He did it in style of course: he was met by the Maharajah of Baroda's driver."
Who might be ahead? "Richie. I'd have thought he would be way ahead." Richie Benaud, naturally, was in the commentary box, in Melbourne, for the Australia-England one-day finals. We sent a message via Ian Healy. For a couple of weeks, there was silence: Richie's signature tune. One morning, an e-mail landed - "From: Richie Benaud". It was like getting a postcard from the Pope. "Sorry to be so long coming back to you, but it has all been slightly hectic out here." He had a figure, but needed to check it when he was back home in Sydney. "Cheers, Richie." Next morning, another e-mail. "I hope the following might fit in with what you want, and I hope I've got the figures right..."
He had totted them all up, scrupulously: 63 Tests as a player, three as twelfth man, one on tour that he didn't play in (Lord's, 1961), one at the MCG in 1963-64, when he had broken a finger and covered it for the Sydney Sun... "68 in my playing time, 11 covered in the West Indies, 8 in South Africa, 5 in New Zealand, 223 in England, 171 in Australia, 0 in India, 0 in Pakistan, 0 in Sri Lanka, 0 in Zimbabwe, 0 in Bangladesh". He listed all the ducks as if he planned on breaking them.
In Australia and England together, he had seen 394 Tests, out of 733: more than half. His grand total was 486, a phenomenal figure. There had been 1,636 Tests in history, and Richie had been there for nearly a third of them, weighing his silences, composing his understatements, keeping his cool, distilling all that experience. Within a year, he should reach 500.
It made you wonder how he had sprung so swiftly from the top of one tree to the top of the next. Anticipating this, he had added an informal CV. "Did a three-week BBC television course devised for me by Tom Sloan at the end of the 1956 tour of England, then joined the team in Rome to fly to Pakistan and India for four Tests. On return to Australia, started as a journalist on Police Rounds and Sports at the Sydney Sun.
"Covered the five 1960 Tests E v SA for BBC Radio whilst still an Australian player. Captained the side to England in 1961, and BBC TV asked me back to cover E v WI 1963. Retired from cricket after the 1963- 64 series A v SA. Didn't cover E v P and I in 1971. Didn't cover Tests during World Series Cricket [which he helped set up]. I watched Tests at the SCG 1946-47 to 1951-52, but haven't counted them as I was playing club cricket on the Saturdays and then was in the NSW team on tour."
"I thought Johnny Woodcock would have considerably more than the figure he has given you." A nice touch, deflecting the spotlight. We had asked Benaud to name a favourite Test. "Three of them from different points of view." His reasons are in the panel below.
One last question. When was his first glimpse of Test cricket? "1946- 47, Sydney, Second [Ashes] Test. Great disappointment, Lindwall had chicken-pox, but Ian Johnson and Colin McCool were there, taking nine of the ten wickets. Australia were 159 for four when Bradman, injured and ill, came out at No. 6 and put on 400 with Barnes. McCool took another five wickets to reinforce the thought that leg-spinners were great. I had just turned 16. Over 40,000 spectators the first three days." Australia won by an innings, but Benaud's recollection skips that to focus on the fans. He always was on our side.