Vale’ Richie: Memories and Imagination

I always think of Richie Benaud as cricket’s first modern man.  His Test debut was in 1952 in a team with the residue Australia of Bradman’s 1948 Invincibles – Hasset as captain, Harvey, Miller and Lindwall.  Conservative solid men of the generation that lived the war as active participants.  Benaud retired at the end of the 1964 South African tour when Beatle haircuts had started to replace Brylcreem.

His grounding was traditional, but once he became captain his attacking attitude changed the face of an atrophying sport.  Worrell and Benaud had made cricket sexy (though you couldn’t say that word in 1961) with a 2-1 series that also included the first tie in Brisbane and the enthralling Mackay/Kline last wicket draw in Adelaide.

As a kid growing up in Adelaide, test cricket was something breathed in through the pores from radio, newspapers, the schoolyard and dinner table.  I could go to Shield matches to watch my heroes, but Tests were too crowded and expensive until I was older.

I remember being disappointed when I first saw Richie bowl in a Shield game.  In my mind he was Superman, but the perennially flat Adelaide wicket permitted only Clark Kent.  No matter; he had the unbuttoned shirt and masculine handsomeness that a spotty kid could only dream of.  My local heroes like Favell and Dansie came from unromantic locations like Kensington or Prospect.  Richie came from Hollywood.

I devoured the English boys own adventures of Biggles books; Eagle comics and the 3 month old Cricketer and Playfair cricket magazines that sporadically appeared on Horrie Graham’s bulging newsstand whenever a boatload arrived.  Cricket was imagination and possibility in the days before wall to wall TV.  Imagination that is always superior to the mundanity of real life.

Devouring cricket books and history, the story that captivated me was the Old Trafford 4th Test of the 1961 tour.  Series tied 1-1 with Neil Harvey the winning captain at Lords as Benaud was out with a shoulder problem (never good for a leggie), then England winning the 3rd Test when he returned.

Ever the strategist and motivator, Benaud used the resulting critical press to his advantage.  As Gideon Haigh wrote in The Summer Game, “On the team notice board at Manchester he [Benaud] pinned one of the more damning Australian newspaper reports of Trueman’s triumph, one alleging that [Richie] Benaud’s team was in disarray. It was a favourite Benaud ploy and never failed to elicit a response.”

In its first innings at Old Trafford Australia could make only 190 on a seamer’s wicket under gloomy skies.  England painstakingly accumulated 367 for a big first innings lead, and while Bill Lawry made a second innings century we only led by 157 when the last pair of the ageing Alan Davidson and the tyro Garth McKenzie came together early on the last day.

Cue the boys own story.  Davidson hit the dangerous English off-spinner David Allen out of the attack on a now turning wicket and the pair put on 98 in 102 minutes.  England need 256 to win with 2 sessions to play.

The aristocratic Ted Dexter flays the Australian quicks for a rapid 76 and England are 1-150 with nearly 2 hours still to play.  The night before Benaud had seen the the quick bowler’s footmarks outside leg stump, and had decided that it would be worth the then unconventional strategy of bowling around the wicket into the rough.

A short one to Dexter is pulled for 4, but the next one in the same spot is the skidding top spinner that Dexter cuts it into the gloves of a gleeful Wally Grout who later wrote that he “clung to it as if it were gold bullion”.  Ever the desperate, Wally had punted heavily on Australia to win the test with the English bookies.

Two balls later Benaud bowls the sweeping English captain Peter May around his legs with what was called the “ball of the century” until another Australian leggie supplanted it in 1993.  England are suddenly 3-150 and panicking.  The defiant Brian Close decides to try to emulate Davidson and hit the dangerous spinner out of the attack, but after one 6, top-edges another attempt to square leg. The English hierarchy banished the working class Yorkshireman for his aggression.

