Adios, Richie Benaud; Farewell, My Childhood
Paying tribute to the former cricketer and commentator who has died, aged 84 – a voice of infinite wisdom and the sound of endless summers.
There are people we've never met who are our childhoods. They are the people who made the things we loved, the people who travelled with us. Some of them lit a fire within, filled us with anger, with energy, with sadness, with laughter, with love, with any or all of those kinds of important feelings. Richie Benaud, the Australian cricketer and commentator who has died aged 84, was something else. He was – for those whose homes were filled in summers by his rich, pithy tones – a voice of wisdom, a voice of comfort, a voice of infinite tolerance and empathy.
He was the man you wished was part of your family – the wise uncle or wry grandfather. He never said too much. His words were spare but they were also perfect, beautiful. The idea of him ever going away was inconceivable. He was just so timeless. How can someone out of time be taken by time? How can the voice of endless summers come to an end like those summers?
Cricket isn't a fashionable sport – at least not really, at least not in Britain. Test cricket's slow days and peculiar customs are a world away from the slickly relentless machine that is 21 st century football. To its fans, this is part of the appeal. It is a sport in which a spectator can, if he or she wants, spend five days lightly dozing in a field surrounded by plastic cups of warm beer and discarded copies of the newspaper. If you're at Lord's, that newspaper is often the Daily Telegraph. You see what I mean about cricket not being fashionable.
But Richie Benaud transcended cricket. He had a moral authority that encompassed all the game and went beyond it. He was the sound of summers, both in Britain, where he was a commentator for the BBC and then Channel 4, and in Australia, where he worked for Channel 9. His influence stretched beyond those shores. You only have to read the tributes pouring in on social media to see that men and women of all ages from all places loved him. His commentary box greeting, uttered at the outset of a day's lazy play – "Morning everybody" – was the most reassuring thing anyone could hear. He reached people who had only a passing familiarity with cricket, becoming part of the wider culture.
Over here he became one of the select band of well-loved and well-respected Australians who force Brits to admit that the former colony isn't just a depository for beer-jugging racists, BBQ loving criminals and cricketers who are often far better than our own. Like Clive James, who we will also have to say goodbye to soon, Richie Benaud was the philosophical, ironical voice from the land beyond the Fatal Shore, a man whose urbane sophistication flew in the face of all the Oz stereotypes we were familiar with. He was quietly different. You knew that he was, in the nicest possible way, smarter and hipper than the other sportsmen who surrounded him in the commentary box. Because he wasn't the stereotype, we loved him more. If he'd been English, matters of class or background might have clouded our love for him but because he was Australian that love was uncomplicated.
The generosity, independence and quiet difference evident in Benaud's commentary was also present in the illustrious playing career that preceded it. He was a country boy whose first bat – received at the age of four – was made from the timber of a wooden crate and whose schoolteacher father did all he could to ensure that his sons fulfilled the cricketing promise he had also possessed but put to one side in the name of earning a stable living. His raw talent was obvious early on but it took him a while to perfect his leg spin bowling.
Once he had, he became one of Australia's most successful captains and a man whose influence was far-reaching. Any gifts funnelled his way by sponsors were shared with his teammates and he was an early campaigner for better pay in the sport. He was also a man who embraced those 60s winds of change. In his elegant obituary, Gideon Haigh writes about Benaud's look: "Usually bareheaded, shirt open as wide as propriety permitted, he was a colourful, outgoing antidote to an austere, tight-lipped era." The English writer Alan Ross called him "mercurial, buoyant, tigerishly lazy of movement". That louche independence travelled with Richie to the commentary box.
And there's childhood again. Alan Ross was a friend of my grandparents' and it was my grandfather, Jack Clark – a Kentish boy who turned out once for his county – who, along with my father, introduced me to cricket and to the voice of Richie Benaud. Listening to Richie Benaud was like listening to Alistair Cooke's Letter From America, to me. They were both benign, infinitely wise voices heard through young ears. When Benaud or Cooke were talking, arguments died away and angst was forgotten. These were times in which the family could be at peace, because how could you not be at peace listening to Richie?
I was 13 when my grandfather died. It was March. The summer before, we'd listened to Richie commentate on Pakistan's destruction of England and on the furious, controlled exploits of my two favourite players, the fast bowlers Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis. After the funeral, I stood in the garden outside my grandfather's North Devon cottage. In my memory, the day is a sunny one and I am throwing a ball against a wall and hitting it back with a cricket bat, just as I had done with my grandfather. In my head, Richie is commentating.
In 2005, Richie Benaud commented on his last game for British television. It was an Ashes game. Players on both sides stopped to pay tribute to him. As the end of his shift approached, he signed off:
"And that's what it is, time to say goodbye. I'd add to that: thank you for having me. It's been absolutely marvellous for 42 years. I've loved every moment of it and it's been a privilege to go into everyone's living room throughout that time. What's even better, it's been a great deal of fun..."