Richie Benaud (1930-2015)

Deaths come in different ways. Some are sudden, unexpected; others come after a long, slow fade from life's prime.

In keeping with the measured laconicism which was an intrinsic element of his unchallenged status as cricket's voice, conscience and heartbeat for more years than most of us have been alive, Richie Benaud's passing was one of the latter. He'd suffered a car accident in Sydney in October 2013, and, as the months afterwards passed, the intermittent reports on his health painted a picture of decline in the face of a cancer which was probably the legacy of long years spent in the burning sun of the world's Test match arenas. Benaud died yesterday in the country where he was born, which he represented, and in which he became a genuinely iconic figure, but the influence and legacy of his life extended far beyond the shores of Australia.

To anyone who grew up in England at any time from the middle of the 1960s onwards and who was interested in cricket, Richie Benaud didn't just represent or evoke the game. As in his home country, he was cricket.

Benaud never again commentated in England after the Oval Test of September 2005. After that, coverage of cricket in England became restricted to satellite television and Benaud wanted no part of it. So, at a time when English cricket is mired in one of its regular bouts of angst about the pitiful state of its representative team, its hopeless, befuddled administrators and its declining number of participants, the memory of Benaud in his glory years is, at one and the same time, a memory of a simpler era. A time when televised cricket meant turning on BBC 1 at 11.25, Soul Limbo and Peter West, Benaud and Jim Laker, and not an advert in sight. As I approach my fifties I like to think that I am resistant to reflex sentimentality about my youth, and in so many ways cricket is more varied, more colourful and more entertaining than it was then, but, as in many areas of life, there is a yearning for the ephemeral, ungraspable memory of those experiences which made us what we are. If you have spent what now seems like your entire life obsessed with cricket, the death of someone who exemplified and defined the game as you fell under its spell is sure to hit you hard.

Two memories of Benaud's life and commentating times: In the first I am eleven years old. It is a sunlit June day, with bottomless blue skies. I have walked home from school and turned on the television. I cannot, of course, remember if I knew that there was cricket on, but, as the set, our first colour television and some five years old at the time, warms into life I can at once discern the sound of a throbbing, excited crowd. Hampshire are playing Gloucestershire at Southampton's Northlands Road ground in the semi-final of the Benson and Hedges Cup. The first thing I see is a blonde fast bowler charge towards the wicket, sweat flying from his brow and his white shirt unbuttoned almost to the waist. I think I know that this is Mike Procter, but I have no idea that at this precise moment, he is seeking to complete a hat-trick. As his yorker disturbs the stumps of Hampshire's John Rice with a mixture of precision and inevitability, Richie Benaud's voice surges upwards with an air of barely controlled excitement, his normal wry detachment momentarily and involuntarily abandoned.

38 long years later, when Benaud dies, this is one of the moments that is replayed and replayed on the television news. It is both a replay of an essential chapter in the Benaud legend and a fundamental part of my childhood.

On 12th September 2005 I am at The Oval, in south London. It is again sunny, and a batsman is again bowled. This time it is Kevin Pietersen, who has scored 158 to take England to the brink of regaining the Ashes. Benaud's final spell of commentary concludes with Pietersen's dismissal. The ground rises, not just to salute Pietersen's achievement but also Benaud. The Australian players, about to become the first team from their country to lose a Test series against England for almost two decades, break from their drinks to applaud Benaud. This signifies what he has meant to cricket.

The last half-year has been, to put it mildly, a mixed period for Australian cricket. A Test series win and a World Cup triumph, bookended by the deaths of Philip Hughes and Richie Benaud, one tragically unexpected and one sadly inevitable. The response to both, though, has shown the vitality and fundamental dignity of the game, both in Australia and around the world.

It is far from an exaggeration to say that Richie Benaud was one of the most significant figures in all the game's long history. When someone like that dies, especially during a period where there is - as there always is - anxiety about the game's turbulent present and uncertain future, the temptation is to suggest that nothing will ever be the same. This is true, of course, for we shall never hear Benaud at the microphone again, but, as the World Cup showed, the game will continue to thrill, fascinate and entertain.

Benaud, never a rose-tinted nostalgist, would agree. Memories of Benaud will sustain all of us long into the future, but it is best if they are viewed as examples of the game's endless possibilities, not as signifiers of a lost past.



Chris Smith said...

Brian, I particularly like the balance of this appreciation. Both the traditionalist and the commercialist wings of the game would, I'm sure, like to claim Benaud to their cause, but he spanned (or defied) both according to what he felt was right for cricket at a moment in time. Pro-Packer, pro-Tests, pro-limited overs, pro-democratising the game. His only stance that confused me was his opposition to the front-foot no-ball law - I never understood why that mattered so much to him.


Brian Carpenter said...

Thanks, Samrat.

In the light of his great performances in the first two ODIs, I think Rashid's got every chance of playing in the Ashes, although that'll be a very tough Test baptism for him. He should have played in the West Indies, and the fact that he (and Lyth) didn't, just emphasizes the stale conservatism of the Moores regime. It's brilliant that we seem to have broken free of that in both Tests and ODIs.

By Barker, I assume you mean Keith Barker? I haven't seen very much of him, but he's clearly a good cricketer. Not really on England's radar, though.

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