Richie Benaud was a great leg-spinner, a trend setting all-rounder and one of the most successful captains, who later became the voice of cricket. Arunabha Sengupta pays tribute to the most influential cricket personality since the Second World War on the great man’s 82nd birthday.
A sophisticated, refined man of French descent taking up cricket is a rarity verging on the unique. It is indeed doubly strange that this gentleman went on to become a trend-setting all-rounder, a legendary leg-spinner, one of the most successful captains and, subsequently, the undisputed voice of cricket.
As a batsman he was hard-hitting and a well known exponent of lofted drives; as a fielder one of the best close-in catchers of his era; and as a bowler, the Australian leg-spinning bridge between the glory days of Clarrie Grimmett and Bill O’Reilly and the modern era of Shane Warne.
Neither as talented nor as large a spinner of the ball as the other great Australian exponents of the art, Benaud was a master at exploiting rough patches on the surface and was known to generate disconcerting bounce. He was accurate to the extent of nagging and in his arsenal there lay concealed a well-disguised googly and a fantastic top-spinner. Late in his career he also developed a flipper.
Under his captaincy Australia won 12 Tests and were defeated in just four. Not one series was lost while Benaud was at the helm. The young team he had inherited had turned into dominant world beaters by the time he left the scene. His handling of key players – Alan Davidson in particular – was exemplary. In an era not known to demonstrate emotion on the field, Benaud stood with an unbuttoned shirt, raised eyebrows and embraced his players when wickets fell.
His fearless moves and natural charisma enlivened interest in Test cricket during an era when post-War circumspection and parsimonious approach to batting and bowling had made the game increasingly tedious for spectators.
Richie Benaud achieved a lot as a cricketer, but the wisdom he gathered and dispensed would become identifiable with his greying hair. His analytical mind was sought by great cricketers and administrators alike. Shane Warne considered him a mentor, Ian Chappell looked up to him for advice and Kerry Packer approached him for guidance during the World Series Championships.
As Gideon Haigh put it, “He is perhaps the most influential cricketer and cricket personality since the Second World War."
While reviewing Benaud’s autobiography, Anything But, Sri Lankan cricket writer Harold de Andrado wrote: "Richie Benaud, possibly next to Sir Don Bradman, has been one of the greatest cricketing personalities as player, researcher, writer, critic, author, organiser, adviser and student of the game."
Early years of struggle
Born on October 6, 1930, Benaud’s career did not soar to greatness from the beginning. In fact, for a long, long gestating period it did not even take off. He fumbled through the first few years while both he and the team management seemed unable to decide whether he was a batsman or a bowler.
Indeed he made his First-class debut as a specialist batsman. And in his Test debut at Sydney against West Indies in 1951-52, he was chosen primarily for his batting and came in at No 7, scoring three and 19. He bowled just four and a half overs.
In his second Test match, against South Africa at Melbourne, he was struck by a fierce square cut by John Waite while fielding at short gully and suffered a smashed gum and split upper lip. According to the doctors, the impact could have as easily broken his cheekbone or damaged his eye forever.
The Australian team in the early to mid-50s was overloaded with all-rounders. Keith Miller and Ray Lindwall were in the middle of their careers, while Benaud and Davidson were starting theirs. The balance was thus awkward and often tottering. There was a slump in the Australian performance and Benaud himself seldom set the ground on fire.
Still considered a batsman who could bowl, he did achieve some success with both bat and ball in the Caribbean in 1955, hitting his first century in Tests – in 78 minutes, the third fastest in history at that time.
Yet, after six years of international cricket, towards the end of 1956, the bottom line was alarming. He had managed just 815 runs at 21.44 and captured 50 wickets at 34.44 in 24 Tests, without a single five-for. Luckily, the selectors persisted with him.
The making of the all-rounder
It was during the tour to India in 1956-57 that Benaud showed signs of maturing into a top class leg-spinner. He took seven for 72 in Madras, and had figures of six for 52 and five for 53 in Calcutta. The Indians, including Polly Umrigar and Vijay Manjrekar, born and brought up on a steady diet of spinners, succumbed against the increasing thought Benaud seemed to be putting into his bowling.
The following tour to South Africa in 1957-58 tour saw the making of Richie Benaud, the great all-rounder. He struck two centuries and captured 30 wickets in the series, including a 100 along with bowling analyses of four for 70 and five 84 in the victorious fourth Test.
This series also established him as the greatest leg-spinner of the day, and pitch-forked him into the spot for captaincy ahead of Neil Harvey.
Success at the helm
During the Ashes series that followed, Benaud led Australia from the front – capturing 31 wickets in five Tests, securing the series 4-0. The astute innovation in his captaincy was both refreshing and remarkable. Success followed success, with Australia beating Pakistan and India in the subcontinent, and Benaud himself continued to enjoy phenomenal success with the ball.
However, the peak of his career, as well as the turning point for the game of cricket, was reached in 1960-61, when Frank Worrell’s West Indians arrived in Australia to play the most memorable series of all. The five Tests, including the tie in the first, saw exhilarating cricket, aggressive and attractive captaincy, and spirit that characterised all that the game was about.
Finally, there was a fantastic performance with which Benaud snatched the Ashes away from the jaws of England at Old Trafford in 1964. England had taken a huge 177 run lead in the first innings, and were 150 for one in the second, requiring 256 to win. Benaud masterfully bowled into the rough created by the footmarks, and in a devastating burst took five for 13 off 25 balls. During the final stages, he also utilised the occasional leg-spin of Bobby Simpson craftily. England collapsed to a 54 run defeat.
A fascinating account of the tie at Brisbane and the heist at Old Trafford can be found in Benaud’s A Tale of Two Tests.
He led Australia in two more series before retiring from cricket, in the process becoming the first all-rounder to achieve the 2000 run and 200 wicket double. His final figures stood at 2201 runs at 24.45 and 248 wickets at 27.03. For a while he remained the world record holder for the highest number of wickets in Tests.
Voice of cricket
After the 1956 England tour, Benaud stayed back in London to take a training course on radio presentation from BBC. He took up a journalism position with the News of the World, and soon became a sports columnist. Benaud got into the BBC commentary box in 1960. He later moved into television. His commentary retained the characteristics of his cricket – full of commonsense, direct and to the point.
After retirement, Benaud turned to full-time cricket journalism and commentary, and became the most respected and recognised - even the most universally imitated - voice in the game. Simply put, the voice of cricket.
(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)