Richie Benaud: cricket legend commentator dies at 84

by Priyo Australia | April 9, 2015 10:16 pm

Richie Benaud[1], the former Australia captain, journalist and legendary broadcaster, has died in Sydney aged 84. He had fought a long battle with skin cancer and had also suffered from the after-effects of a serious car accident near his Coogee home in late 2013.

A legspinner and aggressive batsman, Benaud’s 248 wickets made him Australia’s leading Test bowler of all time when he retired in 1964, having also never lost a series in which he was captain.

His captaincy achievements included the return of the Ashes to Australia after a gap of seven years in 1958-59, a key role in the epic 1960-61 home series against the West Indies that featured the first tied Test in Brisbane, and the conjuring of a miraculous victory over England at Manchester in 1961.

Melding flair and pragmatism in a way that would be emulated by successors including Ian Chappell, Mark Taylor and the incumbent captain Michael Clarke, Benaud helped breathe life back into Test cricket after a relatively moribund period for the game in the 1950s.

But Benaud would have arguably as much impact on the game as a broadcaster in England and Australia, a trade he moved into having worked as a police reporter before his playing retirement. His spare, dry style and ability to add to the images on screen rather than talking over the top of them was distinctive.

He also played a key role in the establishment of World Series Cricket as a key organiser of the breakaway competition for Kerry Packer and then the host of Channel Nine’s coverage in 1977. It was a role Benaud would hold for most of the next 48 years, while living an “endless summer” with his second wife Daphne that took in work for the BBC and then Channel Four in England during Australian winters.

Taking strong note of his journalistic training, Benaud was seldom given to expressing fervent opinion nor to hark back to his playing days. A generation of Australian children grew up knowing him only as a television host and commentator, and he was often asked if he had ever been a player.

A preference for cool detachment and observation meant that on the odd occasion he did raise his voice in critique it was extremely resonant – his closing broadcast remarks following Greg Chappell’s ordering of the under arm in a World Series final against New Zealand at the MCG in 1981 provided one such example.

Wally Edwards, the Cricket Australia chairman, spoke of Benaud’s impact on the game. “Our country has lost a national treasure,” he said. “After Don Bradman, there has been no Australian player more famous or more influential than Richie Benaud.

“Richie stood at the top of the game throughout his rich life, first as a record-breaking leg-spinner and captain, and then as cricket’s most famous broadcaster who became the iconic voice of our summer. He was an important influence in the formation of Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket in 1977, a climactic event at the time but one which has left a lasting, positive influence on the game.

“Away from the camera he was a leader, mentor and positive influencer of an extraordinary number of cricketers. And despite his role as the treasured grandfather of the game, he remained deeply in touch with modern developments, embracing Twenty20 when others of older eras shunned it.

“His passing today marks a profound loss to our nation. Australian cricket and the game’s legions of fans extend deepest sympathies to Richie’s wife Daphne, brother John and the entire Benaud family at this sad time.”

Memorably, Benaud concluded his days as a commentator in England towards the end of the final day of the epic 2005 Ashes series, which also happened to be the last time Test cricket was broadcast on free to air television in Britain. He signed off to applause from around The Oval as England closed in on the Ashes.

In Australia his hosting and commentary duties were gradually scaled back with advancing years, though Nine made every effort to keep him involved as much as possible. Only days before his November 2013 car accident he was glimpsed filming a promotional spot at North Sydney Oval, and after recovering enough to re-appear publicly he was a welcome presence at Nine’s season launch at the outset of last summer.

That day, Benaud spoke of the difficult times he had encountered, while offering a poignant word of advice about the effects of skin cancer, which emerged following his years of playing the game under the Australian sun, typically with shirt open to the waist and hat seldom worn.

“When I was a kid, we never, ever wore a cap. Not the flash ones,” he said at the launch. “‘Nugget’ Miller never wore a cap, so I didn’t. I wish I had. I recommend to anyone: they should have protection on their skin and on their heads. I can give you one good reason for that. Eighty-four-year-olds just don’t seem to mend as well as they used to.”

A few weeks later, Benaud’s voice would be given most emotively to the narration of Nine’s tribute to Phillip Hughes. The fragility of his words suggested that Benaud himself did not have too much time left. He never did get the chance to say goodbye to the Australian television audience, leaving a gulf that Nine’s chief executive David Gyngell described.

“Richie Benaud’s passing has robbed us not only of a national treasure, but a lovely man,” he said. “Richie earned the profound and lasting respect of everyone across the world of cricket and beyond – first as an outstanding player and captain, then as an incomparable commentator, and through it all as a wonderful human being.

“Richie is a true legend not only to all the people who knew him, but to the many millions who didn’t. Which speaks volumes. He’s been part of the Australian psyche.

“We shall miss him dearly, but we’ll forever treasure his indelible memory and all the marvellous values for which he stood. Cricket is very much the richer for Richie Benaud’s lifelong engagement. And so are we all. Our deepest sympathies go to Daphne and Richie’s family.”

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig[2]

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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