Richie Benaud solves Michael Slater’s predicament

Richie Benaud could be deceptively mischievous off the air, even in the commentary box.

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Richie Benaud, Tony Greig, and Michael Slater; do note Benaud’s poker-faced expression © Getty Images
Richie Benaud, Tony Greig, and Michael Slater; do note Benaud’s poker-faced expression © Getty Images

Richie Benaud was, and remains, the template of stately commentary. However, off the air he could be deceptively mischievous, even in the commentary box, as Abhishek Mukherjee narrates.

Try to picture the scenario. A Test at Lord’s, the ground they refer to as The Home of Cricket. They are playing for the Ashes. Richie Benaud, epitome of dignity, is donning the microphone for Channel 4.

Ashes, Lord’s, and Benaud: there have been greater contests involving bat and ball, but few with as much seriousness at stake.

It was also Michael Atherton’s first Test as commentator. Atherton, as one would expect from a young commentator, tried to be around the master as much as possible. Also in the commentary box was Michael Slater, a man on board Channel 4 even when he was an active Test cricketer.

Now Slater was no stranger to thinking on the spot. When the entire commentary team had failed to show up on time for the Australia-Kenya World Cup 1996 encounter at Visakhapatnam, the team had roped in Slater (Australia were batting and Slater was left out). Slater did a commendable job — including the pitch report, a role usually done by Tony Greig (who was delayed).


This was different. If anything, it was too basic, and not something solvable by quick thinking. You see, Slater was unsure about the past tense of ‘sneak’: was it ‘snuck’ or ‘sneaked’?

Note: In case you are confused, ‘sneaked’ is the generally accepted form, though the somewhat obscure ‘snuck’ is also used — though I cannot say I have seen it in print. “The form snuck has found its way into use despite having no precedent amongst other verbs ending in -eak (creak, squeak, leak, etc.),” says Oxford Dictionary.

It is unlikely that there was no dictionary in that commentary box. After all, these were men who wove their careers around words (and what words they were!), and high-speed internet was still not in vogue.

Whatever the reason was, Slater decided to approach Benaud for verification in a style befitting him: “Hey Rich, can I use the word ‘snuck’, or is it ‘sneaked’? Whaddya think?”

Atherton described Benaud’s poise: “Richie finished his sandwich and then ticked his fancy. Then, in characteristic fashion, he raised an eyebrow and turned to Slater.”

If you have seen Benaud on air enough, you can almost picture him doing this.

Time almost came to a halt for everyone in the studio, more for Slater than for anyone else. Then Benaud responded in that voice of his: “Michael, quit a few ‘ucks’ come to mind, but ‘sn’ is not one of them.”

What followed in the box? Take a guess. It will perhaps be as good as mine.

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