In his later years as a commentator, Richie Benaud had an audience in the millions. But at the beginning of his cricketing life, in the isolated country town of Jugiong, he had only himself to entertain. Richie first put bat on ball as a five-year-old, playing alone within the four walls of a disused Department of Education storeroom. His father Lou was the sole teacher at Jugiong Public School between 1932 and 1937. The school, around 350 kilometres south-west of Sydney, had 23 students of various ages, some of whom travelled to school on horseback. After school hours, there were no kids around to share Richie's developing passion for cricket. His father came to the rescue, giving him a homemade bat and a tennis ball, and clearing out an old storeroom attached to the school.
As a Test cricketer Richie Benaud played aggressively. He scored his runs fast, bowled probing leg-spin and was renowned as an attacking captain. But there, on his own, with his little cut-down bat made from packing-case timber, young Richie started off by playing two shots, the forward defence and the back foot defence. For most kids, slogging across the line is all they want to do when they first pick up a bat. So what was a young boy on the banks of the Murrumbidgee doing blocking a tennis ball against a wall? It sounds more like the formative years of Geoffrey Boycott or Trevor Bailey, not a man who would go on to score one of Test cricket's fastest centuries.
Lou Benaud knew exactly what he was doing. If Richie was to learn how to bat, he had to start with the basics. Lou was a top-class cricketer who'd been denied the opportunity to push for state selection. In 1925, the Department of Education shipped him off to One Tree Farm Provisional School, around 1000 kilometres north of Sydney. He spent the next 12 years teaching at various country schools. At least three times he had to turn down the chance to trial before state selectors. The same Department of Education that sent Bill O'Reilly to the backblocks in his prime didn't allow Lou Benaud the opportunity to further his cricket in Sydney. The latter part of his country stint coincided with the Great Depression, so Lou didn't have much choice; he had to hold on to his job and accept his lot.
In that storeroom at Jugiong, young Richie learned more than just defensive shots. Soon he progressed to playing test matches against the wall. Like Bradman against the tank stand in Bowral, he picked an English XI and an Australian XI, set an imaginary field and threw the ball against the wall, hitting it off the rebound. Just like Bowral, the pitch was undercover, maximising game time during wet weather. The enclosed walls meant he didn't have to spend valuable time chasing balls. Whereas Bradman used a golf ball and a stump, Benaud used a tennis ball and cut-off bat. For a boy of five or six it was perfect training. As Benaud wrote in On Reflection, 'Coming from only 15 feet and bouncing, it could be a reasonably difficult assignment. It certainly improved my eye!'
Richie played for hours in the storeroom. Although he'd never seen a Test match, he imagined he was playing for Australia, racking up runs against England like his hero Bradman. The thud of the tennis ball hitting repetitively against the walls filtered back into the school residence. 'It was sweet music to hear the ball being hit in that room,' Lou Benaud remembered, 'For it signified that Rich had developed a keenness for cricket.' When Richie was seven, the Benaud family moved back to Sydney. Lou had scored a job at Burnside Public School, North Parramatta. The family took up residence a kilometre from the school at 5 Sutherland Road. Richie's younger brother, John, who also played Test cricket, was not born until Richie was 13, so he continued to play his one-man tests, this time against a brick wall on the back verandah. He chose cricketers from a book his father had given to him - the 1938 NSW Cricket Association Yearbook that included all the scorecards from the 1936/7 Ashes series. He placed his imaginary field, and worked hard at piercing the gaps.
Rene Benaud kept a beautiful garden, but that didn't mean her son had to modify his range of strokes. 'My mother grew to understand that the really important thing was that I'd made 29 playing against England this day, and if there was a pot plant or two that had to be renovated that was OK,' Benaud recalls. There was one plant in the back garden that young Richie wouldn't have minded demolishing. Australian children of his generation were force-fed chokos at mealtime. This tasteless vegetable grew like prickly pear on backyard fences across the country. Because of its easy availability it became a staple of family diets throughout the 1930s and 1940s. Richie was often issued the ultimatum; 'eat your vegetables or you can't go out to play cricket'.
Richie's verandah test matches were taken very seriously. He wrote the scores in his Unrivalled Pocket Cricket Scoring Book. Once full, he rubbed them out and started again. Unsurprisingly he called these games as if he was part of the ABC Radio commentary team. Richie was part of the first generation who grew up with cricket on the radio. The ABC started their 'synthetic' broadcasts of test matches from England in 1934. At Jugiong the 1936-37 Ashes series was heard through 2CO Corowa with the deep-voiced Mel Morris on the microphone. The Benaud family's big Kreisler radio was always tuned in. When Bradman took the Australian team to England in 1938, shortwave broadcasts beamed the commentary live from England for the first time. It was the beginning of a ritual that inspired the test cricketers of future generations; young boys drifting off to sleep listening to their crystal sets, dreaming that they might one day play for Australia against England at Lord's.
"It was drilled into me over meal tables at home when I was a child that cricketers who do not set about trying to win the game from the start of the match would never be successful, but don't forget the game must be played in the right spirit"
Richie Benaud
In January 1940, Richie saw his first game of first-class cricket. Aged nine, his father took him by bus, steam train and toastrack tram to the SCG to watch New South Wales play South Australia. Over 30,000 came to what was one of the last Sheffield Shield matches before the war intervened. It was so crowded that Richie sat in the aisle with his dad in the old Sheridan Stand. Leg-spinner Clarrie Grimmett dominated, taking 6/118. This performance had a big influence on Richie. After the game he told his father that he wanted to bowl leg-spin. But Lou Benaud put a temporary halt to that idea. He believed wrist spin put too much strain on the tendons and ligaments of a young boy. Richie wasn't allowed to bowl leg spin until he was 12. Even now he passes on the same advice to inquiring parents.
