THE BOOKS CELEBRATING THE VOICE OF SUMMER
Stoke Hill Press and Hachette Australia have trumped each other this Christmas. Their books on Australian Test cricket captain, author and commentator Richie Benaud, who died in April, look unnervingly similar. On the front cover of each is the old Richie, for more than 40 years the voice of summer in Britain and in Australia, working as a print journalist but especially on television. On the back are photographs of Richie the young cricketer.
Inside each book his progress from the latter to the former, triumphing in each career, is traced. In Richie: The Man Behind the Legend this is done principally through 90 testimonials, with a foreword by younger brother John (briefly a Test cricketer and long-term Sydney newspaper editor) and short concluding remarks by Richie’s sons Gregory and Jeffrey, making their only appearances. Remembering Richie moves along mainly through Benaud’s own words, extracted from the more than a dozen books he wrote about cricket, published across nearly 50 years.
In each case, if more so in the latter, Benaud remains in control of his legacy, just as — with meticulous detail — he organised every hour of his working and socialising days. Nor do any of the contributors tarnish ‘‘the legend’’, beyond a few affectionate jokes, as they add shards to the mosaic of a man whom a number regard as one of the most influential figures in the history of Australian cricket, alongside Don Bradman.
Neither book, then, is a biography. As such, if unwittingly, each indicates the need for one. Long ago, in 1962, AG Moyes wrote Benaud before his subject’s career had finished. Since then there has only been Mark Browning’s Richie Benaud: Captain, Cricketer, Guru (1996). That descriptive list has elsewhere been extended to ‘‘pope’’ (Jim Maxwell) and ‘‘the Godfather’’ (Shane Warne).
Benaud’s long career, which lasted more than 60 years from his undistinguished Test debut against the West Indies in 1951-52 to his retirement as a commentator, is extensively and repetitively chronicled in the two books. Yet each gives the sense of an enigmatic, private man, of a more ambiguous figure than ‘‘legend’’ covers.
Consider these conundrums, of varying importance. A famously laconic television performer, Benaud wrote and published all his adult life, from his early years as a police roundsman with the Sydney Sun to his last book, Over But Not Out (2010). But what did he read? Neither book has anything to say about that.
Memorably pictured embracing West Indies captain Frank Worrell at the end of the great 1960-61 series, it is less well known that the two fell out in 1965 when Benaud reported and backed with his own photographs suspicions that the West Indies fast bowler Charlie Griffith was a chucker.
Although he would give a eulogy for Bradman, with the downbeat ending ‘‘he was a sportsman’’ (what more?), a long rift opened between them because of Benaud’s pivotal role in Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket revolution of 1977. Benaud spoke of the breakaway from the cricket establishment as ‘‘easily the biggest challenge I’ve found in my business life. It is a delightful, delicious, bitter challenge.’’
For a man identified with the rejuvenation of cricket in the 1960s, Benaud was captain during the dreary Ashes series of 1962-63. A celebrated attacking cricketer, he was yet the most economical of all leg-spin bowlers. That is unlikely to be missed, because Benaud’s books are full of statistics, especially his own. His acquaintances and colleagues were legion and often notable in their own spheres. But how many of them were friends, let alone intimates?
Benaud’s public appearance (the beige suits were Packer’s idea) was managed to a high degree. In this he was abetted by his second wife, Daphne, whom he met in England in 1965, when she was working for the cricket writer EW Swanton. They married in 1967 and she was not only his wife but business partner, travelling the world with Benaud and enjoying residence in their flat in Belgravia, another in Beaulieu-surMer in Provence and their Australian residence by Sydney’s Coogee Beach. One starstruck contributor remarks on her ‘‘ethereal loveliness’’.
To mention Daphne Benaud brings us to the significant absence in these books about her husband. This is Benaud’s first wife, Marcia Lavender, whom he married in 1953 when they were in their early 20s. It had been a teenage romance, begun when they worked together in a chartered accountant’s office. Their elder son, Gregory, was born in 1955, a week before his father headed off for a tour of the West Indies; the second son, Jeffrey, in 1957. In 1967 Marcia Benaud divorced her husband for desertion. By then Benaud had retired from cricket and was working half the year abroad.
