Obituary: Richie Benaud OBE, cricket player and commentator

Richie Benaud OBE: Australian cricketer who became one of the sport's most recognisable commentators. Picture: Getty
Richie Benaud OBE: Australian cricketer who became one of the sport's most recognisable commentators. Picture: Getty
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Born: 6 October, 1930, in Penrith, New South Wales, Australia. Died: 10 April, 2015, in Sydney, aged 84

THE cricket world was united in mourning yesterday as morning newscasts broke the news that Richie Benaud, one of the Australian all-time greats, first on the field and later on TV and in print, had completed his mortal innings in the wee hours of Friday. His had been one of the most recognised names, faces and voices in the sport, even beyond cricket enthusiasts, playing for his nation in 63 Test matches, 28 of them as captain, before bringing his insight to our newspapers and TV screens. Such was his reputation in his homeland that prime minister Tony Abbott ordered all Australian flags, from cities to the outback, to be flown at half-mast yesterday and offered the family a state funeral. Benaud, often described as “a true gentleman” by broadcasting colleagues, had been diagnosed with skin cancer five months ago and was receiving radiation treatment in a Sydney hospice when he died peacefully in his sleep.

In a statement, Mr Abbott said: “This is the greatest loss for cricket since the loss of Don Bradman. There would be very few Australians who have not passed a summer in the company of Richie Benaud. His voice was even more present than the chirping of the cicadas in out suburbs and towns. And that voice, tragically, is now still.”

While the great Englishman John Arlott had become known as “the voice of cricket” for his post-war BBC radio commentaries, Benaud could be described as “the face of cricket” on Australian, British and Commonwealth TV for half a century. Some even described him as “the godfather of cricket”.

With his New South Wales accent, prominent lower lip and well-coiffed, increasingly grey hair, he relied on timing – just as he had on the field – rather than catchphrases from commentary booths around the world.

He was also a driving force, sometimes controversially, in favour of the commercialisation of his sport, moving it from its amateur, sleepy village green and pints of bitter image to bigger stadiums, a wider fan base, lucrative contracts for players and TV rights to help pay for it all.

As an all-rounder, he played for Australia with distinction at Test Match level for 12 years (1952-64), his peak perhaps coming in 196-61. At “the Gabba”, the Brisbane Cricket Ground, in December 1960, he captained his side in the first match of a Test series against the West Indies of Gary Sobers.

Benaud put up a record 7th-wicket partnership of 134 along with Alan Davidson and the match went to the last over, when Benaud’s attempted hook shot was caught behind by Windies wicket-keeper Gerry Alexander.

Australia needed only one run to win when fielder Joe Solomon, from British Guiana (now Guyana), made a 12-metre throw to hit the stumps with Aussie batsman Ian Meckiff a few inches from scoring the winning run. That made it the first-ever tied match in Test history and Australia went on to win the series in February 1961.

Later that year, in the Fourth Test at Old Trafford, Benaud played despite a tendon problem in his left shoulder which had kept him out of the Aussie’s victorious second Test at Lord’s.

England looked certain to win and take the Ashes but Benaud had decided to bowl leg-spin around the wicket “out of the rough” bowling out the home batsmen like skittles.

He took six for 70 that day and Australia won with 20 minutes to spare, retaining the Ashes. Benaud immediately became a legend in his home nation and the rest of the cricketing world.

If Australia gave out knighthoods, he would have been a shoo-in. In fact, before and after his death, many of his peers expressed disbelief that, as a Commonwealth citizen, he had never been knighted by the Queen while other sports figures had received the honour for less. He had, however, received on OBE in 1961. In all, Benaud played 63 Tests, scoring 2,201 runs and taking 248 wickets.

Richard Benaud was born in the western Sydney suburb of Penrith, named by British immigrants after the Cumbrian town. He got his French surname from his family of Huguenot origin, French Protestants who had fled Catholic persecution in their homeland.

His great-grandfather Jean was a merchant sea captain from Bordeaux who emigrated to Australia in 1840. His great-grandparents on his mother Irene’s side had come from around Saffron Walden in Essex.

Young Richie, as he was always known, was brought up among old-fashioned Australian settings, living in towns such as Warrendale, Koorawatha and Jugiong, where his father Louis was a teacher.

By the time Richie went to Parramatta High School in western Sydney, he was seriously into cricket, having got his first bat at the age of four, carved by his dad from a wooden packing case.

He recalled playing his first competitive match when he was six, before his younger brother John was born. All the while, he would huddle by his transistor radio to hear crackly cricket broadcasts from faraway places.

When he realised his two sons’ natural ability, Louis “Lou” Benaud, who had been forced to focus on his work to keep his family, pledged he’d give them a chance to carve out cricketing careers. The younger brother John, though always in his big brother’s shadow, also went on to be capped by Australia.

Before taking up cricket full-time, Richie worked for an accounting firm in Sydney, where he met his first wife Marcia Lavender and went on to have two sons. He showed up at his January 1953 wedding with a stitched-up lower lip and replaced front teeth after being hit by a ball while fielding at gully in the Third Test against South Africa in Sydney. His honeymoon was interrupted by playing in the Fourth Test in Adelaide a few days later.

Benaud was 18 when he first wore the blue cap of New South Wales on New Year’s Eve 1948. Just over three years later, he donned his first baggy green cap for Australia against the West Indies in his native city. In the 1953 tour of England, he scored 174 at Scarborough, including 11 sixes, an Australian record at the time.

After retiring from the field, in addition to his broadcasting, he wrote for the News of the World for half a century until it closed down in 2011.

Although he tended towards a subtle approach on the air, he launched a controversy in 1965 when he cast doubts on the legality of the fast-bowling action of the West Indies’ Barbadian Charlie Griffith.

He lived most of his life with his second wife Daphne in Coogee, not far from his beloved Sydney Cricket Ground, widely known to fans simply as the SCG. He wrote 14 books on cricket over the years, the last appearing in 2010. Its title was Over But Not Out, perhaps the most fitting epitaph.

Richie Benaud was first maried to Marcia Lavender, secondly to Daphne Surfleet, his wife of 48 years. He is survived by her, by sons Greg and Jeffery from the first marriage, and by his brother John.