Because of all the sound and fury surrounding the abandoned second test, the Allen Stanford affair, and the thrilling finish to the rearranged test match, there seems to have been relatively little said over here about the sad news that Richie Benaud is hanging up his microphone for good at the end of the next Australian cricket season.
I’ve written before about how, for anyone of my generation, Richie was the voice of cricket, far more than John Arlott or Brian Johnston (great though they were). I’d go further, and say that he stands head and shoulders above pretty well every TV sports commentator I can think of, simply because he grasped the fact that you don’t need to tell viewers something they can see perfectly well for themselves.
So, at his best, on the BBC in the 70s and 80s, Richie was quite content to let minutes go by without saying anything, letting the action speak for itself. In the best traditions of minimalism, what he left out was just as important as what he put in. When he did speak, you knew he’d offer genuine insight, rather than clichés and platitudes. Add to that an ultra-dry wit, and you have a legend.
My favourite Richie moment was in 1998, in the 4th test vs South Africa at Trent Bridge. England were chasing 250-odd to win, and after Mike Atherton had weathered a torrid spell of fast bowling from Allan Donald on the fourth evening, they were approaching their target with some comfort. Richie’s co-commentator Geoff Boycott, though, was getting quite concerned that Atherton wouldn’t reach 100 before the end, because Alec Stewart at the other end was stroking the ball around superbly. Boycott kept telling viewers that test centuries were hard to come by, that Atherton shouldn’t pass up this opportunity, and that if it were him out there, he’d be pinching the strike.
There was a pregnant pause before Richie’s masterfully understated:
“I find that very hard to believe, Geoffrey.”
This had the effect of silencing Boycott for several minutes (no mean feat), but eventually it all became too much for him, and as it became clear that Atherton wasn’t going to follow his advice, Geoffrey started again, pleading with him to pinch the strike. Then, remembering Richie’s previous gentle rebuke, he decided to cover himself, saying: “Of course, I wouldn’t know anything about that kind of thing myself. I read it in a book somewhere.”
Richie’s reply (you could almost hear his eyebrows lifting quizzically): “Autobiography, Geoffrey?”
Another reason for Brits to love him was that he remained resolutely impartial, even during Ashes contests over here. Only once do I remember that cracking – in 1985, when Gower and Gooch in particular were feasting off a weak Aussie attack, and he occasionally sounded exasperated, despairing even.
Finally, while I’m no fan of the honours system, why on earth isn’t he Sir Richie Benaud? Not for his playing career, particularly, although he was a great by any standards. More for his general contribution to the game, as a positive, attacking captain who reinvigorated test cricket, as a great commentator, and as someone always willing to embrace new ideas rather than remain bound by tradition.
One thing’s for certain, and that’s that there’s no one around to touch him, even now. On Sky over here, Michael Holding is excellent, David Lloyd entertaining if a bit annoying at times, and Nasser Hussain good (although unashamedly an England fan). Tony Cozier is excellent, but he’s only on when England play the Windies. Mark Taylor and Ian Healy always sound good on the Aussie commentary, but that’s about it. Oh, and there’s Shaun Pollock, who was on radio and TV last summer, and gave every indication of being a natural. As Richie would say, good effort that, I thought.