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Marvellous!

April 10, 2015

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I love cricket, I love words and writing, I love broadcasting. Richie Benaud excelled in each of these disciplines and was utterly unique. He’s been a role model and inspiration for all of my life in those areas. So when I say I’m going to miss him dreadfully, I really mean it.

Like many legends, the secret of his greatness was simplicity. He used to say about commentating: “Put your brain into gear and if you can add to what’s on the screen then do it, otherwise shut up.”

I don’t remember cricket without Richie Benaud. His Test career commenced the year I was born and ended when I was twelve – the perfect span to instil admiration and hero worship. I’ve always thought that the best way to captain is the Richie Benaud way – it’s a default position. It needs to be tough, ruthless, insightful and understated. Strategy is all, calm is crucial, and respect and understanding of the opposition is the vital ingredient.

In my childhood, he was an inspirational Australian captain, wily with his strategy, skillful with his leg breaks, and more than capable with the bat, achieving nine 50s and 3 centuries. He was the first player to take 200 Test wickets and score 2000 runs. He didn’t produce the explosive performances of a Lloyd, a Sobers or a Lara; he simply played cricket consistently well and he played it as it should be played.

When he made the transition to journalism and broadcasting, he took his talent, his understanding of the game, and his no nonsense approach with him. Not for Richie the flowery excesses of the personality broadcaster – though, ironically, in his very simplicity of approach, he became iconic. I’m not sure any one cricketer of my generation ever took a wicket or a catch, fielded a difficult shot, or perfectly timed a drive, without hearing, somewhere in their head, a calmly uttered: “Marvellous!” or “Good cricket!”

Like many gifted folk, I suspect he could be hard on those who fell below his standards. He had no false modesty, and he knew his worth as a commentator and analyst. He never hesitated to give his views on the game he loved and the directions in which it ‘progressed’.

I only encountered him once.

As a commentator, he was an ever present for BBC 2 on Summer Sundays in the late 60s for the International Cavaliers charity games, which presaged the Sunday League in county cricket. Looking back, the array of talent on display seems incredible. The Cavaliers regularly played at Southport and Birkdale CC, my local ground – where I was able to watch veterans like Denis Compton, Cec Pepper, and Godfrey Evans, and Geoff Boycott, Graham Pollock, Fred Trueman, Ted Dexter, Charlie Griffiths, Rohan Kanhai, Gary Sobers, Clive Lloyd and all the Test and county stars of the day.

In those days, the autograph was the equivalent of today’s selfies – and for ‘the small boys’ who gathered round pavilion and boundary, getting the signature in autograph book, scorecard, or scrap of paper was all important. At this distance, with the signatures long lost, it is the memory of being close to legends and heroes that seems more important.

After one of the Cavaliers games, when I had hassled my way to as many player autographs as possible, I was meandering across the ground, head full of cricketing dreams as usual, when my attention was drawn to a group of figures on the other side of the field. It was the commentary team, down from their eerie, making for the pavilion.

One figure was Learie Constantine – a true great of the game – and another was Richie Benaud. I adjusted my direction so I would intersect with them.

Sir Learie would have been a fair age then and I caught up with him first; he very graciously signed my scorecard. Because he was moving more slowly than the others, this meant that Richie and his companion, presumably a producer, were a little ahead of us.

I headed after them, and realised that I was not impolite enough to interrupt an adult conversation for the sake of a signature – so I found myself, quite literally, walking in the footsteps of a legend. This probably made a clearer impression on me than a hurried autograph.

He was immaculately dressed in a cream suit with shining brown shoes. Even after a day in the commentary box, the shirt was crisp, the tie sharply knotted, and that famous hairstyle, silver even then, coiffed within an inch of its life. His tan was glowing. He had a briefcase and was carrying a bunch of papers, one of which he dropped without noticing. It was a fan letter, addressed to “Richie Benaud, BBC”. I wasn’t brave enough to hand it back to him.

He headed into the pavilion, and I went home, content to have seen the great man – and to have walked off the field with him!

I’ve always maintained that what makes cricket great, as much as its attractiveness as a game, is the atmosphere which surrounds it, generated by players and spectators alike – and also, in modern times, by those who write about the game or commentate on it. Richie Benaud was in the unique position of playing the game at the top level and in the right way, and then carrying on to contribute further to that atmosphere by his peerless commentary, and in the wisdom and vision of his many writings.

For generations of cricket lovers, the fabled thwack of leather on willow will always be enhanced and made more vivid by the equally pleasant sound of Arlott’s Hampshire burr and Richie’s Aussie twang. Snicko and Hawkeye have an impossible act to follow. He was the Neville Cardus of the microphone, and is irreplaceable.

I’ll stop there – to fulfil Richie’s dictum of keeping it brief, and letting the silence do the job – but it’s hard to accept that now that quiet pause for reflection will not be broken.

G’night, Richie.

Marvellous!

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