Former captain Richie Benaud passes away
An Australian Test great who nurtured a generation's love for the game with his commentary has passed away, aged 84
10 April 2015, 08:51 AM AEST
After Don Bradman, there has been no Australian player more famous than Richie Benaud.
Benaud stood at the top of the game throughout his rich life, first as a record-breaking leg-spinner and captain, and then as cricket's most famous – and most impersonated – broadcaster.
As a player he started out as an attacking batsman and accurate slow bowler, before growing into the first Test allrounder to reach 200 wickets and 2000 runs. But there was much more to his life than on-field deeds.
Benaud, a professional journalist, was standing at the telex machine at The Sun's sports department when he learned he would captain Australia for the first time in the 1958-59 series against England. He led from the front with 31 wickets at 18 in the 4-0 victory and held the job until his final series in 1963-64.
His most memorable day came when Australia and West Indies shared Test cricket's first tie at the Gabba in 1960-61. At tea, when pressed by selector Don Bradman, Benaud said: "We're going for a win, of course." The result and the gripping series helped revitalise the Test format after a sombre period in the 1950s.
Australia never lost a series when Benaud was in charge, thanks to his aggressive, thoughtful leadership, which included a knack for switching the field shortly before a breakthrough. He was in charge for 28 games, which was then a record, and was the country's first skipper to win a series in Pakistan.
He handed over the leadership to Bob Simpson early in the 1963-64 series against South Africa after outlining his desire to retire.
When he left after 63 Tests he owned a national record of 248 wickets, which came at an average of 27.03. With the bat he collected three centuries – two were against South Africa in 1957-58 – and had a final tally of 2201 runs.
Born in Penrith in 1930, he was named Richard but was always Richie. The start of Benaud's career, when he was seen more as a batsman, was slow as he managed 73 wickets in his opening 27 Tests and 868 runs at 28.66.
Just like Steve Waugh decades later, Benaud transformed himself from a useful player into a heroic performer once handed senior duties and the captaincy. In his next 23 Tests, Benaud grabbed 131 victims at 22.66 and many more valuable runs.
Bill O'Reilly, the great leg-spinner, had helped improve Benaud's tight, side-on bowling by telling him to focus on leg-breaks before the other variations. Benaud was hugely successful on the 1956 trip to India, capturing three five-wicket hauls, and turned the 1961 Old Trafford Test by going around the wicket and aiming for the footmarks. Twenty-five balls later he had 5 for 13 and Australia were toasting a satisfying victory.
Benaud's bowling was hindered by a painful shoulder injury suffered on that 1961 tour, but he still managed 29 wickets in his final two campaigns. A magnetic performer, Benaud bowled with the top buttons of his shirt undone, and was a pioneer of the exuberant celebration, rushing up to his teammates after taking a wicket.
Benaud was an avowed entertainer long before he entered the entertainment business. A hard-hitting batsman and enterprising leg-spinner who held the Australian record for the most Test wickets (248) for almost 20 years until usurped by Dennis Lillee, Benaud epitomised the early days of cricket's slow transition from frumpy to frenetic with his gaping shirt and glowing suntan.
But it's as an under-stated yet forensic chronicler of the game that the former police rounds newspaper reporter and beach devotee will be most fondly and famously remembered.
By 1960 he was working for the BBC and News of the World, and he joined Nine for Kerry Packer's World Series Cricket in 1977, anchoring the network's coverage for decades. His crisp style, dry humour, understated delivery, and array of jackets made him a favourite of the masses.
It's difficult to imagine many other professional talkers who would have found the awareness and sense of theatre to utter simply – when his treasured art of leg-spin was formally reborn by Warne's debut Test delivery on English soil, later dubbed 'the ball of the century' – and after a second or two of silence, "he's done it", followed by more dead air.
Despite his role as the treasured grandfather of the game, he remained deeply in touch with the modern developments, embracing Twenty20 when others of older eras shunned it.
He scaled back his commitments in England after the 2005 Ashes, declining to work for a subscription-television broadcaster but continued writing his Sunday column.
Benaud was inducted into the Australian Cricket Hall of Fame at the Allan Border Medal ceremony in 2007, and a spot in the ICC Cricket Hall of Fame followed in 2009.
The 2013-14 summer was the first Benaud was missing from the commentary box for decades. He had crashed his vintage 1963 Sunbeam Alpine into a brick garden wall whilst driving in the Coogee area of Sydney the previous October and recovered slowly from a cracked sternum and rib injuries.
A hoped-for return the following summer was scuppered in November 2014 when he revealed he was undergoing treatment for melanomas on his forehead, scalp and neck, the legacy Benaud explained of a decorated cricket career in which he eschewed protective headwear in deference to his childhood idol and fellow former Australian allrounder Keith 'Nugget' Miller.
"When I was a kid we never ever wore a cap ... because Keith Miller never wore a cap," Benaud said. "We followed various people and 'Nugget' Miller never wore a cap on his head, so I didn't. I wish I had."
His devoted legion of fans has seen a growing number of Richie impersonators attend the Sydney New Year's Test for several years.