Richie Benaud: Cricket’s ultimate all-rounder
Despite her plethora of characters, cricket has probably not met anyone like Richie Benaud, who has contributed more © Getty Images

Few, perhaps none, have been as synonymous to cricket as Richie Benaud. Abhishek Mukherjee looks back at an amazing career of one of the greatest names in cricket.

Let us, for once, do the impossible: let us keep aside the fact that Richie Benaud was the most heard voice in cricket fraternity. Let us look back at the 1950s and 1960s, when Benaud used to give the seasoned ball a serious rip; used to clear the infield with his lofted strokes, often unconventional; pull off stunners from close quarters; and lead Australia without losing a single series. Richie Benaud passes away: Cricket muted, for once

Australia has always had a rich tradition of wrist-spin, but from the between-the-Wars heydays of Clarrie Grimmett and Bill O’Reilly to the arrival of Shane Warne, lay half a century. There had to be a bridge somewhere: that bridge turned out to be a man of French origin from the unheralded Penrith.

Benaud did spin the ball, but not substantially.  There was seldom a mystery ball. But Benaud was brave and imaginative. If there was a spot on the pitch, Benaud would invariably be the first to find it, and keep hitting the spot unless something happened. He could assert himself on batsmen. He bought wickets. He lured the batsmen with flight and close-in fields. The vicious googly and top-spinner were added to his arsenal much later; and last came the flipper, which completed the making of Benaud, the finest leg-spinner in probably half a century. Read: Richie Benaud — A great all-rounder and the voice of cricket

From 63 Tests, Benaud finished with 248 Test wickets — then the most for an Australian. An average of 27.03 was definitely impressive, and sounds remarkable if one combines it with 2,201 runs at 24.45.

Benaud was aggressive with the bat, did not hesitate to go over the top, and if he saw a sliver of chance, he gave it his all to convert it into an opportunity. His maiden Test hundred — a 96-minute 121 — was the third-fastest at that time (he had reached his hundred in 78 minutes). Watch: Eight videos that highlight Richie Benaud’s career

Anecdotes run aplenty. There was the Scarborough Festival match of 1956 when Benaud, still new to the highest level, was on the defensive. A Yorkshire fielder taunted him: “What the matter, laad? Art playing for average?” Benaud immediately lofted Johnny Wardle into the stands.

Of Australian all-rounders, only Keith Miller had better numbers. It was not a coincidence that Benaud idolised Miller while growing up. In fact, he did not wear a cap on the field in his younger days: imitating Nugget was more important than physical danger or warding off heat. Read: Five most memorable quotes by the ‘Voice of Cricket’

The lack of all-rounders of the highest quality in Australian cricket is almost astonishing (not even Warwick Armstrong or Alan Davidson — champions of their respective eras — managed the double of 2,000 runs and 100 wickets); even in 1980s, the “decade of all-rounders”, there was no Australian in the running.

Benaud led Australia in 28 Tests, winning 12 and losing only four. There were seven series in all; he won five and drew two. He won series in India and Pakistan, against West Indies at home, regained the Ashes, retained it in England, and retained it back home. Not many captains have achieved that.

He got the best out his way. Davidson would have testified for that more than anyone else. Benaud broke barriers. Videos of Jim Laker’s 19-wicket haul would make you think that nobody was surprised when wickets fell. The West Indian high-fives came later, but Benaud broke barriers by hugging his teammates. He bowled with his shirt buttons undone. He was a man for the crowd.

They called him lucky. After Australia won at Old Trafford in 1961, Neil Harvey asked him to take a dip in the bathtub: “Go on, Rich, dive in. With your luck, you won’t even get wet.”

“Captaincy is 90 per cent luck and 10 per cent skill. But don’t try it without that 10 per cent,” were his own words. It was not necessarily about luck: he wanted to win Tests, not draw them, that too in an era when flat wickets, defensive batting, and generally, drab cricket was the norm of the era.

Nothing exemplifies Benaud’s attitude more than his conversation with Don Bradman at The Gabba. At tea on the final day of that tied Test, Australia needed 124 in two hours with Davidson and Benaud at the crease. Bradman asked Benaud: “What is it going to be?”

There was no hesitation: “Well, we’re going for a win.”

“I’m very pleased to hear it,” said the legend.

Likewise, in Benaud’s “other” Test at Old Trafford, England needed 106 to win with nine wickets in hand. The solution was simple: “I felt that, while we could not save the game, we might still win it.” And Australia won.

And then (I am skipping the journalism bit here, along with the fact that he acted the mentor during the initiation period of Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket), there was the commentary bit — the sophisticated, erudite, insightful, unbiased, lovable, unexcitable voice that everyone loved to imitate that made him the unanimously accepted “voice of cricket”.

Despite her plethora of characters, cricket has probably not met anyone who has contributed more. Bradman? Perhaps, but none other.

(Abhishek Mukherjee is the Chief Editor and Cricket Historian at CricketCountry. He blogs here and can be followed on Twitter here.)