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Richie Benaud and cricket’s broadcasting life

By Binoy Kampmark - posted Saturday, 11 April 2015


The game speaks of eternal beginnings – and even ends. Cricket, by its very creation, suggests time aplenty, with kept fields, ponderous sessions and tea breaks. For very much that reason, it is the sport of the talented broadcaster, the forensic examiner who doesn't merely dissect a game as it takes place, but ponders its evolution. With the death of Australia's Richie Benaud, leg spinner second only to Shane Warne, and adventurous captain of the 1960s, the broadcasting pantheon has one more name to add. Few more additions will be made.

The broadcasting pantheon varies in its membership. There are those who captivated audiences with their idiosyncratic turns of phrase, and spots of prickly humour. There are the side splitting Henry Blofelds who speak about cake in the commentary box like tit bits of distracting romance. There are the patrician types of school master severity. The epicurean polymaths also figure, as do the graceful wise of frightening sweetness. Benaud was very much the latter.

From Australia, the austere patrician Alan McGilvray still holds the crown of striking if sometimes dry commentary, though he did have a formidable team with Vic Richardson and Arthur Gilligan. Broadcasting then was a curiously delayed affair – it had only started in the English summer of 1927, producing a brand of synthetic commentary that would only abate with the conquest of short wave radio.

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Initial commentary was done off cables received from English test match grounds, requiring a degree of inventiveness on the part of the speaker. The sound-effects guru would do the rest, though the commentator would have to double up on the sound of willow hitting ball – by tapping on a round piece of wood on the desk. All broadcasting entails a measure of deception and the studio was the kingdom of make believe.

Most known in terms of sheer volume of appeal and force was John Arlott, who was given that weightiest of titles, "the voice of cricket". With Arlott, the entire accompaniment was there, very much the anti-McGilvray: the thick growling voice of Hampshire pedigree, the epicurean love of wine and literary musings that packed a heavy library. Cricket summons up the poetic sense more than most sports, and it is fitting that Dylan Thomas had a fine description of that famous voice: "A sound like Uncle Tom Cobleigh reading Neville Cardus to faraway natives" (The Guardian, Dec 13, 2011).

For Benaud, it was that reassuring demeanour of "calm and charm," as Sarah Crompton wrote in The Telegraph (Nov 11, 2014). He proved to be the "unofficial king" of that rarest of public qualities: grace. His commentary was that of a sagacious owl, speaking his mind with fine temper even as the fury was bubbling beneath. "If cricket had ever anointed a pope," argued fellow broadcaster Jim Maxwell in eulogy, "it would be Richie Benaud."

His eye for the cricket media set was already well trained as captain of Australia. It was a killjoy world. Minimal celebration accompanied the fall of a wicket. It was stiflingly square. Benaud changed it with his effusive engagement on the field. Cricket was something to celebrate with daring and the exultant smile. Few captains could have achieved for the game what he did, along with Frank Worrell, when the West Indians toured Australia in 1960-1: the first tied Test match in history; a brilliant series of daring and spirit.

The cricket establishment remained tied to dull austerity. The suits were averse to allowing the press into the Australian dressing room, which was treated like the ground of holy congregation. "I changed that and invited them in at the close of play each day, thereby confirming for many administrators they had appointed a madman as captain."

The voice of Benaud was also the voice of cricket revolution. This was the world of celluloid, which brought the running image into the home. In terms of cricket coverage, another type of commentator came to the fore: that of television.

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This necessitated a new approach, though it is not one that many have mastered. Few in the current world of cricket commentary seem to understand the old adage that a picture does speak a thousand, often significant words. Imbecilic prattling and inanity are common. Benaud was guilty of neither. "Richie," explained Maxwell, "was the master of the pause. Silence marked him as the best exponent of television's essential craft; let the picture tell the story, then utter appropriate gravitas, a memorably droll bon mot."

Then came Benaud the cricket revolutionary, very much a case of grace under fire. Just as Arlott proved to be a part-time political figure, doing more than his bit for the anti-apartheid cause, Benaud would be summoned in the cause of World Series Cricket. As a keen student of the game, he could see little reason why cricket officials should hoard box takings even as players struggled by with a pittance.

World Series, portrayed by the cricket establishment as a seditious rupture of values engineered by mercenaries, did well in netting Benaud. Kerry Packer's Channel Nine became an inseparable partner with that calm, owlish figure. Decades of service followed, and his absence from the crew was a painful one for many to bear. The king of grace in cricket commentary was singular, and he is unlikely to be dethroned.

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About the Author

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He currently lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and blogs at Oz Moses.

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