After disputes over maintenance payments in the 70s, she never saw him again, except on TV. In October this year, she launched an action with Gregory to obtain more from Benaud’s will, thence from Daphne whom Marcia — speaking from her public housing cottage outside Gosford — evidently calls ‘‘Coogee’’. In each book the first marriage is written out of the record and its issue — the two sons — have only their cautious words of praise for their father at the end of Richie: The Man Behind the Legend. Neither they, nor their mother, make the index of Remembering Richie.
Instead we have the exemplary story of a man of strange and modest origins who by force of will became world renowned. Benaud’s great grandfather was a sea captain from Bordeaux who settled in NSW in 1840. His grandfather was a watchmaker and his father — and the signal influence on Benaud’s life — was Lou Benaud, a schoolteacher and very capable Sydney firstgrade bowler. After country stints, the family settled in Parramatta. Before long they were playing together for the Cumberland club (a connection Richie always maintained).
Another mainstay was mother Rene, a dairy farmer’s daughter who lived to 104. Cannily, Benaud was preparing his future. He moved from the accountant’s office to journalism; from grade to first-class cricket. In the latter sphere he enjoyed the long indulgence of selectors who forgave him failures, particularly as a bowler. Batting was the longer suit in the first half of his career. Finally he came into his own on the South African tour of 1957-58. Put statistically, it took Benaud 24 Tests to get his first 50 wickets; 25 for his next 150.
Legend-making must be marked by pivotal incidents. Both books relate how, despite a fractured skull in 1949, Benaud never abandoned the hook shot. On the 1953 tour of England, Australia’s then most famous leg-spinner (and sports journalist), Bill O’Reilly, took Benaud aside and gave him six apparently simple precepts, cautioning that four years of practice would be required to implement them. Four decades later Benaud imparted similar advice to Shane Warne.
At Old Trafford in 1961, with Benaud back as captain and partly recovered from a damaged shoulder, England were 1-150 needing just over 100 runs to win. The night before (the story is told so often, it must be true) Benaud asked former Test star Ray Lindwall whether he should risk bowling round the wicket into the rough outside the right-handers’ pads. Yes, said Lindwall, but be accurate or you’ll be slaughtered. Benaud 6-70. England all out 201.
Amid so many Benaud recollections, let me smuggle in some of my own. The English team of 1958-59, supposed to be ‘‘the finest to leave these shores’’ (as the formula has it), lost the first Test in Brisbane. As we listened to the wireless round the kitchen table, my grandmother remarked, ‘‘This will give the boys some heart.’’ Advance a year. Benaud’s team is touring India and Pakistan. Four of them were repatriated with hepatitis. My memory is of the only Test loss, at Kanpur — a crackling report down a shaky line.
One year more and Australia looked bound to lose the first Test to West Indies. At 6-92 I headed for the barber’s, but there was no escape from the radio. Two hours later, after Benaud and Alan Davidson almost achieved victory, the Test was tied.
To all those long-ago moments, Benaud was central. Then he moved to the commentary box, vowing — in one of his inflexible decisions of principle — that he would no longer venture on to the ground. That was for the players. Nor, as Gideon Haigh has written, did Benaud the commentator refer to his own accomplishments, ‘‘a shrewd expedient which had the effect of making him seem almost ageless’’.
Apart from the 63 Tests in which he played, Benaud probably watched another 500, a total unlikely to be matched. For journalist Mike Coward, he was ‘‘always self-contained and selfprotective’’, yet Benaud was also a non-swimmer who almost drowned a couple of times. His wit, invariably described as dry, did not always engage the many parodies of himself, notably by Billy Birmingham as The 12th Man.
However, Benaud was not only an infallibly even-handed commentator but a lifelong supporter of players’ rights, especially when their remuneration was poor and cricket officialdom at its most obtuse. His primary counsel, often repeated, less heeded, was that ‘‘cricket is a simple game, and everything to do with it should be kept as simple as possible’’. He was the largest figure in Australian cricket since Bradman. These two well-executed, well-illustrated books do justice to that stature. Some qualifications and ambivalence would have been welcome, but they must wait for another place.
Richie Benaud at The Oval in 2005; below with Don Bradman at the Gabba in 1960