Three things came to mind when I heard of the death of Richie Benaud.
The first was the tied test in, I think, 1961. That was up there with Hoad and Rosewall winning the Davis Cup, the Ali v Foreman fight in Kinshasa, and our winning the America’s Cup. I listened to the end of it in the backyard at Glencairn Avenue, East Brighton. We had fed my Astor radio – possibly then called a wireless – out the back window and hooked an aerial up to the top of a metal window to get a better reception from Brisbane. These were about the times when I would jump off the garage roof to practise parachute landings for the Commandoes and on a very desperate day try to play a golf-ball off the garage wall with a stump – after you know whom. (We hardly ever made contact, but the game got nasty if the golf ball ricocheted back off a paving stone.) The test match had been set up by the batting of Benaud and Davidson, when other teams might have gone for a draw*. My mate – his name was Kim Eason, and he was trying to be a wrist spinner – and I could hardly contain ourselves. The game was so up and down. We could not believe that it was a tie! As I recall it, Michael Charlton even lost his cool. This was when our cricket came out of a very boring period of a kind of sectarian disgust with the Poms. Cricket got to a level of popularity – as a game – that it has not got to again. This was all down to the West Indies and Richie Benaud. It was ticker-tape parade stuff, a fantastic achievement. We were witnessing attacking cricket but played as a game – at a very high altitude.
The second was a World Cup final. The West Indies were batting, I think second. The game was open. Richards was in with, I think, Colin Croft. Some trundler was trying to hold his own. Then Richards stepped right away to expose all his stumps and smote – not struck, but smote, or more modernly, smoked – the ball that crashed into the pickets at point, and bounced back a third of the way to the pitch. All the coloured dudes were whooping and hollering and giving high fives. Richards was leaning back on his bat chewing his gum and giving tout le monde a cool, icy stare, capless. Raw, black muscled power. Then Benaud said, sotto voce: ‘There was an element of contempt in that stroke.’ That, ladies and gentlemen, was Sir Vivian Richards in action, performing an execution.
The third was the shirt. This was not a fashion statement. This was a bloody rite of passage, mate. For about the whole of the seventies, when I was supposed to be turning sane, the Smiler and I spent most of every summer in a cricket shirt – we called it the Richie Benaud – that was cut like a blowsy golf shirt, with no buttons done up in the V-neck, collar turned up, and sleeves ever so artlessly gathered between the elbow and the wrist. The Smiler could play and I couldn’t, but I was buggered if I was going to let an aberrant historical anecdote like that stand between me and my bronzed Anzac uniform. On a bad day, we might even sport a chain, like a dude called Lillee. I only relented when the truth was brought home to me that I while I may have qualified in some way an Anzac, I was anything but handsome or bronzed. This may have been my first serious intimation of mortality.
Benaud would be criticised by some, including me, for trashing the game with one day cricket and being too close to the money crowd like Packer and Murdoch. I am of that generation that saw the empowerment – that is, the enrichment – of the players as being bad for the game and its real players and fans. On reflection, I think that blaming Benaud or Packer for what has happened in cricket is like blaming Charles Darwin for evolution or Martin Luther for the Reformation.
Australian sports administrators were notoriously small minded and enclosed twerps without either grace or imagination. They were cordially loathed, and they deserved to be. (It is why a lot of people are cool on Bradman and Michael Clarke – they were seen to be too close to management.) The administrators in the old days treated the players – in both cricket and football – as rightless and mindless serfs. Like all inadequate people corrupted by power, they were supremely – sublimely – blind to the revolution that they were so sternly stoking. They deserved everything they bloodywell got, and we just have to live with the consequences and salvage what we can. Benaud was not scared to stand up to the Establishment, and in this country, that is no bad thing.
It was the place of Richie Benaud, a man of French descent, to show that even after the revolution, the game of cricket could be attended with some degree of professional grace and charm. That was a large job. It is not hard to imagine what other motor-mouthed spruikers who are fond of the mob might have done to us. We also tend to forget that his record for wickets taken in tests would only be broken by Lillee. For reasons that I cannot put my finger on, I think I might have Ian Chapple in as the captain of our all-stars – perhaps I feel more raw aggression in Chapple simply because I saw him more in action – but it was Benaud who put his stamp on that form of captaincy and cricket – as he did on cricket commentary.
But if you want to know what a game of cricket was like in the days of its glory, get a film of the tied test, and watch one of the greatest sporting contests you will ever see. Just watch the dead pan reaction of most players when a wicket falls – except for the last over, which is unconfined hysteria; look at Benaud lead his team, and look at the frightening explosive power of Gary Sobers, whose execution of a bowler could be more flamboyant even than that of Richards; and then get hold of the famous after-dinner address by Wes Hall in which he describes the last over of that match. (‘I’m watching you, Winfield.’) Then you might know what drove John Milton to write Paradise Lost.
As for me, I will try to find a shirt that I can flash before the Wolf in front of the fire, and then raise a glass to a great dead cricketer and, thank heaven, a very decent Australian.
*According to this morning’s press, they were 6 for 92 chasing 232. Any team I was in would have adjourned to the bar.