Two giants bid farewell


WITH the end of the fifth Ashes Test, two cricketing giants bid farewell to the game in England. Channel Four have lost their broadcasting rights until at least 2010 which means that all live cricket in England will be in a monopoly controlled by Sky TV.

Richie Benaud, Australian all-rounder of the 1950s, their captain in the 1960s, but better known to the modern cricket fan as the best TV commentator the world has ever heard, retired from the country that gave him his television reputation.

He will put in one more season with Channel 9 in Australia and then slip quietly away to live in France, the home of his ancestors, while he retains homes in both Sydney and London. He has said no to an offer from Sky.

Benaud's retirement will be a life made comfortable by his years at the top; as a cricketer, a writer, and, for the last 36 years, a commentator with a reputation for unrivalled knowledge, fairness and his trademark economy of words. "I learn't right from the start that I should never speak unless I could add something to the picture," he says.

Oh that some other microphone men had the same reasoning. But Benaud is unique in so many ways. I have known perhaps 40 or 50 Test captains from every country in the world and naturally they are all different.

Vain men, vague men, men who knew nothing of the world beyond the cricket field; one boasted he had never voted in any form of election, one from an age long ago who fell on such hard times that he begged money in bars to feed his drink habit, at least two who fell into the hands of the bookmakers.

There were also kind men, unselfish men, sentimental men, one with a brilliant intelligence beyond cricket, one who finished his days in the game on the verge of a nervous breakdown, loud men, quiet men, one who never forgot a face or a name.

Few had the ability to step seamlessly from cricket into the real world with the ease that Benaud demonstrated nearly 40 years ago.

As a cricket captain he was always an innovator. He invited the Press into his dressing room — on condition they were discreet — and always aimed to play aggressive, entertaining cricket.

He is now so well organised that he will have rehearsed his farewell — as the fifth Test came to an end — down to the last vowel sound. If he ever took an ill-considered step it was a rarity, he was punctual to the last second, so that if he was even a few minutes late TV production teams became seriously worried.

I have known him since 1981 and I heard him swear just once, in a very Australian way, about the men who sold cricket to the bookies.

In a speech on The Spirit of Cricket at Lord's, sponsored by MCC, he said: "I used to lie awake at night wondering how I could beat the other side. Now I read that these b... . used to lie awake wondering how they could lose the game."

After his final broadcasting stint in England, the tears were frequent at a wake in the London Television Centre building in South Bank to mark the end of Channel Four cricket.

On one side — cool, calm and collected as ever — Benaud, ready for retirement. On the other Channel Four television's production company Sunset + Vine who have lost out in the contract reshuffle that has given all live cricket coverage to Sky TV for four years from next summer.

The young backroom boys and girls will find it difficult to get new jobs in the highly competitive world of cricket television now that there is only one firm with posts to offer.

"I feel sorry for the youngsters," says Benaud. "They have been the innovators in a show that has been good for cricket. It began by imitating Channel 9 in Australia. Now Channel 9 follows the example of Channel Four."

Television audiences have rocketed this summer of great tension. Two Tests in succession the channel has had more than 40 per cent of the viewing audience. No costume play, no soap opera, no reality show has ever had the drama, the personalities or the change of pace that has come from the last three Tests.

While the fight for the Ashes has enchanted the cameras, the battle for the airwaves has been fought off stage so that two such contrasting minds as the satirical magazine Private Eye and Lord MacLaurin, the former chairman of the England and Wales Cricket Board have blasted the decision.

It will bring �52m a year in the England and Wales Cricket Board coffers but leave most of the nation without live coverage. It has been called the worst decision ever made and that it will leave youngsters with no role models to watch. The ECB say they could not turn down the money.

Gary Franses, the producer who has been involved in television cricket for longer than Australia held the Ashes, heard the bad news when he was driving late last year. His mobile rang and David Kerr, head of sport at Channel Four, delivered the news in stark terms: "We've lost the lot."

Franses remembers: "I stopped the car, got out and asked my wife Jane to drive. We had expected to get the Tests for the second half of the summer. Instead there was nothing. I don't know if it was the right decision from a cricket point of view. I just know I will miss it. In our business you don't keep jobs forever but we have been involved with this stuff for seven years and I think we have got it right."

If the channel return in 2010 — when the next contract is due — it may be in time for their best known trick, Hawkeye, to deliver. At the moment it is used by the third umpire only for stumpings, run-outs and decisions where both umpires are unsighted. The next step is to use it for all decisions where the umpire feels it will be useful — even for lbw.

Actually it already has been. Just once in a village game. Technical

Producer Paul Ryan, who played a major part in developing Hawkeye, took his van load of computer equipment home one week-end and was persuaded to set it up for a local derby.

That is how an unknown batsman from the Weald of Kent is still the only batsman in the world ever given out lbw by television replay. "The first time the umpire got it badly wrong so the second time he asked for help from Hawkeye," Ryan remembers. "We could have given lbw verdicts five years ago in Tests and I don't doubt we will be asked for them some time in the future."

There will be no need for Ryan and his associates to join the dole queue. They already supply the output from Hawkeye — bowlers' speed, graphics, an analysis of an umpire's verdict — to Sky as well as other TV companies around the world.

If you want to know why Benaud is still in demand you should have been at the semi-final of the Cheltenham and Gloucester Trophy at the Rose Bowl when Hampshire, the eventual winners of the competition, beat Yorkshire after a day of drama.

Late in the game, with Yorkshire desperate for runs, a direct hit needed a verdict from the third umpire. For a few seconds Benaud is no longer the 74-year-old, slightly deaf, sometimes hesitant man but a young cricketer again as he spots a clue the rest miss.

"See if the ball doesn't hit the middle stump first before the wicket-keeper's gloves knock off the bail. Before new technology that will never be given out," says the man voted best commentator by a huge majority in a poll. "That is a great piece of commentary," says Mark Nicholas, the presenter.

Richie Benaud, the cricketer's commentator, a gift from the gods to his game deserves to be knighted for his services to cricket. Perhaps he will be.