The passing away of the multi-talented and popular Richie Benaud at the age of 84 last night has saddened many hearts, especially mine, as we knew each other for decades and he wrote a flattering Foreword to one of my books.
The name Richie Benaud means many things to many people. He was an all-time great all-rounder in the same class as Garry Sobers, Keith Miller, Alan Davidson, Imran Khan and Kapil Dev.
He was a crafty leg-spinner who captured 248 wickets in 63 Tests, an attacking lower-order batsman who hit one of the fastest Test centuries, a brilliant gully fielder with amazing reflexes and a crowd puller wherever he played.
He was also a courageous and victorious leader of men who lost neither a Test series nor his cool.
To the present generation he will be remembered as the voice of cricket. Imitation is the best form of flattery and there are probably as many Richie Benaud impersonators as there are for Elvis Presley. In January 2013, 2014 and 2015, fans dressed as Richie in his iconic cream suit enjoyed the Sydney Tests.
His distinctive speaking style, his “chew for chwenty chu” for 2 for 22 was parodied on the Australian comedy series Twelfth Man. Comedian Billy Birmingham’s impersonations of Benaud have become Aussie folklore.
Richie Benaud also played a stellar role in the formation of World Series Cricket in 1977 which changed the face of international cricket.
At that time I was against Kerry Packer buying cricketers to form his World Series Cricket. When Richie addressed a big crowd of listeners on WSC, I asked him many curly questions at the end which were anti-WSC and received an ovation from the crowd which was mostly pro-establishment. Sportingly Richie responded, “You know that your talk has flopped when a questioner receives more applause than the invited speaker.”
He did not keep this against me and when I requested him to write a Foreword to my book Famous Cricketing Families in 2000 he readily agreed.
His contribution to cricket went further than the cricket field. Pakistan cricket benefited from his advice when he suggested to President Ayub Khan that they do away with matting wickets. This was done and it led to an improvement in their cricket standard overseas.
In 1976, as manager of the International Wanderers, he toured South Africa and fought for multiracial cricket in that country. The news that South Africa would end apartheid in sport in 1980s so pleased him that he exclaimed, “The best news I have heard in years.”
The Benaud story began with his father Lou and mother Irene who were of French origin. Selected for second grade for Penrith, teenager Lou tasted everlasting fame when he once took all 20 wickets in a match for Penrith Waratah Club against St Mary’s.
Lou’s bigger contribution was encouraging sons Richie and John (who played three Tests for Australia and hit a century) to play single-handed cricket by bowling a tennis ball against wall and hitting it on the rebound.
Wrote A.G. Moyes, “From the time he could toddle along, Richie lived in and breathed the cricket atmosphere.”
Born on 6 October 1930, Richie played his first competition match for Jugiong School at six. At eight, he represented the First XI of Burnside School near Parramatta and later led the team to a competition win.
He considered the great Australian spinner Clarrie Grimmett as his inspiration. As he recalled in Willow Patterns, “I think it was the avid watching of Grimmett more than any one thing that made me want to be a leg-spinner.”
Thinking Richie’s hands were not large enough, Lou did not allow him to bowl leg-spinners until he was 17. Instead, emphasis was kept on line and length. Till then he was considered more of a batsman.
Richie was promoted to first-grade for Central Cumberland at 16 and made a brilliant 98 in his second match. However, the way to the top was not easy. There was a cracked skull, a broken thumb, a crushed finger and a ball in the mouth. But his passion to succeed was insatiable.
The skull-cracking episode occurred when batting for NSW Second XI in Melbourne when he was a teenager. He tried to hook the ball from Victoria’s Jack Daniel, missed it and was struck a shattering blow on the forehead above the right eye. He was out of cricket for a year, but it left no psychological scar.
Years later he hooked tearaway terrors Wes Hall, Fred Trueman and Frank ‘Typhoon’ Tyson with power.
His Test debut against the West Indies in January 1952 in Sydney was forgettable. Nor did he shine out in the Tests against South Africa in 1952-53. However he had moments to savour as a batsman in first-class matches on the 1953 tour of England.
Against Yorkshire he smashed 97 with four sixes and took 7 for 46. At Scarborough against a strong Pearce’s XI Australia was set 320 runs to win. Benaud opened and started steadily. When England’s Len Hutton teasingly remarked, “What’s the matter lad, playing for average?” Benaud’s’s response was smashing 11 sixes.
He had improved his batting stance by seeking Keith Miller’s advice and practiced in front of a mirror. He hit a dazzling 121 in the Kingston Test against West Indies in 1955.
His century came in 78 minutes, then the third fastest Test century.
This onslaught prompted a Jamaican barracker to shout, “Do it to England, man, not to us.”
After hearing that a close family member was seriously ill in Sydney, he told skipper Ian Johnson that because of this he could not concentrate. Johnson replied, “Well, just let your head go and hit.”
And hit like a tornado he did, 100 runs in 78 minutes of utter mayhem.
Earlier in the series he had captured three wickets in four balls and ended up heading the bowling averages and was on his way to becoming a world class Test all-rounder.
In the 1956 Lord’s Test, he hit a magnificent 97 and took what is described as the catch of the century when he snapped Colin Cowdrey in the gully. Benaud rates this Test as one of his most enjoyable games and, as for the Cowdrey catch, he said “good as it looked, I never saw the ball other than as a blur from the moment it left Cowdrey’s bat.”
