In the summer of 1941, with war tensions looming around the horizon, people lived in trepidation all across the globe. Things were no different Down Under, as Australians weren’t strong enough to face the wrath of Japan, had they instigated a battle in the Pacific. Any tumultuous noise in the neighborhood sparked fear in the hearts of people and certainly, it wasn’t the prettiest of summers. However, Richie Benaud had turned 11 and had cleared an entrance exam to attend high-school, which was spectacular considering he was way too young to reach that stage in life.
Sport and school kept those kids, including little Richie, preoccupied but once they would relax, all they could think of were the repercussions of the ongoing war.
Once Japan surrendered in 1945 to the US, the whole of Australia celebrated like it never did and Richie Benaud recalls it as one of the greatest celebrations of his life. Lives were lost, economies shattered but most importantly, the war was done and people saw the brighter side of things.
The next three years after the war were crucial in Benaud’s life, as his cricketing career was just getting serious. Having played a lot of cricket with his father at the Paramutta Oval growing up, the youngster kept growing in stature.
A tall and skinny cricketer, capable of turning the ball to a good effect with his wrists, Benaud was seen as a useful figure. Gone were those days where he could play for the club with his dad always lurking around, looking after him. This time he was all by himself, and it wasn’t easy.
Destiny keeps throwing some hard-to-overlook connections and there was one in this case. 1948/49 – The season which saw the end of Australia’s greatest cricketing personality in Sir Donald Bradman, also marked the professional debut of perhaps their second greatest cricketing personality. Benaud made his First-class debut for New South Wales in 1948.
For a major period in the next 24 months, he represented NSW’s second XI but constantly kept getting chances at the top level. In December 1951, Australia were playing West Indies in the second of five Tests. Richie Benaud was playing a Sheffield game against South Australia along the same dates, where he scored a fantastic hundred on the final day on tough batting conditions.
That hundred, as it turned out, was enough to see Benaud make an impression on the Australian selectors, who picked him for the final Test in Sydney. Just for your information, one of the three names on that selection panel was Sir Donald Bradman.
Promising rise after an underwhelming debut
In the very first over of his international cricket career, Benaud was bowling to the great Everton Weekes and unfortunately for the 22-year-old, Gil Langley dropped a sitter, which denied him Benaud a dream debut. He failed to find any grip on a track where Keith Miller and Ray Lindwall bowled pretty quick. Yet, he made a decent impression, having picked up a wicket and also inflicting a run-out to dismiss Sir Frank Worrell.
He had some memorable tours in West Indies, India and England despite getting off to a slow start in his career. At a moment when his leg-breaks were as crisp and his batting was hitting peaks, Benaud was made captain in 1958. The man ended up captaining the side in 28 Tests, winning 12 and losing just 4. Australia never conceded a series under his leadership.
In an era where Test cricket was far from interesting to watch, Sir Don urged Benaud’s Australian team to play attacking cricket and the captain led by example. His flippers, googlies and top-spinners left batsmen perturbed and his tendency to bowl around the wicket was a trend he set, carried forward by another legendary leg-spinner named Shane Warne.
He was the first cricketer to achieve the double of 2,000 runs and 200 wickets in Tests and was a part of two most iconic Test matches of the century – Laker’s Test in Manchester (1956) and the Tied Test in Brisbane(1960). He was also their leading wicket-taker in Tests when he retired. He left a mark on Australian cricket before a career in media was on the corner for grabs, one which made people call him the voice of cricket.
A pioneer of modern-day cricket, in a different way
Even before Benaud was named Australian captain, he had pursued a television/radio presenter course with BBC. His passion to promote the sport was as significant as playing it, and he worked relentlessly towards it. After retiring from the game in 1964, he worked with BBC and Channel 9 simultaneously, commentating and writing about the sport.
Benaud had a captivating voice, something which comes naturally. He was a master of the pause right from the outset and whenever he took one, he backed it up with a splendid line. It’d be fair to say, no one understood the art as well as he did, maybe that’s why he connects with fans like no other commentator, before or after.
Benaud was always a significant promoter of the shorter versions and was one of Kerry Packer’s absolute favorites. In fact, it was the Channel 9 founder who advised Richie to wear a cream and white jacket every time, which became his trademark in the coming years.
The great man promoted modern innovation despite being at the receiving end of some criticism. He helped Channel 4 devise a computer-based parody of himself, where his animated version would give match updates and weather updates.
During the Second World War, Sydney Grade Cricket involved two-day and one-day cricket (Called one afternoon cricket) and Benaud was an admirer of the format. He saw the mood change this format could bring and advocated for it.
He is said to be involved in nearly 500 Test matches during his career, as a cricketer and as a media professional. From sharing the dressing room with legends like Keith Miller to commentating the exploits of Shane Warne in the Ashes, his cricketing memory indeed is priceless.
He spent close to five decades traveling around the world, understanding how the game is interpreted in different places. For as long as he was there, at one end he mastered quite a lot of things while learning many more at the other end. His career redefines the myths of greatness, there just isn’t any limit to it. In his case, he just kept growing and growing in stature, it’d take days to relive his love affair with the game.
Towards the final days of his life in 2015, something interesting happened. Benaud had lost his Baggy Green during his playing days and Cricket Australia decided to give him another one in a special ceremony during the India-Australia semifinal of the 2015 World Cup at the SCG. He was unwell to collect it from Mark Taylor so his wife picked it up for him.
Benaud succumbed to skin cancer just a day before that cap reached the Channel 9 office. He never got to wear it again. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott offered a state funeral, mentioning that “This is the greatest loss for Australian cricket since Donald Bradman’s demise”. However, his wife Daphne had courteously rejected it, to respect Benaud’s wishes of a private funeral.
As much as he was global, he spent his final days with family and friends, and rested in their presence. His life was a cricketing carnival, one which lasted nearly 7 decades. Perhaps no individual ever dedicated so much time for the game and one might never in the coming years.
In a week where we celebrate the international voice day, it is perhaps fitting we remembered the voice of cricket, a voice which perhaps will continue to echo in some corner of the world as long as the game lives.