We know Richie Benaud as the eloquent, polite voice of Australian cricket. Quick of wit, and generous with praise. Benaud seemed a throwback to a more gentleman era when men played cricket with respect, quite unlike today’s cricket with it taunting, overgrown schoolyard like bluster.
Before he earned his place in cricket as a legendary commentator, Benaud was an accomplished all-rounder who also served as Australia’s captain for six years. In fact, he is counted among the greatest ever all-rounders of the game. He made his debut in 1952 at the age of 22 as a leg spin bowler who could bat well in the lower order. Richie came from a cricketing family as his father Louis played in Sydney Grade cricket and his brother John played three Test matches for Australia in the early 1970s. No, they didn’t play Test cricket together, thanks to the 13 year difference in age.
Rob Smyth, who wrote and compiled the book Benaud in Wisden, chose to describe Benaud’s contribution to cricket in this manner: “His Test statistics are excellent – 24.45 with the bat, 27.03 with the ball – but they do not portray the extent of his impact. And they tell almost nothing of his performance as captain from 1958 to 1963, when he resuscitated Australian cricket and cricket itself.”
After a slow start to his Test career, he came of age during the tour of South Africa in 1957-58. Over 26 months from the start of that tour, Benaud played 18 Test, scored 636 runs at an average of 31.80 and took 108 wickets at an average of 20.27. He was an entertaining batsman, a skilled close-in fielder and an intelligent leg-spinner who planned and executed traps for opposition batsmen. Those qualities made him a match-winner, an observation supported by statistics: in 24 Test wins he averaged 31 with the bat, and 18 with the ball. In 13 defeats, those averages were 16 and 43 respectively. Let’s put it this way, Australia never lost a match in which Benaud scored a century or took a five-for.
He was also an astute leader. Australia never lost a Test series under his captaincy. How many captains can even claim such a winning record? He was made captain when Ian Craig suffered hepatitis in 1958. Benaud blossomed as a captain, revealing tactical flair and human understanding that few expected from a bowling all-rounder. Australia’s first series under Richie Benaud was a surprise 4–0 thumping of an England side that boasted of greats like Peter May, Colin Cowdrey, Tom Graveney, Trevor Bailey, Godfrey Evans, Jim Laker, Tony Lock, Fred Trueman, and Brian Statham. Benaud’s team won their next four series as well.
Benaud was also particularly successful against India. On the 1956-57 tour, he had a career best bowling performance of 7/72 at Madras, his first five-for in Test cricket. He followed that up with 6/52 and 5/53 in the third Test at Kolkata, his best ever returns in a Test match. India were already in trouble at 131 for 7 against Australia at Kotla in 1959-60. Then came Benaud, removing Nana Joshi, VM Muddiah, and Ramakant Desai as India collapsed to 135. Benaud’s figures read 3.4-3-0-3; he still holds the records for most wickets in an innings without conceding a single run. Nobody has taken even two. He bowled at an average of 18 against India over the duration of his career.
Benaud played 63 Tests and took 248 wickets at an average of 27.03. That was the highest number of Test wickets by an Australian bowler at the time. He scored 2,201 runs at an average of 24.45, including three centuries and a highest score of 122. Only Keith Miller had better numbers for an Australian all-rounder – not a bad comparison for a man who idolized Miller.
After retiring in 1964, Richie Benaud took to cricket journalism and commentary, eventually becoming the voice of many Australian cricket summers – mellow, genial, yet always sharp with his observations while lacing it with a gentle wit. Cricket writer Gideon Haigh described Benaud as “perhaps the most influential cricketer and cricket personality since the Second World War.”
In November 2014, at age 84, Benaud announced that he had been diagnosed with skin cancer. He died in his sleep on 10 April 2015. There is never likely to be another cricketer quite like Richie Benaud.
By Paramdeep Rathee