Richie Benaud was a towering figure in cricket, first as a player and captain, later as a pioneering TV commentator. After his death, the 2016 Wisden Almanack published this appraisal by Australia’s leading cricket writer and historian.
It turns out that the last occasion on which the cricket public heard Richie Benaud was the 30-second tribute he delivered in honour of the late Phillip Hughes, played at Adelaide Oval before the first Test between Australia and India in December 2014. Benaud summed Hughes up in a few, well-chosen words, with a paternally warm concluding sentiment: “Rest in peace, son.” This somehow reflected his relationship with cricket. When you heard it from Benaud, it felt official, credible, true – even in the ghastliest circumstances.
He had been there and he had seen it, but the sun would rise on cricket tomorrow, and the game would go on. Had a politician been able to achieve such trustworthiness, there would have been no need for elections, or even opinion polls. Benaud’s was the blue-chip stock in every portfolio, the household brand in every home. He was being marketed before he was even aware of it. He was born Richard, his father’s middle name, but this was too formal for down-dressing Australia, where Jack was as good as his master partly because he preferred it to John. There was a threat he might be “Dick”, until mother Rene subtly imposed her will by a quiet campaign for something a little less curt.
So Richie he became. One of the very few organs to lean towards formal address was this one, Harry Gee’s Cricketer of the Year profile in the 1962 edition beginning: “If one player, more than any other, has deserved well of cricket for lifting the game out of the doldrums, that man is Richard Benaud.” And Rene was right: he was never a Dick. Did he market himself? Benaud was too intelligent a man not to understand the impression he made, and its usefulness. After all, he was a professional presenter: meeting audiences was his business. But he could not have succeeded had Richieness simply been a guise he adopted when the cameras rolled.
No, like a stick of rock, he was Richie through and through, which fascinated those he met, such as Michael Clarke at an awards evening in 2005: “I remember talking to Richie on stage and marvelling at the fact that he sounded in the flesh exactly as he sounded on television. I have no idea why I was so surprised. Maybe it was the fact that he had been parodied so often, but somehow I had it in my head that the television voice was just that, and he would probably be different face to face.”
When Benaud died, on April 10, 2015, there were a great many such tributes. No fewer than four books have followed, anthologising extracted writings about and by him. Not bad for someone who had played his last cricket more than half a century earlier; not bad for someone whom most knew only as a disembodied voice, economical in expression, cool in tone; so not bad that such an astonishing consistency of appeal cries out for explanation. Benaud’s media career must be described in terms of two related broadcasting revolutions in which he was intimately involved: the rise of the ex-player expert; and the precipitous rise in the commercial value of television rights.
Both lay well in the future when Benaud was playing, even if in hindsight he seems always to have been a media performer in the making – an enterprising all-rounder who became an imaginative captain and a gifted communicator, a colourful figure in an austere period. It was thought extremely unusual when 26-year-old Benaud organised with the BBC’s head of light entertainment, Tom Sloan, to spend three weeks after the 1956 Ashes tour watching the corporation at work in a medium – television – that was shortly to arrive in Australia.
As he often reflected, Benaud shadowed the racing commentator Peter O’Sullevan at work at Newbury; he watched the Wimbledon final, called by Dan Maskell; he followed the Open golf, with Henry Longhurst. Each was a master of the “pyramid” technique espoused by Seymour de Lotbiniere, the BBC’s pioneer of outside broadcasts: start with the core facts of the score, then broaden to discussion of weather, venue and other material. The cardinal principle was often condensed thus: “Don’t speak unless you can add to the picture.” Its influence on Benaud was obvious. The irony is that, at the time, this approach had only limited application to cricket. Like the other sports, it was also the preserve of professional broadcasters: television’s voices of cricket were the ebullient Brian Johnston and the mandarin EW Swanton. But here pyramidal principles were not felt so binding: as John Arlott said, de Lotbiniere had “no particular liking for the game, and little knowledge of its finer points”.
The picture in televised cricket was not yet so good that it often spoke for itself, so commentators talked quite a lot, sometimes irritatingly so. On the occasion of Benaud’s last Test in England, at The Oval in 1961, Johnston and his Australian summariser Jack Fingleton caused considerable annoyance by whiling away the closing stages of a draw with rambling stories unrelated to the play, and chatting with statistician Roy Webber about his glamorous wife.
