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Saturday, 11 April 2015

RIP Richie Benaud, the Voice of Summer and the Voice of Reason

Richie Benaud at a Remington SJ standard typewriter while working as a police roundsman for the Sydney Sun in the late 1950s.
Everyone in the cricket-playing world - from Christchurch to Karachi, from Bridgetown to Birmingham and from Mumbai to Manchester - felt that, through his commentaries, they knew as a close friend and a regular guest in their living rooms the marvellous Richie Benaud, who died yesterday morning in Sydney, aged 84.
They knew him not just for his soothing style or as the most knowledgeable and engrossing of cricket commentators, but also as a former Australian Test captain - a position still considered by most Australians to be a far, far higher calling than that of the Prime Minister of the country.
One thing they might not have known about Benaud, however, was that, even after he had cemented his place in the Australian cricket team in the mid-1950s, he still had to hold down a "day job" to make ends meet. That "day job" was as an evening newspaper reporter, a back-up police roundsman on the Sydney Sun.
Benaud was known for playing with an unbuttoned shirt, and raised eyebrows with his on-field exuberance. He learned to bowl leg breaks, googlies and topspinners from his cricketing father Lou Benaud, a third generation Australian of French Huguenot descent.
The Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate, November 1949
Accurate prediction from the great spinner Bill O'Reilly in November 1949
What even the fellow journalists who have in the past 36 hours paid so many glowing, heartfelt tributes to Benaud did not mention is that he actually started working for the Sun in 1953 as a pay clerk. But his clear ambition was to write stories, not pay slips. And not ghost-written stories, either, but stories that would be sold on his considerable skill, not just his name.
In order to achieve his goal, Benaud accepted an astounding challenge from the Sun's American-born executive editor, Lindsay Clinch (1907-1984). Just as Benaud was to become world renowned as he "man in the cream jacket", so before him was Clinch known on Elizabeth Street, Sydney, as the "Little White God" and "Little Caesar". Clinch, who had been born in New York City, the son of an Australian clerk, told Benaud that if he was able to help the Australian cricket team regain "The Ashes" on a tour to England in 1956, he would give Benaud a job as a journalist. 
As it turned out, Australia couldn't win back The Ashes, but on Benaud's eventual return home, Clinch gave him his chance all the same. On the tour, Benaud had helped Australia to its only victory, in the Lord's Test, when he scored 97 off 113 balls. His fielding, in particular at gully and short leg, was consistently of a high standard, in particular his acrobatic catch to dismiss Colin Cowdrey. As well, he had also managed to squeeze in some journalism experience, writing a sports column for the News of the World in London and getting a television training stint at the BBC. A quarter of a century later, it was through his work with the BBC in England that I had my most memorable encounter with Richie Benaud.
At about 6.30 on the evening of Tuesday, July 21, 1981, I was sitting at a desk in the Press Room at the back of the old Winter Shed at the Kirkstall Lane end of the Headingley cricket ground in Leeds, Yorkshire, trying to make my Olivetti Lettera 32 portable typewriter sing. It was one of those occasions when I sensed the demands on me were way beyond the norm. I had just witnessed the end of one of the most extraordinary matches played in the then 104-year history of Test cricket. England, which at one stage had been at odds of 500-1 to win the Third Test of the 1981 Ashes series, had beaten Australia, which at that same point had been 4-1 on. 
I had to find the appropriate words to convey to readers back in Australia the astonishing circumstances in which their team had managed to lose. It had been a glorious match, one of the greatest Test matches ever played. Yet, as if that wasn't enough to make what I was about to write exceptionally challenging, there was a dark cloud over England's achievement: two of the key Australian players had taken the odds of 500-1, and bet £5 each against their own team winning. This was not on the scale of the Black Sox Scandal of 1919, the most infamous in not just baseball history but sports history. Still, by Australian standards, it was pretty bad. Australia was in the depths of despair at having been beaten from what had appeared to be an unassailable lead. To make it far worse, two of its players were each walking away with a £2500 "loser's bonus" in their pockets. As I said, this was going to be no easy story to write. But it would be a read by hundreds of thousands of buyers of Herald and Weekly Times group newspapers. I had to find the right words to do it justice.
Before arriving in Leeds for the cricket Test, I have covered the 110th British Open golf championship, at Royal St George's in Sandwich. Texan Bill Rogers had taken the title, holding off German Bernhard Langer to win by four strokes. I did not think it an exciting Open, certainly not compared to the previous year's tournament at Muirfield in Scotland, but others would disagree. Having filed my typewritten copy at the end of the St George's championship, I had packed the Olivetti into the boot and driven up the 252 miles or more from the house I had shared with Tom Watson at Deal in Kent, through the night to Leeds. But before leaving, and anticipating a chilly overnight drive at the height of the British sporting summer, I bought a tournament jumper, as much a souvenir as something to keep myself warm.
