Friday, 10 April 2015

The Beige, The Bone, The Off White ...

When I was a kid, I always wanted my Dad to take me to the cricket but my old man, no lover of crowds or traffic, avoided it, so most of my early experiences at the SCG were with relatives or a mates' parents. As I grew older, it was with mates themselves. So my poem, about the first time I ever went down to what Paul Kelly describes as "the hallowed ground", had as its experience, two days of the West Indies v Australia Test of February 1969 with my brother in law, a then Kogarah policeman and a good man to follow through a crowd.


The first time my old man took me to the cricket was a year later, when Bill Lawry's men were getting a hiding in South Africa. It was a Shield game but in those days, the quality of first class cricket when the Test team was out of the country was high enough to rate it the toughest first class competition in the world. We were sitting on a grassed section at the Paddo end, in the days when Bradman, O'Reilly, Trumper and the league player Churchill were just great players who once performed on the ground, not the ticketed seating they would become.


NSW were well in control after that Randwick tyro Ron Crippin had smashed a quick 70 odd and when the wicket fell, my brother Art was sent rushing down the hill to the fence to read the scoreboard and find out who the next batsman was. He rushed back, with news that Benordy was next in. It was John, not Richie and not long after, the younger was suspended for wearing rubber soled shoes with a maker's three stripes prominently displayed when he batted.


Brother Richie, former state captain, former Test captain, then current life member of the NSW Cricket Association resigned his membership the day after the sentence was delivered.


Such was the nature of the man. His public statements made it clear, this was no act of brotherly love but one of principal and resentment that officialdom would not let the game move forward. The game must continue to recognise its past, reward its current players well and innovate for the future. It was the Benaud mantra.


Born in Penrith but following his father into the Cumberland First XI at 16, he played his first state game for the NSW colts at the age of 18 in November 1948 and then for the Shield side a month later. His old man had been a leggie - one good enough to take all twenty wickets in a first grade game for Penrith - but in his early days, Richie was a specialist batsman who bowled a few leg breaks which "kept him involved in the game", according to one of his early books on cricket.


Ever the competitor, he once told Keith Miller that one of his biggest disappointments in a stellar career was to have debuted in big time cricket after Bradman retired and therefore never having the chance to bowl to him. Miller considered this to be no misfortune but rather an example of Benaud's extraordinary luck!


Some believe him arrogant. Certainly officials at the SCG were unimpressed when he ignored them at the member's gate, instead driving his Sunbeam past them and parking behind the Ladies Stand, near the players dressing room. Much later, the SCG Trust would erect a statue of Benaud in that very spot: although whether it was from respect or to finally stop him parking there, is not certain.


One could chronicle his playing days, riddled as they were with achievements, records and Test match winning performances but that would be to miss the point because it would be too small a vista on which to examine him.


Richie Benaud had only one other love as great as his beloved Daphne and it was the grand old dame of cricket herself. Unlike many of his age and those ages before him, he grew from a time of post war optimism exemplified by contemporaries like Miller and Hassett and it showed in his cricket but even more in the manner of the man.


People often say his transition from cricketer to commentator was marvellous - or is that, MAR ... VELL ... OUS - and the model for a pathway followed so easily by those since who have reached the top of their game but in doing so, they forget that Benaud was developing as a first rate journalist at the same time as he was becoming an international cricketer. His early days on Sydney's Daily Telegraph weren't spent drinking beers while a ghost writer penned his cricketing thoughts. His first job was as a police roundsman, reporting on the seamy side of the harbour city.


Over the years, his journalistic integrity would stand him in good stead and it was this basic training that allowed him to stay impartial as a commentator. Only once did that detached demeanour get broken. During a highlights package of the infamous Greg Chappell inspired under arm incident, he let loose a spray at the Australian captain, calling it the worst thing he had ever seen on a cricket field.


Why was he so respected? For younger fans, it was probably his age and longevity and his many idiosyncratic verbal mannerisms. For those who think cricket started in 1977, he has been the one and only voice of the game, speaking with the authority of his experiences and with the backing of Kerry Packer, who from 1979 until his death, was the real Board of Control of Australian Cricket. Richie, the suave BBC commentator since 1964, was the perfect figurehead of the new wave Channel 9 coverage. He bought gravitas to temper the emotion of Bill Lawry and Tony Greig. 