In the second half of his playing career, meanwhile, Benaud dabbled in a variety of media, but not television. On Sydney’s tabloid Sun he learned the basic principles of daily reporting as a junior police roundsman, and of opinion-making as a regular sports columnist. With the assistance of a literary agent, George Greenfield, he published three cricket books; Greenfield also arranged his first media engagements in England, with the News of the World and BBC radio in 1960. He appeared on television in 1963, initially only as a summariser – the first of 84 consecutive summers on either side of the globe.
For Benaud had retired from cricket at precisely the right time. Instrumental to his rise was Bryan Cowgill, a no-nonsense northerner who had just become the BBC’s head of sport. Forever associated with Grandstand and Match of the Day, Cowgill argued that the era of the genial waffler was done. For one thing, television pictures were improving: the coming of colour and the 625-line screen finally made it sensible to apply to cricket the principle of the picture’s predominance.
For another, the public wanted to hear from former players, preferably those with a bit of stardust. As Benaud, Jim Laker, Ted Dexter and Denis Compton took up their television microphones in the 1960s, so Swanton and Johnston moved to radio, Johnston with a tart comment or two in It Never Rains about the new ways not being his “cup of tea”. “Cricket includes so many other things besides what goes on in the middle,” he complained. “It is a game full of character and fun and there is always laughter not far away.
“But not if you have a producer shouting down your ear: ‘Steady – no jokes – stick to the cricket!’” Fidelity to what goes on in the middle had other implications. Television was a compelling medium, immediate and potentially intimate. But its limits tended to be the edge of the screen. It was far less interested in issues requiring deep analysis, as Benaud himself was to find when he followed Australia’s 1964/65 tour of the West Indies for The Sun, also commentating for local radio and television.
It was expected to be an exciting trip, as the first rematch of the contestants for the 1960/61 Frank Worrell Trophy; it was also bound to be controversial, featuring as it did Charlie Griffith, the fastest bowler in the world, with the most-discussed action. Benaud was typically well prepared, having undertaken training in photography from Harry Martin, of the Sydney Morning Herald, the Sun’s broadsheet sister, and brought a Minolta SR7 with a Tamron lens and a hundred rolls of film. And, after due consideration of the photographic evidence he collected during the first Test at Sabina Park, Benaud labelled Griffith a thrower in the Sun and the Jamaica Gleaner.
In doing so, he courted considerable unpopularity: “I was to find out that not only was the press not keen to publish the photos but that radio and television, which I was serving, were very keen that nothing of a disquieting note should be mentioned on either medium, and I was effectively gagged the following day at Sabina Park.” In a radio talk on the BBC, he scolded administrators for their inaction.
“I believed that Griffith threw in this game and I was prepared to say so. The alternative was to burn the photographs and shut up about it, but the time for wishy-washy diplomacy in this matter is long past.” But when the BBC covered the visit of West Indies to England in 1966, Benaud and his commentary-box colleagues said nothing about Griffith’s action, even though it was extensively debated in print. So emerged a characteristic of televised cricket, a kind of tacit restraint: while it might dwell on moments of telegenic conflict, it has tended, at least in England and Australia, to shrink from controversy towards… well, wishy-washy diplomacy.
As Jack Williams notes in Cricket and Broadcasting: “Televised cricket has not followed the example of televised football and rugby in replaying in detail foul play and making this an important aspect of recorded highlights… Radio and TV have not gone out of their way to uncover instances of poor sportsmanship.” Benaud fulfilled all the early expectations of Cowgill and his BBC producers Nick Hunter and David Kenning.
No commentator was more respectful of the nostrum about speaking only when necessary, on which he developed his own variations: “If you can add to the pictures, do so”; “No one ever complained about silence”; “Silence can be your greatest weapon.” Benaud liked the last so much that he believed in it not only for broadcasting but for “my general organisation, working in the office and in business”.
Silence didn’t express only the superfluity of comment. After that early brush with trenchancy in the Griffith affair, Benaud seemed to agree that television was not a place for debate or contention. In Richie: The Man Behind The Legend, the golf commentator Jack Newton remembers Benaud counselling him that, in the event of an on-air colleague airing a debatable sentiment, the best response was none: “If it happens you don’t agree, don’t say anything.” Newton followed the commandment to the letter, “essentially doing what I was taught by Richie”.
Benaud was also ever wary of the commentary of the first person, where it involved mention of his own career or era. Once, Doug Walters recalls in Richie, he attempted to draw his colleague on the subject of the turning pitch with a cheerful jest: “Gee, Richie, I bet you would love to be bowling on this sort of wicket.” He got no answer. He repeated himself. He got no answer again. At last came the ad break and a gentle reprimand: “I don’t answer hypothetical questions.” Why such self-denying ordinances? Why not a bit of disputation or contradiction?