Simpson’s acute reflexes provide 2 fine catches off Benaud, and then 2 wickets of his own from part-time leggies (one caught by Benaud) to complete the rout.  Australia have taken 9-50 to bowl England out for 200; win by 55 runs and retain the Ashes.

Such things as dreams are made of – for cricketers and young boys alike.

I always think of Benaud as the progenitor of the attacking Australian attitude.  Ian Chappell came into the Australian team 6 months after Richie retired, bringing the same defiance, flair and unbuttoned shirt.  Both Errol Flynn – but in flannels – not tights.  Similar captains who led by example with few words but great tactical sense.  Benaud the leggie who was a handy bat.  Chappell the batsman who was a handy leggie.

As a leggie Benaud pioneered all the variations that Warne later perfected.  The flipper out of the front of the hand that skidded on for lbw’s; the bowling wide of the crease and round the wicket to create different angles.  Before Benaud, leggies like Mailey and Grimmet bowled with slow loop and waited batsmen out through their own indiscretions.  Benaud was graceful and aesthetic; Warne purposeful and ruthless.

After he finished his playing career Benaud went to England for education and career.  Warne went for skirt and celebrity.

The ever astute Richie joined the BBC because he knew that the future of sport lay in television.  Until Whitlam and Packer in the 70’s Australia was stifled by the government, ACB and ABC conservatism of Menzies, Bradman and Talbot Duckmanton (a name once heard never forgotten).

As a teenager I remember the 1968 and 1972 Ashes tours – going to bed with the brick of my trannie (non-sexual) tied to my ear.  Then waking to find out the stumps scores after sleep had winkled me out around tea time at Headingly or Trent Bridge.  Home from school for the half hour BBC highlights package (hosted by Richie in black and white) at 6pm with the next day’s play now only a few hours away.  The jaunty refrain of ‘Soul Limbo’ heralding Richie’s arrival in an always grey jacket, before RGB displayed his beige true colours.

Later when morning TV arrived we got those highlights first thing in the morning, and I always loved Richie’s sense of theatre and drama.  The power of what was hinted at rather than said.  The veil before the full boudoir revelations.  He knew many viewers would not know the final score or all the day’s events.  His teasing intro would hint that it had been a “splendid” or “interesting” or “dramatic” day’s play. What made it so we could see for ourselves over the next 3O minutes.

He treated his audience like he treated his players.  He talked up to us as adults and equals, not down to us as children.

We shan’t see his likes again.

Comments

  1. E.regnans says

    Thanks PB.
    You’ve got me smiling here.

    I always felt that tIme passed differently when R Benaud was on commentary shift.
    It was time to pay attention. To stop running to the fridge for cold lemon cordial.
    To listen.
    To watch, yes.
    But to listen.
    Your observation of his talking up to us rings true for me.
    Something in common with the best teachers and the best communicators.
    Well played PB.

  2. Dave Brown says

    Thanks Peter, great work. I am of sufficient youth that I cannot remember a time before World Series Cricket and Richie being THE television cricket commentator. My favourite memories are when it was his job to talk about the prize in the classic catches competition or similar how he could humorously convey his disdain for the task without actually saying anything inappropriate.

    Also, that he was on the mic when Warne bowled the Gatting ball must have been special to him – a great leg spinner witnessing the arrival of the next great leg spinner, live on camera. It is a shame that Warne didn’t inherit more than leg spin variations from Benaud.

  3. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    Ripper tribute PB

    Could that be the first Nodder mention in these pages ?

  4. Really enjoyed reading this piece Peter. I like your comment too on cricket being all imagination and possibility in the days before wall to wall TV…well, for contemporary kids, the hand held gadget, used to fill even the shortest of vacant moments.
    In my mind RB represents the sound and essence of an australian summer.

  5. Luke Reynolds says

    Fantastic Peter. Your opening line says it all. His exploits as a cricketer alone deserve the recognition he has received. His commentary career is just as signifigant, if not more so. A giant of the game in the post WW2 era. Thanks for sharing your childhood memories of the great man.

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