Richie could not have had a better mentor than his father. He was there for him at every stage, from crafting him a bat at Jugiong to coaching him in the intricacies of leg-spin in his teen years. Lou instilled in Richie that there was a right way to play cricket. 'Cricket was talked breakfast, lunch and dinner in the Benaud household, every day I can remember,' Richie recalls. 'It was drilled into me over meal tables at home when I was a child that cricketers who do not set about trying to win the game from the start of the match would never be successful, but don't forget the game must be played in the right spirit.' It was this attitude that Benaud carried through into his captaincy of the Australian side. In the 1960s, he helped revive international cricket with positive, aggressive play, at a time when Test matches had become bogged down in negative tactics and meaningless draws.
Lou Benaud also encouraged his son to practise and play the game whenever he could. When Richie wasn't playing his verandah test matches he would join boys in the neighbourhood for a game in the paddock across the road. The boys built a dirt pitch by digging out the grass and levelling it with a shovel. They watered the pitch and occasionally flattened it out with a roller borrowed from a nearby tennis court. When the boys wanted a truer surface they headed up to Belmore Park (now named Richie Benaud Oval) where a concrete pitch had been laid. Children growing up in suburban Sydney at the time were blessed with plenty of open fields in which to play informal games of sport.
When Richie turned 12 he was able to turn his mind to leg-spin. Two years after watching Grimmett knock over New South Wales, he continued to be inspired by the Fox. He started a backyard bowling drill like Grimmett's but without the fox terrier. 'Bowling at a white mark made on the grass came from an article I had read, written by Grimmett,' Benaud recalls. '[He] said that from the moment he turned to start his run his eyes were fixed on the spot where he wanted the ball to land. I continued to do the same for the rest of my cricket career because it seemed a perfectly logical thing to do. Why would you look anywhere else? Even on the back verandah at Sutherland Road, when bowling the tennis ball against the brickwork, I would look at the spot on the wall I wanted the ball to hit.' Benaud continued this form of practice into his Test playing years. When he had no one else to bowl to in the nets he placed a handkerchief down on a good length, and worked away at improving his accuracy.
Soon after the Benauds came back to Sydney, Lou was drafted back into Cumberland's first-grade side. This introduced Richie to the world of men's cricket at a young age. 'I was able to go to the Tuesday and the Thursday practices and I was allowed to field and it taught me not to fear the cricket ball, it came pretty fast.' The lack of fear was to become an important ingredient in Richie's makeup as a cricketer. He was a courageous hooker of fast bowling and nerveless close-in fielder. At 19, he lost a year of cricket after he shattered the frontal bone in his forehead while trying to hook Victorian quick Jack Daniel. His wedding day toast was sipped through a straw after a taking a ball in the mouth while fielding in the gully in a Test match. But Richie didn't become timid. He hooked Tyson, Hall, Trueman and other quicks with courage and skill throughout his career. Playing for a Combined XI against South Africa on a bouncy Perth deck, Barry Shepherd asked him to take on Peter Pollock, whose pace was troubling team mates. Benaud belted 132.
His wedding day toast was sipped through a straw after a taking a ball in the mouth while fielding in the gully in a Test match
As a youngster Richie would do anything to be around cricket. At the age of 12, he became the designated scorer for the Cumberland second-grade side. Each Saturday he would pack his whites in case someone failed to show up. That season he was called on twice. In his second-grade debut he had to go in to bat at number 11 with four runs needed for victory. He saw out the over, and his partner belted the next ball over the boundary to win the game. Not many players can say they played second-grade while still in their first year at high school. At 15, Richie played his first full season in grade. At 16, he made his debut in first-grade with his father by his side. In his second game in firsts he scored 98. It probably came as no surprise to Lou. Richie had made a habit of successfully taking on older opponents. His first game of cricket was for Jugiong against Bookham Public. At just six years of age he scored 12 runs against boys nearly twice his age facing a compo ball on a bouncy coir mat pitch.
Lou Benaud had a huge impact on Richie's career. He knew what it took to make it in cricket. He wrote in The Young Cricketer: 'If you want to reach the top of the cricket ladder you must literally eat, drink and sleep cricket. Half measures will not get you to the top. Outside school hours or working hours you must spend your time at the game - playing it, practising it, conditioning yourself for it, reading about it and looking at first-class matches. When you become such a fanatic you only need the opportunities to get you to the top.' It was this kind of fanaticism that Richie was brought up on and that helped him make it to the top. Like Martin Chappell, who'd been denied opportunities to play first-class cricket during the war years, Lou Benaud was determined to give his sons every opportunity to make it in cricket. Richie was fortunate to be born with talent and parents who helped him cultivate it.
So what of a boy growing up in the same environment today? In 2008 Jugiong Public School celebrated its 125th anniversary and had 15 students. A child living there now wouldn't have to play in a disused storeroom. The school has some flash new cricket nets, funded in part by donations of memorabilia from its most famous ex-pupil. The old Benaud backyard at North Parramatta is still there in all its sprawling glory. While the old verandah is now enclosed, you could easily practise your leg-spinners down the back. It would, however, be hard to get a game happening at the old paddock across the road from 5 Sutherland Road. There's not much activity there anymore, it's currently used as an aged-care facility.
Extracted with permission from Steve Cannane's book First Tests: Great Australian Cricketers and the Backyards that Made Them, published in 2009 by HarperCollins Publishers Australia