Saturday, 6 November 2010

Ashes advent calendar: Richie Benaud

A international leg-spinning all-rounder, captain, author, journalist, commentator, and Australian national treasure, Richie Benaud is probably the most well-known and well-loved personality in post-war cricket. Indeed, such has been his success with pen and microphone since his playing days ended that all too often his endeavours on the cricket field are overlooked.

Born in Penrith, New South Wales in 1930, Benaud was the son of a keen leg-spinner and teacher whose own career had suffered a setback when he was posted to a teaching job too distant from any major cricketing centres. Benaud senior vowed thereafter that any son of his would have the chance to make cricket a career, and so it proved. Richie made his debut for New South Wales in the 1948/49 season, and slowly set about establishing himself.

In January 1952 he was selected for his first Test Match in a dead rubber against the West Indies following a good performance against them for NSW. Benaud scored 22 runs and took just a single wicket, and it would be fair to say that his first few years of Test Match cricket hardly marked him down as anything exceptional. However in South Africa in 1957/58 Benaud finally emerged as an indispensable part of the side averaging 21.93 with the ball and 54.83 with the bat, and at the end of 1958 the inspired decision was made to appoint him as captain for that year's Ashes series.

While Benaud's batting never returned to the lofty heights he had managed in South Africa, Benaud's captaincy was an unqualified success. In his first series Australia regained the Ashes 4-0, and in fact won every series he captained in except for the 1962/63 Ashes where a draw was enough to retain the Urn. One notable highlight of his career was the 1st Test against the West Indies in December 1960 which resulted in a tie. With shoulder problems increasingly hampering him, Benaud surrendered the captaincy at the end of 1963 and played only three more Test matches before retiring entirely. Throughout, Benaud's captaincy was characterised by an attacking style, and he was also one of the first bowlers to exuberantly celebrate his wickets.

At the end of the tour to England in 1956 Benaud had stayed behind to do a course at the BBC, which stood him in good stead once his playing days drew to a close and he looked for a move into broadcasting alongside his writing and journalism for the News of the World. He began with the BBC first on radio, then moved into television. His careful, considered delivery, never saying more than was necessary, was a perfect match for Test cricket, and Benaud was from the start noted for his professionalism. However he courted controversy when he acted as a consultant to Kerry Packer's World Series Cricket, as Benaud felt that at that time players were underpaid.

Benaud continued to commentate on Channel 9 in Australia and the BBC and Channel 4 in the UK for many years, and has covered over 500 Test Matches, but refused to switch to Sky because he didn't like cricket coverage being restricted to non-terrestrial TV. Now some 80 years old, Benaud is slowly winding down his professional activities, and this series will be last commentating ball-by-ball for Channel 9. Cricket will never sound quite the same again.

Did you know: Benaud's mother had a fool-proof method for getting young Richie to eat his greens - "She improved my love of vegetables by introducing the phrase 'you can't go out and play cricket until you have eaten all your vegetables.'"

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