Richie Benaud: More Than Just Player, More Than Just a Commentator
Others have written plenty about Richie Benaud the player, and Richie Benaud the commentator, but there’s a lot about Richie Benaud the person that hasn’t been given the attention it deserves in the obituary pages during the past week.
Benaud the captain was arguably the greatest cricket has seen in the post-war era. His on-field achievements have been well-documented elsewhere, but his skills as an innovator went well beyond the boundary ropes.
From the time he became Australia captain at the start of the 1958/59 season, Benaud understood the increasing importance of good public relations. After each day’s play, he would hold a press conference for British and Australian reporters, something that had never been done before, and wasn’t done again until many decades later.
These press conferences weren’t the cliché-ridden, predictable affairs that we’ve become accustomed to in recent years. Benaud talked candidly and was never evasive in his answers. He would talk about the day’s play, clear up any misunderstandings about incident or doubtful decisions, and he was fair in his assessments of players from both sides. In effect, he more-or-less wrote their articles for them.
When touring England in 1956 and 1961, Benaud took a great interest in the BBC’s early television commentaries. After the 1956 tour, he stayed behind and took a job with the News of the World as a police roundsman. Unlike so many of today’s retired sports stars who think they’re God’s gift to television once they’ve been retired for five minutes, Benaud was serious about making it in all forms of journalism, and was prepared to start at the bottom, doing the less glamorous jobs. His relationship with the paper lasted more than half a century until its very last edition in 2011, in which he wrote an excellent column which emphasised the importance of subeditors, something too many newspaper owners nowadays see fit to cut back upon.
Around the same time, he managed to arrange a crash TV course with the BBC. He was a fast learner and soon absorbed a great deal of information about the use of cameras and tips for commentary.
One of his tasks was to spend a day shadowing one of his heroes, the horse racing commentator Sir Peter O’Sullevan (who is still very sharp aged 97). Sir Peter instructed Benaud to remain silent, take notes, write down any questions he had, and at the end of the day they would go for a drink and he could ask his questions.
Benaud made his first BBC radio commentary in 1960 and soon moved into television, a relationship that would last until the corporation lost the rights to televise England cricket in 1999. Further work followed in Australia, initially with ABC and then as an integral part of Kerry Packer’s revolution with Channel 9, who he would continue working for until shortly before his death (a voiceover obituary of Philip Hughes was his last work for the broadcaster).
The newspaper columnist Richard Littlejohn once asked Michael Parkinson what one characteristic all the successful people he’d interviewed had in common – the answer was they were all very hard workers. This could certainly be said of Benaud. From the time he married his second wife Daphne in 1967, she would carefully plan his whole year in his diary, and there would be few, if any, idle days.
If he was not working, he would probably be playing golf. During the British winter, he would be in Australia running his public relations and sports news agency, or commentating for Channel 9.
He would be up every day at dawn, writing, telexing, or even fitting in a round of golf before a day in the commentary box. It was quite common for colleagues to be arriving at the breakfast table at 8:00am to find Benaud returning from a round of golf.
After a busy day there would usually be dinner parties at night. The hospitality was superb – he certainly appreciated good food and fine wine, but in the background you could be sure to hear the ticking of telex and tape machines, later fax machines and the ping of emails arriving.
Benaud usually ended the Australian winter by reporting on a few golf tournaments around the world before arriving in England with Daphne in May, where they would set up their office at their flat. In September, he and Daphne would usually go on a gastronomic tour of France where he would fulfil various business commitments he had in the country.
He’d typically arrive in the commentary box fairly early, complete with two battered leather cases and in later years his laptop. During his off-duty moments, he could often be found studying the Sporting Life and Racing Post, where he had a decades-long friendly rivalry with Jack Bannister in picking winners which lasted until weeks before his death.
During the long BBC era, a full day’s commentary would end with Benaud appearing in front of camera, still immaculately dressed, often in his cream jacket, to record presenting links for the late night highlights, which included a slick and acute summary of the day’s play. He’d do this from the top of his head, without notes, and would cue in various film inserts.
