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 they craved but let them decide if they kept it.

The game won't be the same. 

In your memory Benordy, it will be better.