Friday 10 April 2015
The true voices of sport, the really memorable ones, are those who transcend a catchphrase or a personality trait, to become recognisable not only for that voice but for the way in which they are imitated. We have all tried the impressions, and they are few: John Arlott’s Hampshire burr (“shirt flapping, elbows working, he runs in …”); Murray Walker’s nasal delivery as a complement to the engine noise around him (“and there goes Ayrton Senna …”); Geoffrey Boycott’s “techneeeeque” perhaps or Henry Blofeld’s “dear old thing”.
But then there was Richie. Always Richie, not Benaud. Perhaps the most imitated of them all, from the comedian Billy Birmingham to just about anyone who has ever followed cricket. Richie was not just a voice or a memorable turn of phrase, but a visual personality too, arguably the most celebrated television commentator of them all.
So when we imitate Richie we do it wearing an imaginary pastel jacket, body turned sideways at 45 degrees but head to the camera, with bottom lip protruding. That in itself would be sufficient to identify him. Then, though, came the words and the manner in which he enunciated, totally distinctive, quite unlike any other: the way in which he alone could say “siveny chew for chew” or “morning everywunnn” or “maaarvellush”.
I can still remember with clarity one of the first pieces of commentary I heard from him, as he did a voiceover for highlights of the 1970-71 Ashes tour: “We pick up play in the seventh over of the day, and it’s Snow bowling to Stackpole”. Shnow. Shtackpole.
It seems, though, that Richie was of his time, a commentator at odds with what Geoff Lemon so memorably called recently “the matiest mates who ever mated” on the current packed-house Channel Nine team, a celebrity band of brothers who do not know when to shut up. Occasionally, in his last couple of years, Richie would get wheeled out for a brief stint, and it felt patronising, as if he were the regimental goat dressed up for the ceremonials. Even then he cut a swathe through the inanity, probably rolling his eyes as he did so.
Richie’s stock-in-trade was always economy of words, an old-fashioned virtue in an age when one aspiring cricket commentator of my acquaintance was told by prospective employers, following a measured, understated debut, that he wasn’t “loud enough. Every ball has to be an event”.
Richie saw himself as a complementary figure to the television pictures rather than the main event with the cricket as a sideshow. He let the pictures do the talking, as it were, and offered nothing that he did not consider would add value to what the viewer could already see. It wasn’t about him.
Which do you think would sit in the memory 30-odd years on? “Great shot by Botham, huge, a maximum” or simply a silence and then “that’s gone into the confectionery stall … and out again”. Who, indeed, would call it a confectionery stall in the first place? Economy of words and a picture painted for ever.
I was struck by the manner in which Richie would always tend towards overstating the skills of players while fighting shy of criticising, as if he felt he was an ambassador for them. There was always mild amusement when he talked about a bowler sending down a “leg-cudder” and “rolling his fingers across the seam” to do so, when we knew the ball had just gone off the seam in the first place. He was investing in them a skill they did not possess, but in so doing was adding mystique.
There were times, too, when he could enter the world of hyperbole and invention, but even then it merely seemed to add gravitas and deep knowledge. So, for example, with not the slightest piece of empirical evidence, a sliding piece of fielding would have “saved, oh, point two of a second” but because Richie said so, that is what it did. And there was never a new non-existent delivery that Shane Warne had apparently developed with which to taunt England before the Ashes that nonetheless Richie was not subsequently able to pick with authority during the series.
It is for others to expand on how wonderful a cricketer he was, and a captain to rank with the finest. The series in which he led Australia against Frank Worrell’s West Indians remains iconic and his post-series broadcasting with Worrell already a masterful piece of what we would now call media relations.
By then Richie was already carving out an alternative career as a journalist, something that he pursued almost to the end. In England he was the figurehead for the News of the World’s cricket coverage, and if this might seem to have been incongruous in a world where ghosted columns tend to rule (and he was incredibly loyal to that particular employer), then those who frequented the press box on a Saturday would always see him set up at a desk, dutifully filing his 800 or 900 words of considered copy, knowing that only a couple of hundred would be extrapolated. He was that diligent.
I have a small personal story of his totally meticulous nature. My family had come to Australia for Christmas during the 2006-07 series, and one of my sons had a book, 100 Greatest Australian Cricketers, into which he was hoping to get as many relevant signatures as he could.
The morning after the Melbourne Test we arranged to see Richie in the lobby of the Langham hotel prior to him returning to Sydney. He arrived promptly to the second, chatted in a fatherly way to what was then an overawed nine-year-old, insisted on using his own pen (fountain, of course) and asked whether Josh was short for Joshua. He wanted to get things right. And so there it is, in a proper, cultured, legible hand: “To Joshua, Always enjoy the game no matter what. Best wishes. Richie Benaud.”
"Enjoy the game" could almost be his epitaph.