Richie Benaud (left) was one of the very few to out-quip Don Bradman © Getty Images
Richie Benaud (left) was one of the very few to out-quip Don Bradman © Getty Images

His commentary days were still some time away, but Richie Benaud was never short on comebacks. On February 13, 1959 at Melbourne, Don Bradman and he got involved in an interesting conversation of sorts just before an Ashes Test. Abhishek Mukherjee looks back.

Richie Benaud was Australia’s newest captain, and he had been doing a splendid job of it. Australia won the 1958-59 Ashes by a resounding 4-0 margin. The urn was finally back in Australia after 8 years and three series.

England were led by an aloof Peter May and managed by a dictatorial Freddie Brown. Injuries to multiple cricketers did not help their cause. The umpiring was not the best. At least four Australians — Ian Meckiff, Gordon Rorke, Keith Slater, and Jim Burke — had suspect actions, while Rorke (and even Ray Lindwall) was reported for ‘dragging’ their feet over the crease while bowling.

None of that, however, justified the whopping 4-0 margin. The chasm between the two sides was simply too gaping.

Benaud was obviously exalted. Before the series he had never been a part of an Ashes-winning squad. May recalled Benaud’s confession to him in A Game Enjoyed: “I’ve played three series against England over nearly six years and I’ve never known what it’s like to win one before.”

Australia had already won the series by the time the teams arrived in Melbourne for the fifth Test. Just before the Test, the selectors (Don Bradman, Jack Ryder, and Dudley Seddon) pulled a trick out of their hats: they included four fast bowlers (Alan Davidson, Lindwall, Meckiff, and Rorke) on a pitch that did not seem to have much for their breed.

Benaud was aghast. He went up to Bradman: “You’ve left me with four fast bowlers.”

“That’s your worry,” Bradman chuckled.

Whether Benaud’s reaction gave it away is unknown, but Bradman somehow suspected something. Four fast bowlers could, after all, mean only one thing.

So Bradman asked: “It’s never been done before, did you know?”

“What hasn’t?” asked Benaud.

“No captain has ever sent England in to bat in Australia and won the match.”

It was Benaud’s turn to chuckle: “Well, there’s always a first time, you know.”

He strode out with May. “A few minutes later we knew Benaud was not bluffing,” recalled Norman O’Neill in Ins and Outs: Benaud had indeed put England in.

England were shot out for 205 and 214. Leaving nothing to chance, Benaud himself took 5 for 57 in the Test with his leg-breaks. He also scored 64, and Australia won by 9 wickets.

Yes, Benaud became the first captain to “send England in to bat in Australia and win the match.”

Brief scores:

England 205 (Peter Richardson 68, John Mortimore 44*; Alan Davidson 3 for 38, Richie Benaud 4 for 43) and 214 (Colin Cowdrey 46, Tom Graveney 54; Ray Lindwall 3 for 37, Gordon Rorke 3 for 41) lost to Australia 351 (Colin McDonald 133, Richie Benaud 64, Wally Grout 74; Fred Trueman 4 for 92, Jim Laker 4 for 93) and 69 for 1 (Colin McDonald 51*) by 9 wickets.