What he really bought was something he had always bought to the game, to his work, to his life: dignity, expertise, calm and a sense of style. For an innovator, he was unusual because although cutting edge, he was always smooth and shrewd in equal proportions. Richie was a class act in the same way that Shane Warne is not. Crass was a harsh word to be used advisedly, not a lifestyle choice.


Yet, despite his refinement, there lurked in Benaud a wit so dry, so subtle that when exposed, it often went undetected by those less capable. Benaud could make a point by what he omitted to say, far more effectively than the modern commentator can with graphics and pitch maps and tales of their own daring do. Pointedly, Benaud rarely talked of his own playing deeds. He didn't lavish praise, he gave it sparingly. He may have used the word "legend" once or twice in his broadcasting career rather than letting it roll off the tongue like a slogan. 


He once said that the value of the pause should never be underestimated and took his guide from early instruction on BBC television coverage of cricket. His role, he said, was to provide captions to the pictures on the screen. If he couldn't add anything meaningful to what the viewer judged for themselves, Benaud would sit in silence. It was a style banished to the past by the current brood who speak in order to assure themselves and others that they are still alive.


That we will miss him is assured. Some of us still miss Alan McGilvray: an infinitely better commentator but one who had no more passion for the game than Benaud. Today, some have said Richie was the voice of the Australian summer but when I smell the first mown grass in Spring, it's McGilvray I think of. That, of course, may well be a generational thing. 


Just like  the word legend, the word respect is often abused by overuse. For its proper usage, consider Richie Benaud. He respected the game. He respected it's traditions. He respected its best practitioners but more so, those who had added to the game. He respected innovation. In return, he never once asked for or expected respect.


Many who love the game and survived the shock of the late seventies, have said thank God for Kerry Packer. Mr Packer may well have seen such statements as tautology. A more accurate assessment may not have been to thank God or Kerry or any other deities but rather thank Richie Benaud, who tempered the extremes of the Packer Circus, encouraging the work of the clowns, wary of the lions and dismissive of the same hyenas who had sought to keep the game as it was in the 1940's.


Let's lay our praise at the feet of the visionary cricketer, man and commentator Richie Benaud. So much of what we love about this reinvented game which parades before us in its colourful splendour was nourished by this quiet, refined man who was prepared to offer all the respect thry craved but let them decide if they kept it.


The game won't be the same. 

In your memory Benordy, it will be better.  

Sunday, 11 January 2015

It's Not All Been Milk and Honey

Easy batting conditions
Australia's Test summer ended with another fizzle at the SCG - just as it had in Melbourne - with the
blame falling on immature captaincy, an ineffective bowling performance from Nathan Lyon and yet another victory for curators.

The Australians will have the satisfaction of a series victory but it was won narrowly in the end. Michael Clarke's heroics, David Warner's ferocious mental toughness and Virat Kohli's enthusiasm/arrogance gave Australia the first Test and then India's only batting collapse the second. Beyond that, it was a series dominated by the curators.

Short form cricket has finally infected the men who make our pitches in Australia. Its desire for batting heroics and the transformation of bowlers into sterile bowling machines has created the demand for flat wickets that will last the distance. Gone are the decaying 4th and 5th day wickets and the need for quality spin. Gone are the green 1st day wickets which seam and and spit. All that is left is a consistent bounce for five days from these perfectly manicured and pampered drop ins which do nothing else but behave. It would seem that Warner and Smith have made the transition from short form whackers to Test batsmen, only to find themselves back on the pitches they started on.

At least Sydney had more in keeping with a tradition Test wicket but it took until late in the 4th day before it started to misbehave and even then, only one wicket fell to anything which was out of the ordinary.

