It might surprise you to learn that Richie Benaud filled me with rage the first time I recall him most distinctly.
I was a jingoistic, myopic, fairly typical prep school boy of the Thatcherite era, sitting in my step-dad’s car (a Jaguar XJS, no doubt. I created a not altogether pleasant but certainly psychosomatically intriguing tradition of puking in a whole series of them. The smell of car seat leather mixed with petrol still makes me nauseous), listening to a summing up of a day’s play on the radio, when his voice suddenly appeared.
I don’t remember whom we were playing. I don’t think it was an Ashes series. But the fact the fact that I was hearing an Australian absolutely lambasting the then England cricket team and English cricket in general moved me to absolute indignation. “How bloody dare he?,” I thought, while making a mental note to add this frightful antipodean (though I didn’t know that word then) to ‘The List’.
That would have been in the very early-90s, I guess, though I’d no doubt been listening to his voice on BBC cricket commentary for a while before then without really realising it. The thing is that he would have been absolutely bloody right, of course. Fair dinkum. England were utterly execrable. I came to learn that. And, in doing so, to appreciate the immensity of Richie Benaud and the honest, fair, straightforward, no-nonsense attitude to cricket – and perhaps life in general – he represented.
It’s an era of English cricket many of us reminisce upon with such nostalgia from our days watching it on BBC television from our sofas during school holidays. Of sparse, cold-looking crowds of overweight men sitting rows away from one another, clutching thermos flasks and sandwiches in tupperware boxes on grey mornings at Headingley or such like. Of English swing bowlers trudging in, bowling gentle line-and-length, using the conditions to move it a way a little from the watchful opening batsman. No expectation of any boundaries nor wickets. No stump mics tuning into the chuntering of a moron behind the stumps nor of any helmeted, youthful chirper in sun glasses standing close in at short-leg. The occasional polite appeal for an lbw, but no protestation from the scruffy-looking, slightly tubby opening bowler when the decision went in favour of the batsman.
Over-upon-over of silence from the commentary box. Until, finally, that pleasant silence would be broken with something worth saying. And the person saying it would invariably be Richie Benaud.
There was something comforting in the sense that cricket wasn’t spectacular then. That, unless we were watching Sir Vivian Richards in his autumn years or possibly Botham or Gower in theirs, these were ordinary men all playing a considered, easy-paced game we were all allowed to feel we could understand well and appreciate on our own terms. A Michael Vaughan or Botham or even an Atherton might give the distinct impression that you don’t have any right to an opinion or a view on the game unless you’ve played it at the highest level for a sustained period. Richie Benaud – despite never losing a Test series as Australian captain and leading the likes of ‘Invincibles’ Neil Harvey and Ray Lindwall – wouldn’t make you feel that way for a second.
Benaud was just so wonderfully understated, and perfectly suited to the cricket of that time. And though Boycott and the unassuming (and quite frankly pretty dull) Tony Lewis created a contrasting double-act reminiscent of the Bobby ‘The Brain’ Heenan/Gorilla Monsoon WWF commentary team, with Boycs spouting hilariously incendiary stuff and the latter trying to bat him down, it was Richie that stood head and shoulders above all others.
I remember seeing Richie Benaud for the first time – a face and body to put to the voice – and being astounded that a man of seemingly such advanced years and small stature could hold such sway. He did so with the subtle power of his wit, quickness of mind and, ultimately, measured wisdom – not with tales of his own feats on the cricket field or by moaning on about a captain’s field placings, even though his pedigree could offer him such license.
How, then, would Richie Benaud adapt to the brash, new era of broadcasting? Of commercial TV and the UK terrestrial switch to Channel 4 with its cloying mission to shout more and attract new audiences? Of (very welcome, by the time it came around) aggressive bowling, batsmen playing rashly and (less welcome) crowds of yobbish students getting beered-up and chanting like hooligans? How would he take to the idea of sharing commentary with the over-inflated egos of recently retired players keen to over-analyse, patronise the audience or voice their uncalled for and usually witless opinions?
Like so much else, he would – naturally – take it all in his stride. Not merely that; but he would also regard them with his customary, detached dryness and put each and every element or annoyance understatedly – but firmly – in their place.
It was as if nothing had really changed. Yes, we’d have to put up with the absurdly coiffured Mark Nicholas and his sycophancy; yes, we’d have to endure the maniac but in no way amusing screeching of Dermot Reeve or Ian Smith; and, yes, we’d have to suffer Simon Hughes’s nerdy video analysis. But it was alright: Richie was still there. And would be forever, right?
The most moving tributes I’ve read and heard since the news of Richie’s death have come not from former Australian captains, not former top players, not politicians; nor co-commentators, nor even grandiose professional cricket writers. But from real, normal people that love their cricket. People – whether here in Blighty or back in Australia or elsewhere in the cricket-watching world – that had the honour and privilege of enjoying the warm, cocooning glow of his distinctive voice in their own living rooms since childhood. One gets the distinct impression that hundreds of thousands of people from around the world that never met the man feel bereft – though he wouldn’t want them to, because his life had been a long and full one – at learning of Richie’s death. His is a presence that we have relied upon and cherished for so long, never believing that we would one day have to do without it. But now we do.
In signing off from commentating on English summer cricket, Richie Benaud said: “Thank you for having me. It’s been absolutely marvellous for 42 years. I’ve loved every moment of it. And, it’s been a privilege to go into everyone’s living rooms throughout that time. What’s even better: it’s been a great deal of fun” (before continuing commentating,as if hardly realising that what he had just said had put a lump in our throats and caused grown men to shed a tear).
No, Richie: thank you. The privilege was definitely all ours.