Richie Benaud was a dominant figure in the world of cricket for well over half a century. He was outstanding as a player, as a captain and as a commentator. When he died in April 2015, he was mourned not just in Australia but in all countries where the game is played. This book, Richie Benaud – The Man Behind the Legend, adopts the format of articles by almost a hundred of those who knew Richie in different aspects of his life. The result is a fitting tribute to the man.
There is an all-purpose review sentence, often wrongly attributed to Abraham Lincoln. It states that “those who like this sort of thing will find this exactly the sort of thing they like.” I am tempted to reverse this and say of this book “those who don’t like this sort of thing will find this exactly the kind of thing they dislike.”
If you are into exposés of rifts, arguments and disagreements or of mental torments suffered by those playing the game at the highest level, then look elsewhere. The likes of Michael Clarke, Brad Hogg and Jonathan Trott, to name but three recent authors, will provide you with more than enough drama and conflict to satisfy your needs. Some of these offerings seem to be not so much warts and all as warts and nothing else.
This book is definitely a wart-free zone. Richie’s first marriage, for example, doesn’t get a mention. Marcia, his first wife, is airbrushed out of the picture even in the contributions by the two children she bore him. Instead, his second wife Daphne features as central to the story. One contributor describes them as two peas in a pod: “When we saw one, we saw the other.”
There are no blazing rows in this book. The nearest we get, maybe, is when fellow leg-spinner John Gleeson describes telling Richie that he sounded just like Benaud impersonator Billy Birmingham. Richie never quite came to terms with Birmingham’s expletive-laden attempts to satirise the Channel Nine commentary team: “His bottom lip came out, I can tell you.” And that seems to be the limit of it – a jutting of the lip as an indication of displeasure.
The format of the book means that there is, inevitably, a fair amount of repetition. Key events, such as the tied Test with West Indies in 1960 and the defeat of England at Old Trafford in 1961, are described several times over by different contributors.
Although the repetition can jar slightly, the overlapping descriptions do give us insights into a totally different era of the game. That 1960-61 Australia v West Indies series was one of the most fiercely contested ever. But Benaud contemporary Alan Davidson, who played a key part in the Brisbane tie, describes how “after that game, we pulled tables together in the dining room and all sat around, Australians and West Indians beside each other in alternate places. We swapped yarns and laughed and enjoyed.”
Garfield Sobers confirms this camaraderie across national boundaries: “We were like family. Many of us became lifelong friends.” Difficult to imagine in this era where sport seems to be more like a substitute for war than a means of bringing different nations together.
What do we learn of Benaud the man? Well, in some ways, very little that we didn’t already know. As his fellow commentator Bill Lawry says: “those who never met him sort of knew him too.”
What the book gives us is more in the way of a confirmation of what we saw on our screens for all those years. The same words recur throughout the book: generous, considerate, good, kind, a man of dignity with a puckish sense of humour. As for the warts, we will have to wait, without too much anticipation, for another kind of book.
The area of Richie’s career that came more clearly into focus for me was his role in World Series Cricket (WSC), working for Kerry Packer. At the time, many traditionalists were shocked by the intervention into the world of cricket of a business magnate such as Packer. Now, forty years on, most people recognise that a shake-up was needed.
Alan Davidson points out that, when he and Benaud played for Australia against West Indies at the Melbourne Cricket Ground in 1961, 90,000 people attended the second day’s play. Yet the match payments for the entire Australian team totalled a paltry £600.
So, when Packer appeared on the scene in the mid-seventies, Richie Benaud threw in his lot with the new initiative. In doing so, he alienated many previous friends. For a time, fellow giant of the game Sir Donald Bradman wouldn’t even speak to him. John Curtain, who worked with Richie at the time, expresses the view that without him and the ever-present Daphne alongside him, WSC – and with it what has become the modern game – would not have happened.
Although Richie ushered in the era of cricket as big business, sports marketer James Erskine says of Richie that “his genius was that he could see all the moving parts required for success, but the sport itself always came first, was never compromised.” Others involved in the running of the game, please note.
The book is impressively illustrated with photographs covering all stages of Richie’s life. If you want an idea of Richie as a bowler, simply take a look at the photograph opposite page 79 of him delivering a leg break to an unseen English batsman in 1958-59. The ball is on its way and Richie is perfectly balanced in his follow-through. The shirt is open almost to the waist, exposing a tanned chest, homage to his idol Keith Miller.
Richie’s elevated status in the cricketing world is beyond question. Indeed, a couple of contributors to the book refer to him as the pope of cricket. In one way, this is ironic in that Richie’s ancestors arrived in Australia as Huguenot refugees from Catholic persecution. As for Richie’s beliefs, he apparently, as an aside near the end of his life, said “I don’t do God.” So maybe he was a kind of secular pope, vying only with Bradman as the most influential and dominant figure in the whole history of Australian cricket.
Bradman was a more outstanding player and was also an important administrator after his retirement, but Richie’s influence was more international. Through his commentaries and his writing, he undoubtedly made a massive contribution by explaining the game of cricket to the public. Perhaps the best quote defining the art of commentary, as practised by Richie and others of his era, comes from American football commentator John Madden, who said “it’s telling people what they’re seeing, but not seeing.”
The saddest part of the book, understandably, relates to Richie’s physical decline and death. Although he had injured himself when he crashed his beloved 1963 Sunbeam Alpine car, the cause of his death was skin cancer. All those days in the sun finally caught up with him. The fact that he never wore a cap or a hat on the cricket field was in part another homage to his idol Keith Miller. It also may have been linked to a commercial deal with Brylcream. When asked by Bill Lawry whether or not he had held such a contract, Richie replied in typical fashion: “I’m not going to tell you. Nor am I going to tell you how much the fee was.”
Friends describe how, much reduced by his illness, Richie kept going until the end. His last assignment was as the face of the 2015 Australia Day lamb campaign. It involved an arduous day’s filming. Then, as he had promised, on the day itself, he attended a lamb barbecue at a Sydney harbour-side home. A couple of months later, he was gone, a professional to the end.
So there is a flavour of the book. If Richie were here to review it dispassionately, we can imagine him using one of his favourite phrases, understating the truth as ever: “Pretty good effort there.”
Richie, The Man Behind the Legend by Ian Head and Norm Tasker is published by Pitch Publishing Ltd, RRP £18.99