The best sound in cricket is the one that features in the celebrated speech in Tom Stoppard’s “The Real Thing”. It is not just the thwack of any old piece of willow on leather, but the sonorous pop of a well-made bat executing a well-timed stroke; “a noise,” as Stoppard wrote, “like a trout taking a fly.” The second-best sound in cricket, for most of the past 50 years, has been a sentence. “And after So-and-So, it will be Richie Benaud.”
As a cricketer, Benaud was very good. As a captain, he was one of the best. But, as a commentator, he was in a class of his own.
Many sports commentators are in love with the sound of their own voice, but Richie was in love with the drama of the game, and he preferred to let it speak for itself. His genius lay in knowing when not to say anything. His commentary was a piece of the finest Swiss cheese: it was the holes, the silences, that made it what it was.
Silence on its own would not have been much use. It was the way he used it: not as a tool of menace, like Pinter’s pauses, but as a weapon of mass collusion. It was there to draw you in, to make you wonder what he was thinking, to add weight to the words he did utter. When they came, the words were crisp, dry, calm, laconic. He had the gravitas of a maestro and the timing of a stand-up. “No need to chase that one,” he said as Ian Botham hit yet another six. “It’s gone into the confectionery stall.” Pause. “And out again.”
When I edited Wisden, in 2003, he was already all the things he has been hailed as today: a doyen, a master, a legend. I was writing a piece entitled “Who has seen the most Test cricket?” It was marking the fact that the Test match—five long days of pitched battle, that, if you’re lucky, slowly swell into an epic—had been with us for 125 years. I started asking around, ringing veteran correspondents and photographers. All the signs began to point to Benaud, so I sent him an e-mail via Ian Healy, who had just joined him in the commentary box. For two weeks, there was silence: his signature tune.
Then I saw his name in my inbox. It was like getting a postcard from the Pope. Thus began a short correspondence that was succinct, illuminating and immensely helpful. Richie’s e-mails always began, like letters, with a place and a date: “Melbourne, January 27”. “I hope the following might fit in with what you want,” he wrote, “and I hope I’ve got the figures right…” He totted up his Test matches carefully, accurately, unflinchingly: 63 as a player, three as 12th man, one on tour that he didn’t play in (only one—sure sign of a good player). And on to his career as a broadcaster, which had begun, magnificently, with a “three-week BBC television course, devised for me”: “11 [Tests] covered in West Indies, 8 in South Africa, 223 in England, 171 in Australia, 0 in India, 0 in Pakistan, 0 in Sri Lanka, 0 in Zimbabwe, 0 in Bangladesh.” Where others might have been embarrassed by those ducks, he just listed them matter-of-factly, as if he planned on breaking them. His grand total then was 486, nearly a third of the whole history of Test cricket. And he added plenty more in the following decade.
My story turned into a piece about him, and I turned into a fan, asking the simple questions. What were his favourite Tests? “Three of them from different points of view.” Personal: England v Australia, Old Trafford, 1961, when his tireless leg-spin destroyed the England batting order on the final afternoon and helped regain the Ashes. “As a game”: Australia v West Indies, Brisbane, 1960-61—the first Test ever to end in a tie. He was the Australian captain. “From the commentary box”: England v Australia, Headingley, 1981—Botham’s finest hour. A generous choice, this, as it was a crushing blow for his old team.
I also asked for his tips for aspiring commentators. This is what he wrote:
“Everyone should have a distinctive style, but a few pieces of advice might be:
“Put your brain into gear before opening your mouth.
“Never say ‘we’ if referring to a team.
“Discipline is essential; fierce concentration is needed at all times.
“Then try to avoid allowing past your lips: Of course… As you can see on the screen... You know… I tell you what [a gentle dig, this, at his friend Tony Greig]. That’s a tragedy… or a disaster… (The Titanic was a tragedy, the Ethiopian drought a disaster, but neither bears any relation to a dropped catch.)
“Above all, don’t take yourself too seriously, and have fun.”
It was a thrill to have his wisdom distilled like this. But it has also been a curse. Every time I watch sport on television, Richie’s tests are in my head. And the commentators hardly ever pass.