Cricket’s model professional to declare at last
In the Australian summer of 1982 Richie Benaud was approached by “a fair-haired angelic little lad of about 12″.
“Did you ever play cricket for Australia, Mr Benaud?” the cherub asked.
Benaud, a dashing all-rounder and one of Australia’s great captains, recalled he had not known whether to laugh or cry. “I did neither but merely said yes,” he replied.
A generation later, Benaud’s playing days have slipped further into obscurity. When he retires from television commentary in a year’s time, it will have been 46 years since he last stepped on to the field in a test match.
Benaud’s French ancestry and bronzed good looks made him an instantly attractive figure on the world’s playing fields during the monochromatic 1950s. He was a stylish, if erratic batsman, and acrobatic gully fielder.
To add to his aura he was also a leg-spinner, the most exotic of the bowling arts, with a wonderfully fluid action that was by itself almost worth the entry price. As a captain he was openly enthusiastic in an undemonstrative era.
Yet Benaud was always more roundhead than cavalier, possessed of a relentless work ethic which was the key to his deceptively seamless transition from test cricketer to media doyen.
The foundation to his success in both arenas came in 1956 when Australia lost a third successive series to England.
Benaud, viewed by some pundits as one of a lost generation who could not match the giants of the past, was taught the flipper in England by expatriate Australian spinner Bruce Dooland. The delivery, which hustles late off the pitch, was later used to devastating effect by Shane Warne.
In a test series in India on the way home, Benaud took the bold decision to cut his run-up in half. The net result was a transformed bowler who in the next couple of years was to become a great all-rounder and an instantly successful captain.
At the end of the 1956 England tour Benaud also went on a three-week training course at the BBC on his own initiative. The day after his return to Australia he asked the executive editor of the Sydney Sun for a transfer from the clerical department, where he had worked for three years, to the reporting staff.
Significantly, Benaud rejected a suggestion that he work on sports. Instead he asked for the police round, under a renowned journalist called Noel Bailey.
“I worked under him for several years and it is a direct result of this training that I am now able to pick up a telephone at a cricket match anywhere in the world and, if necessary, dictate 40 paragraphs without referring to notes in order to catch an edition,” Benaud wrote.
Long, lonely hours bowling at a mark on a pitch in the nets enabled Benaud to master wrist spin. An equally dedicated approach to the craft of journalism learned on tough Sydney streets ensured immediate success as a commentator and writer when he retired from test cricket in 1964.
The result is a consummate professional who has reached a pinnacle in the media world probably surpassing his considerable achievements on the cricket field.
Benaud’s dry, clipped delivery has become endlessly admired and much parodied. He never states the obvious and is content to stay silent for minutes on end before delivering a penetrating insight. Now 78, he still learns something new from every match he watches.
Above all in an increasingly frenzied media environment, Benaud remains aware of the world beyond the boundary. As one small boy found out on a December evening at the Sydney Cricket Ground, Benaud doesn’t emote. He just gives the facts.