It seems that one of the marks of getting old is watching the heroes of your childhood slowly pass from the world. As a proud and card-carrying geek, recently I was saddened by the passing of Leonard Nimoy and Sir Terry Pratchett. But, as most of you would be aware, there was another recent death—one that moved me even more deeply.
For most Australians of my generation—and for many others, young and old—Richie Benaud was the voice of cricket. Even if you were not particularly into the game, so ubiquitous was his presence that you could not have failed to hear him commentating, his mix of experience and knowledge illuminating every passage of play. Whether it was on the TV in the corner of the pub or the milk bar, or in your own longue room, as long as I can remember if you were following the game, Richie was there.
As a child I can remember sitting in front of the TV watching his mid-innings report—his hair seemingly immune from normal laws of physics—as he explained what the team chasing needed. Of course, that was back in the day when a required run rate of six an over seemed almost insurmountable.
It was also before Australia's rise to dominance, and I remember many games when they needed a lot of runs and only had a few tailenders left to bat (Merv was always good for a few lusty blows). But, no matter how tense the situation got, Richie would still be his same measured self, feeling no need to embellish the situation—letting the game speak for itself.
If there was a key to his success as a commentator, that was it. More than anyone else in the box, Richie understood that good cricket is its own best advertisement. He was not scared of those silences where the audience is simply allowed to observe, to get a sense of the game.
Sadly, most commentators now feel a need to always be talking, to always fill the gaps. Nor do many broadcasters understand that exciting play needs no adornment. A six is a six even if it isn't a DLF maximum. A great catch is a great catch even if there aren't literally fireworks. Richie understood that. He had faith in the game he loved that if you just let it speak for itself it would know what say.
But, that didn't mean that he was hidebound and resistant to change. This was the man at the heart of World Series Cricket, a paradigm shift that eclipses the IPL. He was also a keen adopter of new technology and statistical analysis. Remember some of the gadgets the Channel 9 team used? Tony out on the pitch with some bizarre environmental measuring device that told us the wind speed and temperature and humidity, while Richie was back in the studio nodding sagely? What about the obsession with strike rate and the whole batting a thousand phase? But none of these things were ever more important than the game itself.
This reflected his own playing days, when he tried to play an exciting brand of cricket, realising his own record was less important than the welfare of the sport. The game was not in good shape, and he had the backing of key figures like Bradman to go out and play aggressively, to provide a spectacle. He carried this into his commentating—not the aggressiveness, but the idea that the players were there to entertain the public. Rather than trying to insert himself into the game, he instead facilitated the relationship between the players on the oval and the audience watching at home. It was not about him, it was about what was happening on the ground.
With many retired players you get the sense that they have never really moved on, their anecdotes serving to bring the attention back to them rather than illuminate what is happening on the pitch. Richie brought all his experience and acumen to bear on the situation unfolding before us, but did not let it become a chain holding him back from the "now". There was no "it wasn't played like that in my day" or "that's not real cricket", but a real joy in the advances the game had made, combined with a deep love of its heritage.
I cannot remember Richie ever using the term "we" when referring to the Australian team—despite the years of his life that he had given in its service. He seemed a man content with what he had achieved in the past, and now willing to draw a line under it and move on—and bring the same qualities that made him a great all rounder to his new role.
I always got the sense that he was slightly bemused by his cult status, the armies of people in off-white blazers and hairpieces at games, or Billy Birmingham and his "two for twenty two". Everyone had their attempts at imitating that oh-so-tempting to imitate voice. But I hope that he recognised all those things for what they were—outpourings of affection by a public that loved him. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, after all.
The fragmentation of cricket coverage and the rise of Pay TV means that we will probably never get another Richie. Despite Channel 9's continued dominance, there is no "one" station that controls the message so completely as they once did. And there is no "one" face of cricket rising up to replace him. But, perhaps that is for the best. Someone like Richie is not replaceable, you can't groom a successor to simply don the beige jacket, put on a wry grin and call the game. The world has changed, the game has changed, and commentators have changed. That's the way it works, but I can still be sad for what has passed on.
Of the holy trinity of commentators who introduced me to this game I love so much, two are gone. Tony Greig seemed invincible, and Richie seemed immortal, but only Bill Lawry remains. Long may he tend his pigeons and defend Melbourne's honour! But, even when that sad day comes as it does for us all—their legacy will live on in the love for the game they gave to me, and to countless others.
Throughout this piece I have referred to him as "Richie". It might be considered a touch familiar perhaps—after all, I never had the pleasure of meeting him and I would have called Mr Benaud had I done so. But that was what set him apart in the end. Everyone felt like they knew him personally. Night after night, he joined us in our longue rooms and talked to us, not down to us. He became a part of our lives, of our families, a familiar face that we greeted with a smile whenever that stirring music played to mark the start of Wide World of Sports. When that logo came up on the screen we knew we were about to be joined by an old friend. That is why we will miss you, Richie—and why we will never forget you.
David Goodwin is the Editor of The Salvation Army's magazine, On Fire. He is a cricket tragic, having run a cricket club and a cricket association, and attempts to hit sixes and bowl legspin as often as possible
David Goodwin's archive of articles may be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/david-goodwin.html