The passing away of Ian Wooldridge, Richie Benaud, Tony Cozier and now Bob Gray has left cricket poorer, writes Ian Chappell
It’s a toss up whether I became a cricket writer because my grandfather, former Australian captain Vic Richardson — who I admired greatly — was one, or else English was the only subject where I didn’t spend the whole lesson gazing longingly out the window at the playing fields. For more than four decades I’ve enjoyed writing on the game and been inspired by some of the press box characters. Sadly, their numbers are dwindling and the cricket world is the poorer for their passing.
First to go was Ian Wooldridge, a lyrical English sports writer who spent many years on the cricket circuit. He described the defiant Australian opener Bill Lawry as; “The corpse with pads on,” after a backs-to-the-wall innings against England in 1961. Wooldridge’s wicked sense of humour wasn’t reserved for the players. “It’s cheaper to get a divorce than ring home from an Indian hotel,” he lamented, prior to the introduction of cell phones. I met Wooldridge through his friend Richie Benaud, who left us in 2015.
Richie Benaud (right) is inducted into the Australian Cricket Hall of Fame by the author at Melbourne in 2007. INSET: Tony Cozier
In addition to being a renowned television commentator, Benaud was also a trained journalist, who honed his trade as a police roundsman on a Sydney afternoon newspaper. Benaud never ceased to amaze with the way he could recite a column on the phone without notes, hesitation or grammatical error. What wonderful training for an outstanding career as a television presenter. True to his image as a ‘salesman for the game’, Benaud wrote a column promoting the 1961-62 New South Wales versus South Australia Sheffield Shield game at the SCG. He then played his part as skipper of NSW, as they amassed 400 during Saturday’s play and entertained a crowd of nearly 20,000 fans.
The two most recent departures both have a Caribbean connection. First, the renowned voice of West Indies cricket, Tony Cozier, was silenced and then Bob Gray, an Australian cricket writer
in the sixties, who was married to Grace whom he met on the 1964-65 tour of the Caribbean, died in Sydney last weekend. I had the pleasure of working with Cozier on many occasions. I marvelled at his ability to dash out an insightful column after a day’s commentary and then he’d greet us at the bar later in the evening. ‘Coze’s commentary and writing was a wonderful mixture of insight, historical knowledge, with the occasional dash of humour. He enhanced the first World Series Cricket day/night encounter by singing “Blue Moon” when a cameraman presented a full-screen shot of a waxing gibbous. Gray was primarily a cricket writer but versatile and colourful enough to cover the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico. The opening para of his initial offering was a classic; “I’m typing this column from my new hotel room. How do I know it’s new? Because the cement mixer is still in the room.” Gray retired from writing in 1968 when he married Grace, reasoning he shouldn’t tour once he got hitched. His wedding was a memorable occasion on the Sunday (rest day) of the Lord’s Test.
It became notorious in cricket folklore because Australia was bowled out the following day for a paltry 78. This calamitous incompetence was blamed on Gray’s wedding in a tongue-in-cheek piece by Wooldridge, who as an attendee, knew exactly what time the last Australian player left the reception. Cricket might have changed dramatically since those times but so has coverage of the game.
The Sydney afternoon papers deadline from Perth, where they played the 1962-63 Australian XI v MCC match, was a nightmarish 5 am. At the close of play Benaud and Gray, who were writing for competing papers, faced a dilemma; “Dinner first and then write, or vice versa?” They chose dinner first and when Benaud, having filed his column, couldn’t rouse Gray, he thoughtfully dictated a piece to his mate’s newspaper. A couple of hours later Benaud was awakened from his slumber by an irate editor yelling down the line; “You’ve bloody well been scooped by Gray.”
The second half of my cricket life has been a thoroughly enjoyable experience, enhanced by men like Wooldridge, Benaud, Cozier and Gray.