WELL PLAYED MR. BENAUD
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, the late Australian cricket champion and commentator Richie Benaud must have been one of the most flattered men in the sporting world.
Scores of Benaud imitators would turn up at cricket matches wearing Richie wigs and waving faux microphones, even well after his retirement as a pundit.
Perhaps unusually for a sportsperson, his post-athletic career provides some important cues for people in every corner of public life - including politicos vying for election. He came to personify a type of individual that seems at times to be fast disappearing from the public stage.
A celebrated Test captain in his own era, Benaud later became the voice of Australian summers – and, along with Christopher Martin-Jenkins and Brian Johnson, a great many English summers too.
Like Don Bradman before him - another antipodean warmly embraced by the English cousins - Benaud was always a gentleman who was concerned with his bearing as well as his words.
Whatever his private views on a range of issues, he remained respectful of his audience, his colleagues and even those with whom he might strongly disagree.
Though undoubtedly passionate about his subject, he was not given to letting his personal feelings boil over, even when faced with the inevitable controversies that occur within any high-profile international sport. He certainly did not revert to name-calling, trashing the reputations of others, or publicly questioning their motivations.
In the 1970s, while working for arch-iconoclast Kerry Packer, Richie Benaud was part of the World Series Cricket revolution. This arguably brought cricket kicking and screaming into the world of quality TV broadcasting and better remuneration for players.
Benaud was obviously a moderniser. He welcomed new forms of cricket, like the limited-overs format launched under WSC.
At the time, sniffy critics dubbed it ‘pyjama cricket’, because of its lurid uniforms and the fact that it was played at night, under lights. Yet Benaud could see a bright future – no pun intended – in terms of audience reach and encouraging youngsters to take up cricket.
As a teenager watching these WSC games, on TV and live in Melbourne, I can attest to the fact that something here caught the public’s imagination. Public support for the recent World Cup demonstrated that the impact has not been lost on a succeeding generation.
Yet even as the cricketing establishment gradually began to change some of its structures and embrace different formats, Benaud maintained a resolute respect for the heritage and history behind his sport.
He came to occupy a unique status as the voice of commentary for traditional, five-day Test matches. Today, the British press and media have been as quick to heap praise on him as their Australian counterparts. This is testament to the man's decency and fairness, as much as his sporting knowledge.
Benaud offered punditry without ever loudly supporting any team – despite his proud record as a bowler and all-rounder for Australia. In fact, he called the 2005 Ashes tournament, won by England, the greatest Test series of all time.
Richie Benaud’s approach to broadcasting – and, one suspects, to life – was that if he couldn’t add anything through his TV commentary, he would say nothing. Unlike many who’ve followed him - both in the media and in politics - his punditry involved silence, too – especially when the pictures or events told the whole story.
He would have approved, I think, of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s dictum for public figures and speakers: ‘Be sincere, be brief and be seated.’
Benaud knew not only how to be silent during a game, he also recognised when it was time to move toward a permanent silence, stepping aside for emerging generations.
Though he was still broadcasting in Australia late in his life – the public would have demanded it anyway – he did not do so with any inflated sense of his own importance.
His colleagues, to a man, respected him, as did cricketing fans from Australian Prime Ministers down, yet he saw himself as one of a team and behaved in public with humility and grace.
When a well-loved public figure passes, it is easy to become hagiographic about their achievements, character and personality.
We perhaps know relatively little of Richie Benaud the man, away from the world of cricket. By all indications he was much loved by family and friends – he passed away surrounded by his wife and children.
Yet the public side of his life is laid open before us. He played that game with distinction. We need more public figures like him, in every sphere and not least politics. Thank you and well played, Mr. Benaud.