Cricket loses elder statesman
Not surprisingly, the cricket world has been grieving since Richie Benaud died last week, aged 84.
After Don Bradman’s death in 2001, Benaud was cricket’s elder statesman. He was, again after Bradman, the most influential figure in Australian cricket history.
Considering his stature – a great all-rounder, a test captain who never lost a series, and an international broadcaster since 1960 – I was disappointed he did not speak out more strongly against unsavoury aspects of the game, such as sledging and throwing.
So I resolved to get his opinions on those issues during an interview in 2003, when he was in Wellington in support of the Lifeflight trust.
But Benaud, a canny and experienced journalist, wouldn’t be led into saying something he didn’t want, and our discussion was at times slightly testy.
By then Benaud was reminding me of one of one of those puppets from the television show Thunderbirds. Once a vital, virile cricketer, he looked distinctly aged on screen, if immaculately attired and coiffured.
However, in person he was still quick-witted and lively.
I asked him about one of the scourges of modern cricket – chucking.
When he was captaining Australia, Benaud’s fast bowler, Ian Meckiff, was no-balled out of test cricket for throwing. Was the situation any better now?
He shrugged, and let the question pass outside the off stump.
‘‘ Since the ICC took over deciding what is a legal delivery, I haven’t given the matter any thought,’’ he deadpanned.
‘‘ What’s the point? Umpires today can’t even no ball a bowler for throwing. They have to mention it quietly after the day’s play.’’
Yes, but were the actions of bowlers like Muttiah Muralitharan fair? ‘‘I don’t think about it.’’ A person steeped in cricket – he had to have an opinion, persisted. A glimmer of a grin.
‘‘I will admit there are occasions when I wake up in the early hours of the morning and have a quiet think to myself … ’’
That was it. As with his commentaries, he made his point with a minimum of words. What about on-field behaviour? Benaud was one of the most gregarious players of his age, shirt undone almost to his navel it seemed, rushing over to backslap a fieldsman for taking a catch.
‘‘I was more showy than players before me, but there wasn’t any hugging, high fives or licking people’s ears.
‘‘Even so, former players like Fingleton and O’Reilly were a bit scornful of my antics.’’
IWhat about modern behaviour? ‘‘ Some of it is obviously unsavoury. Physical contact between opposing players should be stamped on hard.
‘‘But generally players’ actions reflect the society they live in.
‘‘ I do think players are less modest these days, but a lot of things are done for the benefit of television.
‘‘For instance, when a batsman nears 50 or 100, his team-mates will converge on the balcony so when he reaches the milestone and the television cameras pan on them, they’ll be there and not be labelled bad team members.’’
Benaud did tremendous things during his career.
In 1960, his adventurous captaincy, and that of his West Indies opponent, Frank Worrell, led to the greatest test series ever, including the tied test, and the rejuvenation of cricket.
In 1977 he sided strongly with Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket against the establishment, led by Bradman.
He felt international cricketers had been treated like servants for too long.
His stance briefly cost him his friendship with Bradman and senior cricket figures, but he was proved right.
And in 1981 he was outstanding when summing up after the infamous underarm incident. ‘‘One of the worst things I’ve ever seen done on a cricket field,’’ he said, slamming Australian captain Greg Chappell.
Generally he was very restrained. He did gently chide commentary new boy Mark Taylor for describing a batsman’s dismissal as a tragedy.
‘‘Mark,’’ he told Taylor later, ‘‘a tragedy is the Titanic, not a batsman getting out.’’ He had a dry sense of humour. ‘‘And Glenn McGrath dismissed for two, just 98 runs short of his century,’’ he said when the perennial Australian No 11 headed back to the pavilion.
As the first test cricketer to take 200 wickets and score 200 runs, and as the world’s most respected cricket broadcaster for more than 60 years, Benaud left an indelible impression – and he did it saying what he wanted and not a word more.
Richie Benaud signs off at The Oval in London.