Peter Lalor, in The Weekend Australian, 11/12 April 2015
Flags flew half-mast on the Sydney Harbour Bridge and at cricket grounds around the world, pilgrims attended his beckoning SCG statue, and in all corners of the globe players and fans — young and old — realised that the sound of summer had been extinguished. Everywhere the game of cricket is played, people yesterday stopped to remember Richie Benaud and contemplate what has been lost and is left by his passing. It is immense.
The former Australian captain, brilliant all-rounder and godfather of the commentary box died, aged 84, after a battle with skin cancer. Benaud had been the voice of cricket at the Nine Network since World Series Cricket days in the late 1970s.
Even though he had been absent from the commentary box for the past two seasons, it felt as if he would always be around to mark the arrival of another summer, another Test series, the rise of another star player just as he himself had once been.
He was the voice of the Australian game. The former captain made an appearance before the summer at a Nine Network function but was clearly struggling. He had recovered from a late 2013 crash that had damaged his beloved car — the jaunty Sunbeam Alpine he parked on the spot where his statue sits at the back of the Members Stand — but the effects of the cancer and its treatment were taking their toll.
Benaud at SCG–www.northerndailyleader.com.au
Close friend Bill Lawry told The Weekend Australian yesterday how disturbed he was to see how frail his friend had become. Benaud defied the illness to record a touching, brief tribute to Phillip Hughes that was played at the start of the Adelaide Test, but was not well enough to make a promised guest appearance during the Sydney match.
Benaud’s wife, Daphne, contacted friends in recent weeks to prepare them for his passing, but still it came as a shock to those who have never known cricket without him.
Born and raised in western Sydney, the grand old man of the game was remembered and revered yesterday by politicians, players, the rich, the poor, by friends and by the millions of strangers who listened to his peerless commentary.
Benaud was as loved in England as in Australia, and spent 42 English summers commentating for the BBC and Channel 4. When the latter demurred at the notion of hiring him, it caused a public outcry and protest led by the Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger.
At a break in play during the fifth day of the final Test of the 2005 Ashes, the ground announcer at the Oval informed the crowd that it was the Australian’s final commentary session. Everybody at the ground stood and applauded, with the players looking towards the box to acknowledge the moment.
Australian captain Ricky Ponting made a point of inviting the commentators into the rooms after matches to break down the barriers between them and the players, and hosted Benaud on a number of occasions — unaware that Benaud had done exactly the same 40 years earlier towards the same end.
“It’s a sad day for the cricket family and a very sad day for the Benauds. who are in all our thoughts. I have never known the game without Richie,” Ponting said from India, where the ear-splitting IPL cacophony broke for a moment to remember a master of the telling pause.
“He has been there since I was a little boy lying on my stomach in the lounge room in Mowbray watching the game and imagining what it must be like to take part.
“If you loved cricket, you loved Richie. Like every Australian cricket fan, he was the soundtrack to the game. I grew up listening to him on the television and the sound of his voice was the sound of the game, the sound of summer.”
Michael Clarke is of a generation that played cricket in the same spirit as Benaud. “We grew up with that voice,” he said. “He was a great player and a great captain. A wonderful leader of men and he continued that off the field.
“He loved winning. He helped the Australian team have the attitude where they wanted to win. He played the game the right way.”
Benaud played 63 Test matches as an all-rounder, struggling at first, but coming into his own in the late 1950s when he was made captain. He became the first player to take 200 wickets and score 2000 runs and would have been remembered as a great of the game even if he had not segued into such a celebrated career as a commentator.
Benaud took 945 wickets in 259 first-class matches and made 11,719 first-class runs, scoring 23 centuries at an average of 36.50. An astute and strategic thinker, he had trained as a journalist, working police rounds for the Sydney Sun during his cricket career, but he realised the possibilities of television before most.
In 1956, the year TV was introduced to Australia, he undertook a special course at the BBC to get used to the medium. Two decades later he acted as an adviser to Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket, understanding that the game needed to be dragged into the modern era. It lost him some respect at the time, but Benaud was sure cricket needed to change to survive.
Yesterday, James Packer remembered a man who “loomed large” in his and his father’s lives. “Dad and I enjoyed a long, long professional and personal journey with Richie Benaud,” he said. “He was not only for nearly four decades a much-loved figure in the Nine family, but also in the Packer family. We never had a cross word. Richie’s word was his bond.
“Like so many others, we treasured Richie’s quiet but steely integrity, his honesty, his modesty, his sense of humour and his towering skill. Above all, what we always knew about Richie was that he was in the vernacular simply a great bloke.”
Benaud was revered for his economy and use of the pause. He let the game speak for itself and said you must never open your mouth as a commentator unless you can add to the pictures. When Shane Warne bowled the ball of the century, it was greeted with no histrionics.
“He’s done it,” the commentator said before pausing for a few seconds. “He’s started off with the most beautiful delivery,” he added before pausing again. “Gatting has absolutely no idea what has happened to it — still doesn’t know …”
Every word was measured and delivered without a change of tone or raise of decibel.
He could be funny, too. When Glenn McGrath was dismissed for two, he noted dryly that the bowler was “just ninety-eight runs short of his century”.
Lawry played against Benaud at state level, for him in Test cricket and then commentated alongside him for many years. Speaking from his home yesterday, Lawry remembered an inclusive, loyal and gifted man who was unrivalled in his chosen field.
“Working with Richie was like having a seat belt on in the car or a parachute on in an aeroplane,” he said. “If Richie was there, you felt safe, you knew it was going to be OK.
“He was a wonderful personality but I always thought he was a shy person. He wasn’t noisy, or out there, he had a close circle of friends, but I don’t recall seeing him in the bar very often, if at all. He rarely went out to dinner, he was the ultimate professional. He was flat out working.”
Benaud was such an institution that comedian Billy Birmingham built a career on imitating him. “It’s hard to imagine there is another Australian out there as universally loved as Richie,” Birmingham said yesterday. “People just adored the man. That’s why everyone gives their mate a knowing nudge when the scoreboard ticks over to 2-22, why entire sections of the crowd don silver wigs and beige jackets at the Sydney Test each year, why reciting Richie’s commentary gems has become a national pastime.”
In the West Indies, old friend Tony Cozier reminisced about the man who led Australia against Frank Worrell’s men in the famous 1960-61 series: “His death … has thrown a pall of gloom over cricket’s global family,” Cozier wrote on Cricinfo. “West Indians of a certain vintage especially remember his role, along with Worrell, in overseeing as influential a Test series as the game has known.Those of more contemporary generations … appreciated his immaculate dress sense, marvelled at his remarkable cool even in the tensest situations and, above all, valued the absolute impartiality of his measured commentary, a rare attribute at a time of much overt jingoism.”