My father, a ‘double blue’ in football and cricket at Roorkee Engineering College, used to present me cricket books when I was young. In time, this grew into a formidable collection. Browsing through an obscure bookstall in Canberra recently, I picked up a rare gem, entitled Benaud in Wisden, (Copyright Wisden, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2015)— veritably, a collector’s ‘must have’ item. Edited by Rob Smyth it has a foreword by one of Australia’s last surviving greats, Alan Davidson (Benaud died in April, 2015 aged 85). As Australia have just thrashed England in the Ashes, one remembered Benaud’s contribution as one of their great allrounders. A unique compilation in two parts, the book deals both with Benaud’s prolific writing for the Wisden Almanack and commentary over 42 years and his equally laudable cricketing achievements over a shorter (by today’s standards) career, lasting from 1951 to 1965.
Richie started slowly, taking 73 wickets at 28.90 a piece and making 868 runs at 28.66 in his first 27 tests but he came spectacularly into his own as Captain of his country. In his next 23 Tests, he took 131 wickets at 22.66 with 830 runs, while maintaining his batting average at 28.62, a worthy yardstick for any all-rounder even by present day standards. Australia did not lose a series under Benaud’s leadership. Though lady luck played a part in his victorious record as it does for all winning captains (described in his own words in his second book On Reflection, as 90 per cent luck and 10 per cent skill — his first was Benaud’s Way of Cricket — Hodder & Stroughton, 1961), he developed a reputation as “a gambling and aggressive” captain who was nevertheless, tirelessly fastidious in his planning, plotting on opponents’ weaknesses, “seeing an opening and going straight for the jugular,” so that he could be “the one sipping champagne at day’s end”… Above all, he was inclusive in his decision making, bringing to cricket a “management” style of leadership.
The book has interesting vignettes, appropriately listed as the Voice of Reason, on Five cricketers of the 20th Century — Benaud chooses Don Bradman, Len Hutton, Bill O’Reilly, Frank Worrell and Garfield Sobers, the best Test Match ever — predictably the December 1961 Brisbane “tied Test”, effects of “the bumper on batsman ship.” His personal best is the England versus Australia test match at Old Trafford, 1961. I remember listening enthralled to BBC World Service as England captain Ted Dexter thrashed his way from 50 to 76 with a string of boundaries but suddenly, Benaud went round the wicket and had him caught behind by the “ever- doubting” Wally Grout! Bowling leg breaks into the fast bowler’s rough, Richie finished with five for 12 in 25 balls, to turn the match and help regain the Ashes.
Benaud’s commentating on Australia’s Channel 9 and BBC really proved to be his most abiding legacy. He had a progressive attitude to the game’s commercialisation, sponsorship by various advertising multinationals and the shortened versions of the game. He aligned very early with World series cricket in 1977, lending “a patina of respectability” (Gideon Haigh in The Wise Old King) to Kerry Packer’s venture. He fought consistently for “poorly paid” Australian cricketers, ensuring that positive changes were wrought in Australian cricket over the next two years. While John Arlott is still regarded as “the voice of cricket” over radio, Benaud indisputably became its face on TV, in both hemispheres and over generations. As Tim de Lisle writes in this gem of a book, Richie’s Morning Everyone at the start of a new Ashes series or any other game resonated with cricket aficionados. Crisp, succinct and unobtrusive, Benaud’s description of the game emphasised the adage that when great commentators speak, we listen. With Benaud, we also listened when he said nothing. Nobody describing cricket has used silence as effectively.
When one listens to some Indian commentators today, I wish they learnt from Benaud !
(Rana Banerji is ex special secretary RAW)