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.




Last week a cricketer retired. This happens all the time.

Some go when it's not what people expect - or when, as the old, somewhat trite, advice goes, people are still asking 'why?' instead of 'why not?' - others go when they have no choice, when thier virtues are starting to be forgotten as a result of their inability to face up to the future. You could perhaps put Ricky Ponting in the first category, and Sachin Tendulkar in the second, although Ponting had his share of moments when the leaving became inevitable. Even now, with years having passed, the vision persists of him face forward in the Adelaide dirt, his stumps rearranged by another ageing great. When things like that happen, retirement is the only way to go.

As in so many things, Daniel Vettori didn't fit any of the obvious templates. Over recent years, as injuries took their toll on a body that had spent half its time on earth playing international cricket, you could be forgiven for thinking that he'd slipped away quietly. As New Zealand's cricket has been transformed over the last few years, the days when he was the fulcrum of a struggling side have faded into the background, but the closing weeks of his career, with all that they meant for New Zealand as a cricket country, were a fitting and memorable way to go.

As with Ponting and anyone else, visions will persist. In Vettori's case, from his very last weeks it will be the sight of him jumping off the ground with perfect timing and catching a ball with his left hand as it heads inexorably for the Cake Tin crowd, but this, brilliant and remarkable as it was, will never capture the essence of a cricketer, who, in New Zealand terms, ranks with the very best.

No, with Vettori the sights to fix in the mind's eye include that of a gangling, floppy-haired teenager with long hair taking his first steps in international cricket against England in 1997. This is about how long his career was: the grainy video on YouTube, with the England of Caddick, Croft and Tufnell in their MCC sweaters against the New Zealand of Blair Pocock and Heath Davis, fixes the match in an era that might as well be prehistoric. Then there is Vettori the batsman, bottom-handed, rigid, consistently looking overmatched, but counter-intuitively capable, with all the temperamental soundness, courage and timing you could want. And Vettori the bowler, with the perfect pivot, the control of flight and pace, the under-recognized subtlety. 4,000 Test runs at 30 and 362 wickets say that he could play, really play.

But perhaps most of all, the thing to take away is that, as Brydon Coverdale said last week in a fine distillation of his career, 'soft-spoken and unfailingly polite, Vettori is the very essence of what New Zealand cricket has become'. In the immature and mean-spirited universe occupied by Brad Haddin and his apologists, virtues such as playing the game in the right spirit count for little. Success justifies everything. The New Zealand which goes on from here - not the New Zealand of Vettori, but the New Zealand of McCullum, of Boult, of Guptill, of Southee, of BJ Watling - will, I am sure, continue to show that playing the game with passion and with flair does not have to mean playing with disrespect.

Perhaps it is a failing in me, perhaps it is the effect of getting older and growing softer, but I hate, really hate, what Haddin did. This is not a partisan issue. I detest Jimmy Anderson's tedious, shallow, false, aggression too.

For Vettori's virtues, read New Zealand's. International cricket need not be a war zone. There are enough of those around the world already.

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