Richie Benaud passed away yesterday. And the world of cricket cried at the passing of one of the greatest cricketers ever.
I never had the chance to meet Richie. I’ve been close, just a few yards away, as he spoke to the camera, near the boundary ropes, early on the first day of quite a few Tests, while I was in the small but enthusiastic throng on the other side of the ropes. I have books signed by him; I even have a wonderful large photograph of him duly signed, courtesy of the Willow Foundation, a charity well worth supporting. But I never met him.
But I know his voice, as do millions of other cricket fans. When I started my love affair with cricket — I watched my first-ever Test in December 1966 — Richie Benaud was the first and only cricketer to have done the “double double” of 2000 runs and 200 wickets in Test matches. In later years, I would learn more about his cricketing prowess by delving into his years as captain of Australia.
I never watched him play. As is the case with most people my age or younger, I experienced the brilliance of Richie mainly through his dry and witty commentary. Much has been written about it, much will be written, and usually by people who’ve met him and really spent time with him in the flesh; I cannot add to their wisdom or their number.
But what I can say is this: there are many other reasons to remember him, reasons that are really important in the world we live in.
Let me take just two.
He was that rare person, one who could embrace radical change while having earned, and continuing to hold, the respect of traditionalists.
The world of cricket today is so very different from the stage that he bestrode, with Twenty20 and with the IPL. A considerable part of the impetus for change came from the Kerry Packer “circus”, World Series Cricket. As a cricket-loving teenager in Calcutta, initially I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. And then I heard two things: that Eden Gardens darling Tony Grieg had signed up, and that Richie Benaud was involved.
Richie Benaud legitimised that change, a change that was to transform the world he came from. It takes a courageous leader to do that.
We may not see the crowds we used to see at Test matches, but I have my own views as to why that happens. They’re not views that would make me popular, and they’re not material to this post. Some other time.
What we have seen is significant improvement in the skill and fitness of players today, in the use of technology in the sport, and in the support the game gets overall, inclusive of broadcast and replay revenues. For example, today I was sent a clip of this amazing catch, and these somewhat unconventional yet effective shots.
The second reason why I admired Richie Benaud so much was this:
He knew that some things should always be constant, impervious to change, and he made sure the world remembered that.
Matthew Engel, in the Financial Times, writes in his lovely obituary of Benaud:
In a one-day international in 1981, Australian captain Greg Chappell prevailed on the bowler (his brother Trevor) to bowl the final ball underarm along the ground. This made it impossible for New Zealand to hit the six they needed for victory. The move was legal but unprecedented. Was it right?
Before signing off on air, Benaud pronounced:
Let me just tell you what I think about it. I think it was a disgraceful performance. It should never be permitted to happen again.
That’s how you lead in turbulent times. Embrace and encourage the changes that matter. Hold on to the things that shouldn’t change.
In so doing, Richie Benaud embodied both the spirit of the game as well as the spirit of the age.
He was once reported as having said something like “Glenn McGrath, out for 2, just 98 runs short of his century.
RIP Richie Benaud, out for 84, just 116 runs short of his double century.