Through the recent death of Richie Benaud, we learned so much more about the man, his cricket and commentary.
Some players turned commentators have not been coy to admit their on-air mistakes which attracted the attention of Benaud, who was quick to pull them aside and give them a piece of advice.
Mark Taylor, who joined his fellow erstwhile Australian captains in the commentary box in 1999, revealed during a tribute to his departed mentor, how Benaud reminded him that the sinking of Titanic and deaths in Ethiopia were tragedies and not Shane Warne getting out for 99 in a Test match. Taylor learned his lesson.
A slight change in lifestyle. Captain of Australia in 63 Tests, now in England as a journalist, hustling for an edition on the pavilion balcony at Leicester, umbrella over my old-fashioned typewriter, rain belting in from the south, wearing two sweaters, a Harris tweed overcoat and a very worried expression. Caption and Pic/Anything But An Autobiography by Richie Benaud (Hodder & Stoughton)
Today, Taylor is a distinguished commentator.
Unfortunately, Benaud’s mantras are lost on some commentators. Benaud gave ‘measured’ a good name and he proved from time to time that a commentator need not give your ears a bashing while describing a thrilling moment in the game.
Indeed, he is the patron saint of cricket commentary across mediums and going by how the art of commentary is abused at times in today’s cricket, especially in Twenty20 cricket, a lot of us may be moved to pray.
It’s not always the commentator’s fault because he’d be only following orders to turn up the hype to do justice to cricketainment.
One of the finest Benaud tributes came in the form of an anecdote from journalist John Coomber, who covered the 1977 Ashes for Australian Associated Press (AAP). The touring Australians were playing Gloucestershire at Bristol and all of Coomber’s colleagues were away, enjoying the Liverpool vs Manchester United FA Cup final at the Wembley Stadium. A news agency reporter can’t miss anything so Coomber was the lone reporter in a press box. He was also down with food poisoning. Benaud, who was on broadcasting duty for the BBC and a correspondent for a Sunday newspaper, entered the lonely press box to find Coomber throwing up in a rubbish bin. “Ah, you are the AAP man, aren’t you? Anything I could do to help?” Benaud asked. The next thing the ill journo saw was Benaud at a typewriter, filing score updates as well as a report to the news agency’s London office. Coomber said it was his proudest moment in journalism and “the day I learned that the legend was a truly great man”.
Five years earlier, in 1972, after Bob Massie bowled Australia to victory in that famous Lord’s Test in which he got 16 wickets on debut, journalist Mike Coward, on his first tour, noticed Benaud by his side, asking “are you managing okay? Can I check any stats for you?” Though Coward had met him, he didn’t know Benaud well back then.
Benaud’s death caused many of us to go back to what he had written in his several books. Those words were always precious but they will be more valued now that he is no more. I was fascinated by how Benaud opted to be a full-time journalist. He was very keen on crime reporting and did so for the Sydney Sun.
He used the break between the completion of the 1956 England tour and the start of the 1956-57 series in Pakistan and India to enrol for a television course at the BBC. “It was one of the best things I have ever done and although I was weary at the end of 21 days, with a daily itinerary running from 11 am to midnight, it was worth every minute,” Benaud wrote in On Reflection.
He never had it easy and he didn’t expect any favours in the profession despite being a former Australia captain. Like all journalists, he endured challenging times in the face of competition. Like us,
he too was wary of scoops from other journalists.
In 1969, Benaud decided to become a freelance writer and get involved in sports consultancy.
On the day Benaud passed away, Channel Nine interviewed great personalities who were dear to him. One of them was James Packer, the son of late Kerry.
Packer Jr let viewers in on a conversation his father had with Benaud when he planned cricket’s biggest movement in the late 1970s World Series Cricket. At the start of the first meeting, Packer wanted Benaud to keep whatever he told him to himself but Benaud refused, saying that he must tell his wife Daphne. After Packer explained his concept, he asked Benaud whether they had a deal. Benaud said, “I’m not sure. I’ve to speak to Daphne.” The confirmation came the following morning after Mrs Benaud was convinced.
He was much revered here and old-timers insist that more should have been written about Benaud the cricketer and captain rather than his commentary skills. One columnist/commentator wrote in a national newspaper here that Benaud did not do commentary in India. Well, he was here for the 1996 World Cup. “I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity again to be in India and Pakistan for the 1996 World Cup and to watch the manner in which the Sri Lankans played on their way to becoming champions,” Benaud wrote in Anything But An Autobiography. That should set the record straight. Benaud was everywhere. His spirit should be at the heart of every commentary box.
Clayton Murzello is mid-day’s Group Sports Editor