We therefore had a series where bat so dominated the ball that good men were left broken by its end. Ryan Harris will be months recovering and Mitch Johnson had to be mothballed in Sydney to preserve him for more important matters in the shorter form of the game. Six batsmen totaled more than 300 runs for the series and a staggering eleven averaged over 40. The fact that three Indians featured in each list points to conditions which favoured batting but even more telling, not one bowler averaged less than 30 per wicket. Nathan Lyon (21 wickets) might have finished as the leading wicket taker but only courtesy a bag in Adelaide as India chased hard in the last session. His following three Tests netted him 9@45.

For the Australians, Warner, Rogers, Clarke and Smith showed they are the class batting members and the men at the core of a batting line up which feasted this summer. Johnson, Harris and the new boy Hazelwood were easily the best of the bowlers, with Lyon, despite his 12 wickets in Adelaide and Starc, diminished and unable to deliver, consistently, when it most counts. That is, of course, the difference in Test cricket: consistency. Starc, like others before him - Bevan and Bracken are two who come to mind - is immensely skilled and dangerous in the moment but he hasn't the temperament to do the hard work across five days. Watson, Marsh and Burns may have made runs but against the swinging ball in England, their loose techniques will be rather easily swept aside.

Virat Kohli and Steve Smith
Smith, with the bat, was superb. His innovation and precociousness was the highlight of the summer but doubts remain against a swinging ball in the damp summer conditions ahead in England. He is good enough to adapt but hopefully he won't have the responsibility of leadership. Unlike Clarke, who hit the ground running as a skipper from his first Test, Smith has faltered. He threw victories away in Melbourne and Sydney, making decisions that were more than inexperience. His aggressive attitude when batting - much ignored by the media - was the initiator of at least half of the share of unpleasantness and friction between the teams. Kohli certainly was prepared to engage but he was often not the person who threw the first punch. Last summer, Clarke got into hot water via a director's decision to turn up a stump microphone but his was an act of backing his man in the face of an aggressor ... of drawing a line and warning Anderson not to step too far. Smith, by contrast, was bug eyed and looking for trouble, confronting the Indians by word and gesture, yet being the next Golden Boy, this went unreported.

This was a good result for Cricket Australia after the disruptive start to the Test series bought on by the consequences of the dreadfully sad demise of Phillip Hughes but there are more than enough danger signs. These will be, unfortunately, glossed over int he light of Smith's runs and the series victory.

A few to consider would be the age and state of decay of some of our best and the management of the players.

Harris will make England but it will be his last. Siddle remains in the mix but further back in the selectors plans. Rogers answered his critics but on easy batting tracks and his age is starting to condemn him, with back injuries starting to creep into older bones ...

... and then there's Clarke.

In his mid thirties and with a lengthening track record of injuries, his future is now much shorter than it might otherwise have been. His largest and most unavoidable obstacle is his back. As anyone with a lower back problem will tell you, the worst thing you can do to avoid back pain is to stand still for longer than a few minutes, so all day sessions in slips has gradually been ending his career. It seems counter intuitive but movement in the field is the best thing for him. There is no doubting his courage or his mental strength but spells away from the game have to affect his form and his confidence. His batting might be important but his captaincy is vital if Australia are to defend the Ashes.

Hughes always over their shoulder
Cricket Australia needs to seriously review it management of the players during the past few months. The way in which they allowed the reaction to Phil Hughes death escalate to a state where it so dominated players that any catch, wicket or boundary was declared in his honour and in the process, detracted from the dignity with which he played the game and maintained relationships. Too many requests were acceded too, leaving the cricket followers and in particular the players, unable to get on with the process of grieving individually and coming to terms with what his death means to them. Corporate grief never works and now, after prolonging the beginnings of coping in order to get their players on the paddock, administrators are faced with the difficulty of how to start returning to normal. Clarke has made public claims that he will never again play a Test match without 408 on his shirt. Its a nice homage but it shouldn't be allowed, mostly because its a bad coping method.

Things have got way out of hand. It's time to remove the arm bands and move on. (see "When Is Enough, Enough?")

A surfeit of one day cricket lies ahead for our best over the next few months before sanity returns with a Test trip to the Caribbean. The West Indies gave a decent account of themselves in South Africa and will be even better at home, so they will be no easy beats.

Its been a summer of sweet and sour but only a cricket fool would think its all been milk and honey.