13 December 1998

Benaud ready to write a new chapter in his illustrious story

Leo McKinstry

In a rare interview, Richie Benaud provides Leo McKinstry with a welcome reminder of a golden age at a time of scandal

THIS month one of cricket's greatest legends, Richie Benaud, is celebrating 50 years in the first-class game. In the five decades since he made his debut as a raw 18-year-old for New South Wales in the 1948-49 season, Benaud has won recognition not only as one of the most brilliant cricketers and captains ever produced by Australia but also as a gifted television commentator.

Now 68, Benaud shows no signs of retiring. Indeed, he is about to embark on a new venture as a commentator with Channel 4, who recently beat the BBC for the rights to broadcast domestic Test cricket. There was some sadness about leaving the BBC after a long association. "I have been with them for 38 years, since covering the South African tour of 1960, so the change came as a considerable shock," he told me in his Sydney offices.

But he is confident about his new role. "I've worked for Channel Nine here in Australia for 21 years, so that commercial experience will stand me in good stead when Channel 4 begins." And he has few anxieties about working with Rory Bremner, the comedian who has been signed up as one of the channel's presenters and whose repertoire includes a frighteningly realistic impression of Benaud. "I have a healthy respect for all satirists," he says.

It is little wonder that Benaud should be so assured as a media performer, for his involvement in journalism stretches back to the middle of his playing career in the 1950s. It may seem extraordinary now, but like all Australian cricketers of his era, Benaud did not earn his living at the game. Instead, he began his professional life as an accountant, working first in an estate agency and then as a clerk at the Sydney Sun newspaper. Meanwhile, he was growing in stature as an international cricketer, having first played for Australia in the 1951-52 season against the West Indies. On his return from the England tour of 1956, he decided to go into journalism. So, with the attention to detail and preparation which marked him out as a cricketer, Benaud transferred from the accounts department to become a crime reporter on the Sydney Sun. "In those days, when there were far fewer muggings and murders than today, such incidents were more newsworthy so the police rounds were the central part of the news section," he told me.

This experience taught Benaud how to produce a story under the pressures of time and space. "I was not to know it at the time, but there was nothing I have done in my life which has proved more valuable in presentation on television." But the job also had its darker side. "There were plenty of gruesome sights around. It is difficult to see someone who has just been murdered and then have to write about it."

While Benaud was vigorously pursuing his new profession from 1956, he was also enjoying his first real success in the Test arena. After a string of early failures, Benaud rewarded the selectors' faith in him with far greater consistency from 1957. A dashing, often explosive batsman, brilliant fielder, and dangerous leg-spinner with a classical action and rare control, he became one of the great all-rounders, the first to take 200 wickets and make 2,000 runs at Test level. It was, however, as captain of Australia that Benaud the player is probably best remembered, winning back the Ashes in 1958-59 and holding them until his retirement. He is typically modest about his achievements. "Captaincy is 90 per cent luck."

He says that the best five captains during his time in the game have been Ray Illingworth, Mike Brearley, Keith Miller (captain of New South Wales but never of Australia), Ian Chappell and Mark Taylor. Of his own playing career, he feels that probably the greatest moment was his spell of six for 70 at Old Trafford in 1961, which ensured that Australia kept the Ashes. On that last afternoon England, set 256 to win, were cruising at 150 for one. Then Benaud went round the wicket, had Ted Dexter caught, bowled Peter May round his legs, had Close caught at square leg and bowled Raman Subba Row. "Without that win, I wouldn't be sitting here talking to you now. We wouldn't have retained the Ashes and I would have gone home a loser." Other great moments include the famous tied Test with the West Indies at the start of the 1960-61 series.

"That was easily the best, most entertaining series I took part in. It completely changed the face of cricket in Australia, bringing a new enthusiasm for the game." In the Fifties, he has fond memories of his first series as captain in 1958-59. "It was very important that we won back the Ashes because you have to remember we had almost gone a decade without winning a series against England." The bowler he most enjoyed captaining was the great left-arm paceman Alan Davidson. "I bowled him unmercifully but, contrary to the rumours, he had good endurance."

Talking of the all-time greats, Benaud rates Shane Warne among them. "Bill O'Reilly was much quicker, more like Derek Underwood's pace, and Clarrie Grimmett was round-arm, but Warne is the greatest of his type." Of the famous Warne shoulder, he says: "I have got a feeling he will come back brand new. He's determined not to return prematurely if there is the slightest danger of any problem because he wants to play for at least another five years. He's trying to be very patient. I saw him bowling recently and he produced everything I wanted to see. I was very heartened by what I saw." Of the quicker men, Benaud rates Dennis Lillee as probably the best with Ray Lindwall not far behind. But "Frank Tyson was the fastest I ever saw and I certainly wouldn't have wanted to bat against Jeff Thomson at his peak." Like Warne, Benaud was plagued by a shoulder injury in the later part of his career, which hastened his retirement during the 1963-64 series against South Africa. "My shoulder was much the same as Warne's and it would have been medically possible to operate. But it would have been a straightforward knife job and I would not have been offered the same expertise and medical facilities as Warne. It was right to step down then and give Bobby Simpson the experience of captaincy before the 1964 tour of England."

Following his retirement from first-class cricket in 1964, Benaud's career as a commentator and writer has flourished. One of the most refreshing features of his media work is his refusal to wallow in nostalgia, unlike so many ex-cricketers. He discounts pessimistic talk about any decline in standards. "Today's cricketers don't play it any more or less hard than we did and no doubt they enjoy it just as much. Of course, they are better paid but I'm very pleased that Australia are now getting their fair share of what's going on." Nor is he inclined, like some other pundits, to kick fellow commentator Geoff Boycott when he is down. "I saw some people claiming Boycott is not popular in the commentary box. But I just can't see that. The BBC lot were like a cricket team, full of different personalities but we all got on."

Benaud is a keen advocate of the modernisation of cricket, envisaging that some of the planned World Cup in the Caribbean might be played in Disneyland, Florida. "They could televise some World Cup games to the rest of the world from there. People might say that this is nonsense but they said the same about day-night cricket when it started 21 years ago and it has been a great success. That is not to say that cricket will become a world sport but it could certainly move around the world." It was this wider vision that made Benaud such an asset to Kerry Packer's World Series Cricket, an episode about which Benaud has no regrets. "I think each year that passes shows what a good thing WSC was."

On the current series, Benaud feels that England have a better side than for a decade, though he disagrees with claims that Alec Stewart has made the side more competitive. "I thought they were very competitive under Atherton. He has got the competitive spirit running through every millilitre of his blood." The problem, as so often recently, is trying to bowl a side out twice, especially since England lack a top-flight spinner. Benaud feels that this is due to the absence of uncovered pitches, on which the likes of Underwood learned their craft. Even worse is the denigration of leg-spin. "England seem to regard leg-spinners as a stupid luxury."

Benaud is happy to continue providing such analyses "as long as I can do a decent job. I've got some good friends who'll let me know when I'm making mistakes." His final words about his fame as the face and voice of world cricket are characteristically modest. "You could have the picture on with no commentary and people would see what's going on."

Richie Benaud's latest book 'Anything But An Autobiography' is published by Hodder and Stoughton at £17.99.

Source :: Electronic Telegraph (http://www.telegraph.co.uk)