Why not a telling anecdote from personal experience? Might they not have “added to the picture”? Not, thought Benaud, if they were a distraction. From outright criticism of players, especially that which might involve in-my-day comparison, he recoiled. And the breadth of his appeal while observing such tenets of commentary suggest an acute understanding of the preferences of his audience. So did the boldest step of Benaud’s broadcasting career: his involvement in Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket, to whose success he was among the most fundamental ingredients. Cricket was a primly shockable game in 1977.
Benaud imparted a patina of respectability to WSC. If it was a circus, at least it had an undeniably competent ringmaster. Television coverage of cricket in Australia had traditionally lagged behind England, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation a pale shadow of the BBC. WSC changed all that: Australian coverage became the standard, in technical proficiency and narrative verve, and viewers embraced it – more of them, indeed, than before.
At the same time, while Nine’s modus operandi is often interpreted as a profound break with the past, with its lavish array of cameras and compelling use of replays, Benaud was never other than himself. All the novelty was presented with the moderating influence of a man who believed commentators should behave as a guest in the viewer’s home. His less-is-more habits withstood even Packer’s injunctions. In Richie, Benaud’s old confrere Bill Lawry recalls their boss’s telephoned complaints during an early WSC fixture: “He informed us in very clear terms that this was not the BBC, most of the people watching didn’t have a clue about cricket, and we were supposed to be telling them what was going on. Richie wasn’t going to change or in any way dilute the commentary lessons he lived by: you only spoke if you could add to the pictures. So the next over was again virtually word-free. After that, I thought keeping Kerry onside was a bit more important, so I started rattling on. The pattern sort of stuck.”
Indeed it did. If such an audit were possible, a study of Benaud commentaries down the years would reveal a word ratio growing in favour of the garrulous colleagues with whom he shared a microphone.
In fact, Benaud’s natural vein made him the perfect commentator for the new order. Under the Nine regime, commentators had less time: commercial breaks deprived them of 25 seconds every over, and the previous convention of the 40-minute stint was shortened to half an hour. The subtly smaller canvas played to Benaud’s strengths. Nine also gradually relieved commentators of mundanities such as repeating the score or reciting statistics by presenting these on-screen.
Benaud could confine his scrupulously rationed remarks to what mattered, which probably no commentator has done so well. The great change that WSC presaged, of course, was economic. It hastened the end of a world in which cricket was covered by national broadcasters as a kind of public trust. It ushered in a present day when the game is funded by the sale of the rights to televise it. In some ways, that involved a continuation of television’s tendency to exclude matters outside the screen, which was now about commerce. The modern commentator became not simply a critic, but a promoter too.
With his natural moderation and understatement, Benaud balanced these roles as effectively as anyone in history. You bought his wares without even realising they were for sale; as with the best salesmen, the transaction left you feeling enriched. Because he always looked for the best in cricket, he entitled one to optimism. Because he never mentioned his own career, he remained startlingly contemporary. His presence was a stamp of quality. When cricket at last left the BBC, Benaud’s ongoing presence assuaged all concerns, even those of the former corporation pillar Swanton.
“I don’t despair of Channel 4 at all,” he said. “After all, they’ve got Richie Benaud, the great arbiter.”
There was a degree of artificiality about this great arbitration. From the 1980s on, cricket seemed to lurch from one crisis to the next: rebel tours, match-fixing, illegal actions, ball-tampering, aggression that trembled on the brink of cheating, commercial chicanery that skirted the bounds of legality, rock-bottom standards of governance. Yet none of this intruded on a Benaud commentary stint, the super-smooth succinctness of “super shot” and “marvellous” interrupted only every so often by an oracular comment or an inscrutable silence that might, or might not, convey displeasure.
Indeed, it may have enhanced his appeal: while Benaud was at the microphone, externalities were always suspended, and progress was generally benign. It’s tempting when a great figure is lost to opine about the qualities the next generation would do well to emulate. Yet while Benaud was extraordinarily adept at accommodating change, he was sui generis. Cricket’s biggest audiences are now young, Indian, well informed and social-media savvy, brought up on short-form cricket and shouty current-affairs television. What to them is the commentator dispensing terse advice between silences from an Olympian remove? The televised cricket of the future will be geared to their values, their expectations.
Benaud, one suspects, would not have been uncomfortable with that. In Richie, Nine’s head of sport Steve Crawley recalls the circumstances of his last on-air words, and of presenting Benaud with a script that ended “God bless you, son.” Benaud amended it to “rest in peace” with a polite but firm: “I don’t do God”. Good thing too.