When the rights transferred to Channel 4 in the summer of 1999, Benaud moved with them. The tone of the Channel 4 coverage was quite different to what preceded it. Far greater use was made of technology and it rapidly made the old BBC coverage appear somewhat staid.
Benaud adapted his style to the Channel 4 coverage – his commentary style became a little looser, and he appeared to be given more freedom to use his dry sense of humour. He probably sounded more like the Richie Benaud viewers in Australia had been hearing for many years. Channel 4 never used him as a presenter but he was still regularly seen in front of camera at lunch and teatime features.
Analysing the final decade of Benaud’s life and career is a little more tricky. He famously retired from British TV commentary after the 2005 Ashes, turning down an offer to be part of the Sky Sports team when they took over the rights the following summer, but that wasn’t quite the end of his relationship with British television. His voice was once again heard on the BBC, who took the Channel 9 commentary when they showed highlights of the 2006/07 Ashes series down under, and the same applied when ITV had highlights of the 2010/11 Ashes. At the 2009 Ashes series in England, he appeared as an on-screen analyst for Channel 5’s highlights programme during the Saturday of each Test, though he did not commentate at all.
Ever the professional, he instructed three or four very close friends, whose judgement he trusted, to be completely straight and tell him if they felt he was ‘losing it’ as a commentator. Commentators in other sports had gone on too long: Eddie Waring (rugby league) really was suffering from dementia in his final years. John Motson (football) began a decline in the late 1990s and became a parody of himself. Tony Green (darts) lost the plot years ago.
Thankfully, Benaud never did ‘decline’, but there was a significant change in the way Channel 9 covered cricket that did not suit his style. In his final years, Channel 9 moved from two to three man commentary teams.
One of Benaud’s strengths is that he knew when to say nothing and understood the power of the pause. He also would develop a talking point during his half-hour commentary stint. The three-man booths meant a more conversational style and near-constant ‘banter’ between the commentators which prevented him from working in the way he always had.
A planned retirement from commentary in 2010 to focus on studio work and features never materialised. He continued to be heard on commentary, though less frequently than before, and as a summariser, rather than describing the play-by-play action. He was effectively the ‘third man’ of the booth, and he would have to fight to get a word in edgeways. Indeed, there were at least two half-hour commentary stints in later years where he didn’t say a single word for the duration.
His commentary career ended when, in October 2013, he crashed his vintage 1965 Sunbeam Alpine into a wall, sustaining a cracked sternum and shoulder injuries. Friends said he seemed more upset at having written off his car than the fact he’d sustained injuries which would take many months to recover from.
A planned return to the Channel 9 commentary box in 2014/15 was prevented when he was diagnosed with skin cancer, a likely consequence of many years of playing in the blazing sun without sun cream or a hat in less enlightened times, which ultimately prevented him from coming anywhere close to the age of 104 his mother reached.
During his final summer with Channel 4 in 2005, Benaud regularly referred to the long-running ‘Slip, Slop, Slap’ advertising campaign on Australian television that told viewers to slip on a shirt, slop on sun cream, and slap on a hat. Unfortunately, that advice came decades too late for him.
Benaud’s advice to commentators is timeless. It was relevant when he started in 1960, it’s relevant now, and it’ll still be relevant in another 50 years’ time.
When it comes to TV cricket commentary, Benaud set the standard for others to follow. The modern-day Sky Sports coverage is technically brilliant, but it lacks the joie de vivre of the Channel 4 team Benaud spearheaded. The Sky Sports commentary team often feels like a clique of middle-aged, grey former England captains. It’s one-dimensional, lacks any ‘light and shade’, and is punctuated by prattle about rounds of golf and wine cellars – both passions of Benaud’s, but the key difference was when he was in the commentary box, he made the players on the field, not himself, the focus of his attention.