‘Marvellous’, a word so often used by the late Richie Benaud, is equally an apt descriptor for the man himself. Earning legendary status for both his cricketing and then later his commentating ability, the Aussie’s passing was a loss in both a sporting and broadcasting sense. His influence was such that Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbot offered a state funeral yet, in a response that epitomised Benaud’s understated nature, the family refused.
Benaud was a pivotal component in the restoration of Australia’s position at the the top of world cricket during both the late 50’s and early 60’s. Given their previous domination in the sport, the nation suffered a significant blip. It was around this time, 1958, that the All-Rounder received the captaincy and led Australia to a dominant 4-0 Ashes victory. He soon recorded Australia’s first test victory in Pakistan and became renowned for his innovative captaincy style and charismatic public demeanour which revitalised the sport in Australia. Crowds flocked to witness the 1960-61 Test Series against the West Indies as Australia ran out victors once again. He then received an OBE following his impressive endeavours in his third and final test against England in 1961. His sporting achievements alone would have secured him a place in cricketing folklore, however, his broadcasting career presented the world with a man of many more talents.
Following his retirement from the game, he began working as a commentator for the BBC and Australia’s Channel Nine. He earned great respect when he publicly criticised Australian cricketing brothers Trevor and Gregg Chappell following their use of underarm bowling in a one day international match against New Zealand. In this instance, his passion for the sport far exceeded any national bias. The commentator, adorning his familiar cream jacket, proved to enjoy a remarkable understanding of the relationship with his audience. ‘What I want most from being a television commentator is to be able to feel that, when I say something, I am talking to friends’, he said about his method of broadcasting. His natural and often humorous style saw him amass a commentary total of over 500 matches.
Commentary is swiftly becoming an art form and one with audiences demanding a high standard. Those who fail to make the grade often come under unscrupulous fire from the public. The BBC were sent 445 complaints regarding Phil Neville’s commentary during the FIFA World Cup last year. Criticised for his rather bland and monotone description, Neville became a target for social media resentment. Luckily for Neville, he is by no means alone. Earlier in that year, the BBC were again held responsible for inadequate broadcasting as their Winter Olympics team of Aimee Fuller, Ed Leigh and Tim Warwood cheered when a hapless snowboarder fell to gift the bronze medal to UK’s Jenny Jones. Such partisan behaviour is far removed from Benaud’s unrequited love for a sport and distaste for immorality, regardless of where his loyalties lie.
That is not to say Benaud is an anomaly amongst an abundance of inadequate commentators. Far from it. Formula One commentator Murray Walker remains synonymous with the sport and will always be held in high esteem by motorsport fans. Despite this, such legendary status was assumed not by his commentating coherence, rather his lack of it. Indeed, his uncanny ability to misidentify drivers was born purely out of his sheer excitement which, more often than not, turned into an overwhelming frenzy as viewers were left totally perplexed as to who was leading who. Nevertheless, such passion endeared him to watchers of the sport.
Commentary longevity is a marker which tends to signify the success of audience connection. Not many will come close to John Motson whose dulcet tones have been the sound of football since 1971, covering over 1,500 games in that time. By and large, Motson provides an appropriate equivalent in commentary terms to Benaud. Like Benaud in his cream jacket, the sight of Motson huddled in the gantry wearing his sheepskin coat would strike a familiar chord with both young and old.
However, Benaud stands alone. Indeed, while he exhibited the same passion and longevity as those aforementioned, he did so having excelled as a sportsman himself. He achieved what poor Phil Neville has thus far failed to do. Walker and Motson were broadcasters at heart. Their talent, while undeniable, was in their relationship between themselves and their audience. Richie Benaud, meanwhile, was first and foremost a cricketer. A tactician, an inspirational leader and a menace with both the bat and ball; his feats in commentary are therefore all the more impressive.
And so it is with this, that we mourn the loss of a man who remained grounded despite his successes as both a sportsman and a commentator. He who firstly brought Australian cricket to life as captain, and then continued to do so from the sidelines. His joyous and familiar greeting of ‘morning everyone’ is now consigned to cricketing history. It is time now for us to say goodbye to this true Australian great.