Long live the Legend!
By BORIA MAJUMDAR
Some call him cricket’s best known face on television. Australian captain Michael Clarke calls him the greatest. Clearly, he was the man who revolutionised cricket commentary for all times to come. But more importantly he was one of the best cricketers ever to lead Australia, and also one of the best leg spinners of all time.
Unwell for a while and suffering from skin cancer, Richie Benaud’s passing away at 84 well and truly marks the end of an era in contemporary cricket. Benaud can be visualised in his trademark white suit and white hair sitting in front of the camera with the Channel 9 logo in the background, and many of us have developed our cricketing sensibilities watching and hearing him analyse the game.
Why, only mortals like us – even the very best in the business, have learnt from Benaud. Sourav Ganguly, perhaps the best commentator in the fraternity at the moment, has a great Richie Benaud story to tell. In his early days as commentator, Sourav walked up to Benaud and asked him how Richie could be just so good all the time. Richie, never one to take the shortcut, just said one word to Sourav – practise! You can’t take your work with ease, was his advice and Sourav has followed the mantra to the fullest.
So what was so great about Benaud’s commentary? Unlike many he never needed to scream, never needed to raise his voice beyond a pitch and never sensationalised. Benaud said what he saw, and said it in a manner that conveyed the true essence of the game. It was pure cricket commentary, sophisticated and simple, soothing and analytical. He would bring the game alive while not taking anything away from the action in the middle. He reached out to his fans without trying hard to do so. He helped us understand the game while not trying to force feed what he was saying. Richie Benaud added to the makings of modern cricket, and the game owes him a debt for that.
Why only the game, modern cricketers too, owe him a debt. If Kerry Packer was able to do what he did, it was also because Benaud was his frontman. Benaud lent the Packer ‘circus’, once labelled as such by men in establishment, credibility. With Benaud there, half the work was done. He was consultant and commentator and more, he was the players’ man within the Packer core team.
How good was Richie Benaud as a cricketer? Was he seriously one of the best all rounders of his generation? Yes, he was. Rather, Benaud the captain was. As captain of Australia not only did Benaud never lose a series, he also managed to raise his game to enviable heights. Picking up wickets in abundance and scoring valuable runs middle and lower down the order, Benaud added a different character to the game while never being over the top.
That incredible tied-test against Frank Worrell’s West Indies at the Gabba in 1960-1961 defined Benaud as captain. He wanted to win and nothing else would suffice. He was ruthless when it came to winning, and a draw was never going to be enough for him even if that meant a loss was a possibility. It was a different day and age, and Benaud defined his time as much as it shaped Benaud’s captaincy. The 1960 series revived Test cricket and brought back the audience to cricket’s pinnacle format, and Benaud and Worrell deserve a lot of credit for it. Though the West Indies lost this series 1-3 on Australian soil, the kind of cricket played right through meant it will forever rank as one of the best series ever played. Benaud, at every possible opportunity, pushed the bar and till he sustained an injury in 1961 that limited him as a player, he was at the very top of his trade as skipper and player.
So how will we remember Richie Benaud? Will he be immortalised as the most revered Australian cricketer since Bradman as Wally Edwards, the boss of Cricket Australia has suggested, or is there more to him and his legacy? Was he the best mesh of cricketer, visionary, commentator, scholar and writer? More aptly, can there be another Richie Benaud?
The answer is a blunt no. To be able to write the kind of books he did, ‘Way of Cricket’ and ‘A Tale of Two Tests’, speak out against the establishment on the state of the game’s finances in the 1960s, take up cudgels for the sport in collaboration with Packer and then making the game what it is now as the face of Channel 9, Benaud was an institution in himself.
There are a rare few about whom it can be said that the sport they have played owes them a debt. Benaud was one such. Perhaps the best way to sum up his contribution to cricket is to state that cricket will forever be proud of Richie Benaud. One of cricket’s greatest ambassadors is no more. Long live the legend!
QUOTE: Benaud said what he saw, and said it in a manner that conveyed the true essence of the game. It was pure cricket commentary, sophisticated and simple, soothing and analytical
Authentic Benaud book yet to be written
Arguably one of the most perceptive cricket writers, Gideon Haigh chats to BORIA MAJUMDAR on Richie Benaud, the author.
Boria Majumdar: Which is your favourite Benaud book and why?
Gideon Haigh: I’d say ‘The Tale of Two Tests’. In it he talks most perceptively about the tied Test of 1960 and the Old Trafford Test of 1961. What is striking about the book is that it is/was written by a current player and was written within months/years of the matches being played. The voice is as authentic as it can possibly get with Richie having played in both Test matches. I rate it as one of the best books written by a cricketer.
BM: How would you sum up Richie the author?
GH: I think towards his later years some of his autobiographical writings do not amount to much. He was such a reticent man it must have been difficult for him to talk about himself in a really candid manner. In that sense, the really authentic Benaud book is yet to be written. The biography by Johnny Moyes isn’t very good and a real authentic biography, believe it or not, has not been written yet.
BM: Will you take a crack at it?
GH: (Chuckles). A few people have asked me this question over the last couple of days, but I must say it will be difficult. There were many associated with him who wouldn’t like the story to be told exactly as it happened. So a candid, authentic story is going to be almost impossible to write. Having said that in terms of impact – as a player, commentator, writer, administrator, I rate Richie Benaud as one of the five most influential personalities of the 20th century. It is a pity people do not often see his overall impact on the game.