The same year Australia toured Pakistan and India. Shortening his run-up to save energy, he took 7 for 72 in the Madras (now Chennai) Test – his best Test figures – as Australia won by an innings.
Then followed his most successful tour to South Africa in 1957-58. “This experience”, wrote A.A. Thomson, “formed the springboard from which he leaped to three successive victories over England. It could be said that on the veldt, he eventually found his feet.”
He became the only player to take 100 first-class wickets in a season outside England.
The fourth Test in Johannesburg was memorable for him and all those who watched it, scoring 100 runs and grabbing nine wickets. He totalled 329 runs in five Tests and captured 30 wickets contributing to Australia’s 3-0 win.
Bob Simpson recalls, “His practice sessions on that tour had to be seen to be believed. He laboured long after other players had left practice; a lonely figure bowling with a youngster to retrieve the balls aimed at a handkerchief placed on a good length spot. His legendary accuracy developed here.”
His career was resurrected by a pharmacist from New Zealand. When plagued by torn muscles in his fingers as the tour of South Africa approached, he pinned his hopes on a trans-Tasman apothecary. Nine months prior to the South African safari, a Kiwi pharmacist had given him a potion he said would fix Richie’s problem.
“And he was right.”
Benaud recalled, “It was the single most beneficial thing that happened to me in cricket and I never had any trouble again.”
Benaud was appointed captain against England in 1958-59 and regained the Ashes 4-0. He had pre-Test match meetings where every player’s viewpoint was considered and grievances settled.
The excellent team spirit that existed was clear to the spectators. The fall of a wicket was greeted by ecstatic scenes in the middle, with the players swarming in to hug the bowler or fielder. Thus Benaud could be called the father of modern cricket with its extrovert expressions.
He retained the Ashes in England in 1961 and in Australia in 1962-63.
Throughout the 1961 tour of England, Richie’s right shoulder troubled him. Yet in the fourth Test in Manchester he converted a certain defeat into a victory. England was set 256 runs to win and was galloping towards victory at 1 for 150. It was then that Benaud produced his piece de resistance.
By going round the wicket and pitching in the rough of Trueman’s footholds, he imparted an awkward lift. In an incredible spell, he took four crucial wickets for 13 runs. England lost 9 for 51 after being 1 for 150 and Benaud finished with 6 for 70.
Following this tour he was awarded an OBE by the Queen.
Benaud had gained immorality in the previous season against the West Indies in Australia in 1960-61. The series included the famous tie, a cliff-hanging draw and a heart-stopping win in the series-deciding final Test.
‘Johnnie’ Moyes considered Benaud to be a more brilliant leader than Worrell stating, “In applauding the West Indians for lighting the fires of cricket’s rehabilitation, I give full marks to Benaud for providing all the fuel he could to keep it burning brightly, both then and in after years.”
In the tied Brisbane Test Australia was set 233 runs to win. They were in trouble at 6 for 92 when Benaud joined Alan Davidson. Their 134 run stand tilted the match Australia’s way when both were dismissed. In the final over with the scores level, the last two batsmen were run out.
After these fascinating Tests, the series between Australia and West Indies is called The Frank Worrell Trophy. I suggested on The Roar website a few years ago that it should be called The Worrell-Benaud Trophy because both had contributed equally to the enchanting series.
When I sent this story to Richie he modestly wrote back that the decision was taken by Don Bradman and the Australian Cricket Board and it should remain as The Frank Worrell Trophy.
Shoulder trouble forced Richie to retire at 33 in 1963-64. By then he had become the first cricketer to achieve the Test double of 2000 runs and 200 wickets. As an all-rounder Benaud ranks as one of the greatest.
Less is known about Benaud the commentator. When in England in 1956 he spent three weeks studying television broadcasting – he called it one of the best decisions he ever made.
During the World Series Cricket days in 1977 he started commentating on Channel 9 and continued to do so until 2013. His distinctive voice was also heard on the BBC.
He is recognised as the game’s shrewdest analyst, delivering his insights with the dry humour and incisiveness which were his hallmark. It was a pleasure listening to him because he did not state the obvious and never got over-excited as some other commentators.
In his book The Appeal of Cricket (1995) he listed a set of clichés for television commentators to avoid.
His on-air wit was dry but perceptive. Once Australian wicket-keeper Rod Marsh dropped catches in a one-day international in England in 1981. When a streaker was grabbed by a frustrated Marsh, Benaud commented, “That’s the first thing Marsh has caught today!”
The accolades Benaud received as a TV commentator equal those conferred to him as a cricketer and captain. In 1999 he was awarded a Logie for the most outstanding sports broadcaster.
Last October Benaud, then 83, was involved in a car crash and did not recover sufficiently to broadcast the Ashes series. It left a lacuna.
He is survived by wife Daphne, sons Greg and Jeffery from previous marriage and brother John.
To quote fellow commentator and teammate Bill Lawry in Mark Browning’s Richie Benaud: Cricketer, Captain, Guru, “There is no doubt that Richie Benaud has one of the most brilliant cricket brains in the world and on reflection, cricket has suffered from the fact that he has never taken an administration position in world cricket, apart from the fact that he had a part to play in the success of World Series Cricket, a dramatic period in the history of Australian cricket, a period which changed world cricket forever and fortunately, lifted the game into the modern era, both for players and spectators.”
“Marvelloush effort that”, Richie! RIP.