Full of grace and nous

Having led his life to the full, Richie Benaud would not want anyone to make a fuss of his passing, but he will be missed by many and the game will be the poorer without him, writes Greg Chappell.

Richie Benaud epitomised the words of Mark Twain who said, “The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time”. Richie led a full and creative life in which fear played a very small part.

As a player he prepared well and played with abandon. His captaincy was bold and adventurous and as a commentator he was unrivalled.

I feel like I have known Richie all my life.

As a youngster our father imbued in us a love of the game and encouraged us to learn from the best. I can remember as a 10-year-old going to the Adelaide Oval to watch a Sheffield Shield match between South Australia and New South Wales.

New South Wales was led by Richie Benaud and contained six of the current Australian team. Dad had suggested that Benaud, Davidson, Harvey and O’Neill were the players to watch. I followed their every move on and off the playing field.

From memory, Richie scored some runs in the first innings and took wickets in the second to bowl New South Wales to victory. My other hero, Neil Harvey, scored a scintillating 80 in the first innings.

Even to a 10-year-old, Benaud had an air about him. He was cool and aloof, but when I approached him cautiously to collect my first ever autograph, he couldn’t have been kinder and warmer. I was a fan from that day and followed his career closely, modelling myself on him by becoming a leg-spin bowling all-rounder.

My leg-spin didn’t survive the journey as I never overcame growing six inches in one summer holiday period as a teenager, but, luckily, my batting allowed me to follow in his footsteps into Test cricket.

My next interaction with Richie followed my first Test innings in the first ever Test match in Perth 11 years later.

Richie was a commentator by then and was working at that game. Following a successful debut, I was interviewed by Richie at the end of the day’s play. At the conclusion of the interview, we walked together back across the WACA during which time Richie offered me a piece of advice. He said to me “whatever you do, don’t ever stop playing your shots.”

It was intended to be positive encouragement to a young player, but I misinterpreted the advice and tried to play shots from the start of my innings for the next few Tests and failed to have an impact. Once I learned that I had to be selective in which deliveries that I attacked, my career gained the benefit of his wisdom.

During the second season of the World Series Cricket some years later I went through a lean period against the formidable West Indies pace attack, so I sought out Richie for some advice.

My method to that point had always been to expect the full ball and respond to whatever came along, but, because the West Indian bowlers were pitching so few balls up, I decided to prepare for the inevitable short balls.

Suddenly, I found that I was getting out to full balls and was struggling to make the most of the few bad balls that I was receiving.

Richie considered my problem for a few moments and then suggested that I go back to doing what had allowed me to be successful to that point. As usual, he was spot-on and my form and fluency came rushing back.

One of Richie’s great traits was his positivity about the game and towards the playing generations that followed him. He never lived in the past and was effusive about one-day cricket when it came in and T20 cricket in recent times.

Richie was always supportive of me other than the infamous day at the MCG when I ordered my younger brother to bowl underarm against New Zealand. His summation of the day was scathing.

I was stung by the criticism because it came from my boyhood hero. He was entitled to his opinion and, without the knowledge of some of the things going on in the background, he was entirely correct to be affronted. I made a mistake for which I have expressed my remorse. It is a decision that I would like to have over.

We never discussed the incident after the event. I didn’t feel the need to and I had no doubt that Richie had moved on.

Our relationship remained the same in the aftermath. Since that day, he has been exceedingly generous in his comments about me and my career.

I never held his comments against him and he was always supportive of me and professional when we worked together in the Channel Nine commentary box.

The Channel Nine commentary team became iconic in the years that Richie led the band of Test match captains all of whom held him in the highest esteem.

Amazingly, it was the humourist Billy Birmingham, with his 12th Man series of parodies of the commentary team, who took them to an even wider audience. Birmingham really caught the personality of Benaud, Lawry and Greig and the commentary box in a way that endeared them to all. It seemed everyone was practising their Richie Benaud’s “what a catch,” Bill Lawry’s “He’s got ‘im” or Greigy’s comments about the “cor pork and the putch report”!

Even those of us in the commentary box would practise our Birmingham Benaud-isms, but not when Richie was around. Bill Lawry is the only one that I saw who dared to do it to Richie’s face and that happened when they were on air together during a domestic one-day game in Hobart in the 90s.

South Australia was playing Tasmania and reached a score of 2/222 which Bill mischievously read as “chew for chew hundred and chwenty chew” including the pouting bottom lip. Bill thought it was so funny that he put the microphone in his lap and collapsed in paroxysms of laughter.

Richie probably saw the funny side of it, but he wasn’t going to give Bill the pleasure by joining in the mirth, so he put his microphone in his lap and stared down his nose at Bill and silently dared him to go on.

Each time Bill picked up the microphone he collapsed into laughter and couldn’t commentate. Richie wouldn’t commentate so two overs went by without a word being said while Bill composed himself. Once again, Richie showed his dry wit and sense of timing as he had the last laugh as he let Bill stew in the juice of his own making.

Having learnt his commentary on BBC TV, Richie was economical with his words and sharp with his observations. A few generations of commentators have learnt from watching the Master at work.

He was the voice of the summer in two countries for many years as he followed the sun from Australia and England and back again.

He led a full and interesting life in which cricket was the backdrop for most of it. He enriched the game with his love and his knowledge and graced it by never looking backwards and lamenting what had passed. He always looked for the positive in the game and those who played it.

Having led his life to the full, Richie would not want anyone to make a fuss of his passing, but he will be missed by many and the game will be the poorer without him.

Vale the maestro.