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John Benaud: Donned many a hat, but remained eclipsed by his brother Richie

John Benaud (front row sitting). Photo Courtesy: Parramatta High School website.
John Benaud (seated third from left). Photo Courtesy: Parramatta High School website.

Born May 11, 1944, John Benaud remained forever overshadowed by his legendary brother’s achievements in every aspect of the sport. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at a cricketer-turned selector who played a crucial role in Australia’s resurgence in the late-1980s.

John Benaud’s was a classic example of how a blood-relationship with a legend can deter a blooming career. Men like Richard Hutton, Rohan Gavaskar, Merv Harvey, Trevor Chappell and Barry Hadlee had all been through this, and Benaud was no exception.

Still remembered by many as Richie Benaud’s brother, John had carved out a niche of his own by virtue of his power-packed batting, thanks to his amazingly strong shoulders and muscles. If Richie had been an excellent all-rounder and captain and is still a legendary commentator, John was also a New South Wales (NSW) captain, renowned for his tactical acumen. He later went onto play a major role in restructuring the Australian team in their crisis days.

Curiously enough, though John’s career had been eclipsed by Richie’s, the younger brother had the better Test batting and bowling averages of the two [albeit based on a small sample]:

M R Ave W Ave
Richie Benaud 63 2,201 24.45 248 27.03
John Benaud 3 223 44.6 2 6

John Benaud played only 47 First-Class matches, mostly for NSW. He scored 2,888 runs at 36.55 with four hundreds, and though his military-medium fetched him a couple of wickets in Tests, he managed only three more at First-Class level.

Early days

Born to Louis (“Lou”) and Irene at Auburn, Sydney, John was 13 years younger to Richie. Lou was a third-generation Australian of French Huguenot descent who played for Penrith in Sydney Grade Cricket [he had once finished with a match haul of 20 for 65 in a match against St Mary’s].

The Benauds later moved to Parramatta, and John followed Richie’s footsteps into Parramatta High School. He went on lead the First XI. Phoenix, the school magazine, wrote of him in 1960 [roughly about the time when Richie was leading Australia]:

Comment on John Benaud. Photo Courtesy: Parramatta High School website.
Comment on John Benaud. Photo Courtesy: Parramatta High School website.

John took up a job at Sydney Sun as a copy-boy. He was awarded a journalism cadetship, and he continued to work there till the newspaper was closed down in 1988 thanks to Warwick Fairfax’s kamikaze decision to privatise the newspaper. At that time John had been elevated to the Editor-in-Chief.

He made his First-Class debut at 22 in a Sheffield Shield match against Victoria at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG), scoring 26 and 47. Two seasons later he was appointed NSW captain, and top-scored with 134 against the same opposition at the same ground that season. He was inexplicably sacked from captaincy in 1970, following which Richie returned the life membership of NSW Cricket Association in protest. It was not the only bizarre decision he was at the receiving end of.

Following his sacking John amassed 130 and 39 against Victoria at home, followed by 66 and 102 not out [as NSW chased down 238] against Queensland at home two matches later.

Putting himself in the wrong shoes

Cricket gear had gone through a phase of evolution during the end-1960s, and for some unfathomable reason the Boards did not approve of this and created rules that can only be termed as ridiculous.

Gideon Haigh later wrote in Silent Revolutions: “In January 1970, the nabobs of the New South Wales Cricket Association informed players by letter that the only ‘regulation’ cricket book had six spikes in the sole and three in the heel. They were objecting to the low-cut, lightweight Adidas shoes, where the ankle was free to do as nature intended, and which obtained their grip from rubber heels and angled wedges.”

The shoes were classified as “unsafe and unsound”; John Benaud, however, refused to abide by the new rule, used Adidas Grass-Sports shoes, and was banned. Haigh later wrote that “the ban was repealed after a month of ridicule”. He missed two matches.

Taking on the best

Following South Africa’s ban, a World XI toured Australia for five “Tests”; Benaud played in three of these against an attack that consisted of Peter Pollock, Garry Sobers, Tony Greig, Intikhab Alam, and Bishan Bedi, among others. At MCG [famous for Garry Sobers’ 254] Benaud, batting at four, scored 24 and 42.

He followed this performance with 54 and 17 at the Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG), but the real performance came at Adelaide Oval: he top-scored with 99 before edging Intikhab to slip, adding 177 for the fourth wicket with Greg Chappell, adding 27 more in the second innings. Despite the decent outing, he was omitted from the subsequent tour of England.

Keith Stackpole later wrote in his autobiography Not Just for Openers: “The strangest omission was [John] Benaud, who made 99, smashing the bowling from one end of the field to the other. When he was out everyone was disappointed for him. Would one extra run mean the difference between his going to England and staying at home? I think it did.”

The selectors nevertheless relented, and John Benaud made his debut next season against Pakistan at Adelaide Oval.

