THE BOOKS CEL­E­BRAT­ING THE VOICE OF SUM­MER

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Front Page - Peter Pierce is an au­thor and critic.

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

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