Friday, 10 April 2015

Richie Benaud

I never saw Richie Benaud play cricket, but contemporary accounts and those who are old enough to see him have told me that he was one of the greats. So too have some of those who played against him. He was a leg-spinner of guile, coupled with skill and great intelligence, which made him one of the greatest protagonists of the art. He was a fine fielder, as well as a batsman capable of scoring runs quickly, often when they were most needed.

He showed that against Derbyshire at Chesterfield in 1953, his first tour of England, scoring 70 in fine style after Cliff Gladwin and Les Jackson ripped through the early Australian batting. He then took two wickets as we were bowled out for just 69 and over the next ten years confirmed himself as one of the world's finest players.

Above all he was a captain nonpareil. Only Frank Worrell in the era ran him close, but Benaud barely missed a trick on the field, combining great knowledge with a willingness to take risks, if in doing so, he had a chance of winning. If he couldn't, he could close up shop with the best of them, while always getting the best out of his team mates and moulding them into a formidable side.

Yet for a generation he was best known as the voice of cricket. I am not old enough to remember him as a player, but I well recall, as a child, listening to Benaud, John Arlott and Jim Laker and hearing cricket commentary of a standard that has never been reached since.

It wasn't always what they said, it was what they didn't feel the need to say. There was an economy of words that recognised that the viewing public had an idea of what was going on and didn't need every last nuance explained to them. When they did speak, it was clear, concise and to the point. When Richie said 'That's four' as the ball left the bat, you knew it would be. When he called the delivery that dismissed the batsman a 'jaffa' you waited for the replay to see exactly what had happened. He was rarely wrong.

In my early teens, I remember batting in the nets at school and imagining Richie Benaud commentating on my shots. 'That's a super shot by the young fella' was a staple of those commentaries, even as I tried to assure myself that Richie wouldn't have picked up the edge for what it was and instead recognised it as the deftest of late cuts as I opened the bat face at the last minute. One always seeks approval when young and for me, it was Richie Benaud who recognised my latent talent - at least until Eddie Barlow came to Derbyshire and the voice in my head changed accent.

He leaves behind a host of memories as the greatest of them all. Arlott and Laker were the kings of Sundays, but Richie came out for the Gillette Cup and its successors. It was always a thrill to see Derbyshire on television with Benaud commentating, one that never really left me. His comments were sage and succinct, an object lesson for some of his current counterparts, even if he always pronounced 'Kim Barnett' with the emphasis on the last syllable, unlike the rest of us. Maybe he was right...

Now, as happens to us all, he is gone. His output had dwindled in recent years and news of his final illness was sad, yet the end still came as a shock. If one can leave this life having made a lasting contribution in some way, then it was a life worth living.

As a player, commentator and man, Richie Benaud did that.

I like to think that there's a cricket match due to start soon and a grey-haired man in a smart suit is taking up position behind a microphone to unravel the mysteries of the game and to highlight the skills of its participants.

Rest in Peace, Richie. It was always a pleasure.

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