Test debut

Intikhab chose to bat, and Pakistan were soon reduced to 104 for six against Dennis Lillee and Bob Massie. A 104-run seventh-wicket stand between Intikhab and Wasim Bari took Pakistan to 257, but it was nowhere close to enough as the hosts amassed 585 with Ian Chappell and Rodney Marsh scoring hundreds. John Benaud, making his debut 20 years after Richie [still a world record among brothers] scored 24. Ashley Mallett then ran through the tourists, bowling them out for 214.

It was the turn of Ian Redpath and Greg Chappell to score hundreds at MCG as Ian Chappell declared at 441 for five. Pakistan responded emphatically, scoring 574 for eight banking on hundreds from Sadiq Mohammad and Majid Khan and four fifties. Benaud walked out to join Paul Sheahan after Saleem Altaf had Redpath caught-behind with 18 on the board.

By that time the Australians had already announced the team for the third Test at SCG, and Benaud was not a part of it. It was the unfortunate Pakistani bowlers who suffered his wrath as he plundered 142 — his highest First-Class score — in 207 balls with 18 fours and two sixes. Sheahan [who scored a hundred as well] was reduced to a spectator in the 233-run stand, which came to a halt only when Altaf had Benaud caught-behind.

Set 293 for a win, the Pakistanis lost by 92 runs thanks to three run outs and some quality bowling from Max Walker. Benaud missed the third Test at his home ground. Pakistan collapsed in a heap against Lillee and Walker: chasing 159 they had reached 52 for two before they were dismissed for 106.

A sudden retirement

The selectors sort of compensated for the axing at SCG by picking him for the tour of West Indies that followed. Benaud did not do too well in the tour matches, but with Australia up 2-0 going into the dead-rubber fifth Test at Queen’s Park Oval, he was recalled.

Ian Chappell declared the innings closed at 419 for eight [Benaud scored eight]. Coming out after a 100-run lead, Chappell set the West Indians a target of 319 in four-and-a-half hours. Benaud’s 36 was a single short of Ian Chappell’s score, the highest of the innings. West Indies shut shops after Roy Fredericks and Maurice Foster fell early, and Charlie Davis and Alvin Kallicharran helped themselves to what seemed like a Test-saving stand.

Suddenly Chappell summoned Benaud, who had taken only three First-Class wickets till then. Benaud responded soon, having Kallicharran caught by Kerry O’Keeffe, and clean bowled Davis. With Terry Jenner having Deryck Murray caught at slip Australia sniffed a chance, but Rohan Kanhai and Clive Lloyd saved the Test. Benaud finished with 4-1-12-2, his First-Class best.

Following the Test Benaud abruptly quit from all forms of the sport. Years later, in an interview with Mid-Day, he said: “When I was picked to play for Australia [in 1972-73], I had just got married, had two children and a mortgage to clear. I had to extend my cricket career with lots of other things. Cricket was never going to pay my bills. I was honest to myself. I knew that I was only in the top 15 best players in the country. I was never guaranteed a Test spot. Sure, I did okay when I got the chance. You know it’s easy to look at batting averages and predict how a player could have gone. If I had played 30 Tests, I would have averaged only 20.”

Cover for book on John Benaud. Photo Courtesy: eBay.
Cover for book on John Benaud.

Donning many hats

John Benaud continued to work as a journalist since the above-mentioned incident of 1988. He was then offered the position of a national selector [as a replacement of Greg Chappell], a role he executed to perfection in the years to follow. Starting with the inclusion of Mark Taylor [which eventually culminated in the Ashes victory of 1989 — the series that triggered the ascent of Australian cricket].

Benaud’s most famous contribution to world cricket was one that changed the face of the sport for well over a decade. In his words, “The panel’s philosophy was to stick to guys that we thought would go the distance. [Shane] Warne was definitely one of them. I still consider it one my wisest decisions. Can you imagine if Warne hadn’t got the backing he deserved? World cricket would have been poorer.”

And thus the Victorian blonde helped revive leg-spin.

John Benaud also ghost-authored Allan Border’s autobiography and co-authored a book with Dean Jones. He later wrote Matters of Choice: A Test Selector’s Story based on his own experiences as an Australian selector. Reviewing it for Wisden, Mark Lawson wrote that the book provided “intriguing insights into the mixture of statistical chicanery, personal friendships, regional politics, hunches and finger-crossing that decides the identities of Test elevens in most parts of the world.”

John Benaud had settled down at Blue Mountains in 1971 and continues to live there. His son Jamie (born 1971) is a fire-fighter and Hazardous Materials Technician/Specialist at NSW Fire Brigades. John’s daughter Nicole (born 1973) is a teacher at Technical and Further Education (TAFE).

(Abhishek Mukherjee is the Deputy Editor and Cricket Historian at CricketCountry. He blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in and can be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ovshake42)

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