My notes from the last day of the Headingley Test
I wore it again on the last day of the cricket Test. I was wearing in the old Winter Shed at Headingley when I looked up from my Olivetti to see Richie Benaud walking in my direction. He had made his way across from the BBC commentary boxes at the Stretford end.
Probably sensing I was struggling to find the words to adequately express everything that had just occurred, Richie stopped and said, "I hope you've taken out a Lotto ticket."
For a second or two there, preoccupied as I was with my story, I looked blankly at him.
Richie pointed to the "110th Open Championship, 1981" embroidered on my jumper. 
"If you were at the Open and saw this incredible Test match, your luck must be well and truly in. I'd buy a Lotto ticket if I were you."
His comment acted as a release. It lightened the sombre atmosphere in the Press Room, and suddenly I found my thinking had become much clearer. I was instantly "unblocked", sufficiently for the words to now flow. What Richie had said had made me realise that, taking everything into consideration, the most important aspect of the day's events was the brilliant cricket which had been played - by England, and by Englishmen Ian Botham and Bob Willis in particular. There was no way that the two Australians - Dennis Lillee and Rod Marsh - betting against their own team could have changed any of that. They had taken the bet because they considered the odds to be ridiculous, which they were. Their indiscretion had no influence on the outcome. It was not Lillee or Marsh, but England, and more especially cricket, which had been the winners. The betting was a mere sidebar. It was crucial, in getting this story right, that that was to be clearly understood.
Ian Botham wins the Player of the Match Award in the immediate aftermath of the Test. I got my head chopped off.
For me, two salient things that have merged in all the long and glowing tributes that have been paid to Richie Benaud since he passed away in the early hours of yesterday morning have been: first, his undying love of cricket, and two, his readiness to help out other, younger journalists. So many sports writers, from Mike Coward to Gideon Haigh, Max Presnell to Andrew McGarry and Frank Crook, and Andrew Ramsey to Ron Reed, have mentioned this last attribute. They have offered so many instances in which Benaud went to the aid of fellow journalists.  
Above all, however, was that as much as Benaud might have been a great cricketer, a great Australian Test captain, and a great commentator (up there with Brian Johnson and John Arlott), he was most of all a great cricket lover. What made him such a universally loved and admired man was his lifelong determination to make cricket interesting again for the Australian masses, to stand up for the players and to make the game as readily available as possible - and as entertaining - to the masses in Britain and Australia through the media.
Benaud discusses the need to play attacking cricket during the 1960-61 series against the West Indies with Sir Donald Bradman ("cricket's Babe Ruth") at the Sydney Cricket Ground.
I first got to know Benaud when I covered the 1970-71 Ashes series in Australia for The Australian newspaper. He was then and remained to his dying day a thorough gentleman, a wonderfully warm and endearing colleague. Back in the late 60s, early 70s, I also got to know Benaud's younger brother, John, who also played Test cricket and became both sports editor and editor of the Sun. Like Richie, John didn't rely on his name to get ahead in the newspaper game - he was a journalist of immense ability, and a very likeable chap with it.
John Benaud
Richie Benaud once said that, "Of real benefit in being on television is that I have been a working journalist, starting on police rounds in 1956 on the old Sydney Sun with that great police roundsman and teacher, Noel Bailey. He taught me to write exactly the number of words required by the editor and showed me how to do it without a script, talking into a telephone, which nowadays for me relates to a microphone. I promise you it's more hard work than iconic." "Don't speak unless you can add to the picture," he wrote.
November 1941, aged 11 years and one month!
Benaud was a cricket all-rounder who could blend thoughtful leg spin bowling with lower-order batting aggression. In 1963 he became the first player to complete the Test double of 200 wickets and 2000 runs. Along with fellow all-rounder Alan Davidson, he helped restore Australia to the top of world cricket in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He played 12 years of Test cricket, from 1952-64, and in 1958 became Australia's Test captain. During Benaud's captaincy, Australia did not lose a series, and became the dominant team in world cricket. Over the half century from 1964 he would go on to forge a reputation as one of the greatest cricketing personalities - as researcher, writer, critic, author, commentator, organiser, adviser and student of the game.
Swapping a Remington for a laptop, Benaud still shows his tying skills, working here with one of his successors as Australian captain, Ian Chappell.
Farewell Richie. Marvellous innings!

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