The Common Touch
IN EARLY 1953, RICHIE BENAUD was a 22-year-old all-rounder who had just been selected for his first Ashes tour. My grandfather, Francis Edwin Armstrong, who earned a Military Cross at Bellicourt during World War I, was the president of the Parramatta RSL in western Sydney. These two great men came together at a function that preceded the tour; I have used that meeting to introduce a profile of Richie, which is published here to coincide with the 59th anniversary of Richie’s first Test as Australian captain.
On December 5–10, 1958, five-and-a-half years after Richie and my grandfather met at Parramatta RSL, Australia and England met at the Gabba in the first Test of a series that would produce one of the most stunning results in Ashes history. England had won the previous three series and went into the opening Test of 1958–59 as strong favourites, but this Australian team — featuring names such as Harvey, Davidson, Grout, McDonald, Meckiff, Burke and O’Neill — was a much more dynamic combination than those of the recent past.
None captured this new vibrancy more than Richie Benaud, who began his reign as Australian skipper by dismissing seven English batsmen as the home team won by eight wickets. It was the first of four Aussie Test wins for the summer. One of cricket history’s greatest captaincy careers had begun in devastating style …
ON THE EVE OF the Australian cricket team’s tour of England in 1953, a function was held at the Parramatta RSL to honour Richie Benaud, who at age 22 had been chosen for his first Ashes tour.
Richie was the first cricketer from Parramatta to play for Australia. The Cumberland (now Parramatta) grade club had previously provided three Test players — Gerry Hazlitt, Frank Iredale and Bill Howell — but they had learned their cricket elsewhere before joining the club as established cricketers. It is impossible to underestimate the pride the district felt in 1953 for their new hero.
‘Richie,’ said Ted Armstrong, the president of the Parramatta RSL, during one of a series of speeches and presentations, ‘you are the first local boy to gain the honour of an English tour. I hope you never lose the common touch.’
As a youth, Richie was regarded as a prodigy. One day at Parramatta High School in the early 1940s, the sports master told an assembly that Richie would not only play Test cricket for Australia, he’d probably be captain. Richie was promoted to first-grade at Cumberland in 1946, not long after his 16th birthday, and played with his father Lou, a highly respected leg-spinner and local school teacher who was his son’s inspiration. Many stories are told of Lou and Richie getting to practice early to work together, and of the pair spending hours on the makeshift pitch in the backyard of their North Parramatta home. By the time of his Test debut, at age 21, Richie had been compared to all of Arthur Morris, Archie Jackson, Keith Miller and Warwick Armstrong. In 1947, a Sydney Morning Herald sports columnist had described him as ‘the most promising youngster since Bradman’.
Yet the reality was, as Richie knew, he had much to do if he was to fulfil his undoubted promise. A pivotal moment came on that first Ashes tour, when the great Bill ‘Tiger’ O’Reilly agreed to have dinner with him. ‘What,’ Richie asked, ‘do I have to do to become a Test-class bowler?’
In essence, Tiger replied, you need a stock delivery on which you can rely. To this point, Richie had been a disciple of his father’s belief that a leg-spinner’s key weapon was variety. Keep the batsmen guessing. No two balls in an over should be the same. This new advice went against that strategy, but Richie had a good sense to listen to the master and Lou Benaud had a good sense to let his son go. Tiger warned Richie that it would take four years of hard work and dedication if he wanted his dreams to come true; Richie took this advice to heart.
Many of his famous team-mates have spoken almost in awe of his prodigious work ethic. Wally Grout wrote: ‘Richie earned this success with his sweat. He was the most enthusiastic and diligent member of the team, the first to practice and the last to leave.’ Bob Simpson remembers Richie bowling in the practice nets on the tour of South Africa in 1957–58, working with a schoolboy who would watch while Richie tried to land a dozen balls on a handkerchief positioned on a good length. Then the schoolboy would retrieve the balls and Richie would bowl them again. This went on for hours, day after day.
Landing a leg-break on a length became a habit he couldn’t break. In 1977, the great Fred Trueman recalled a charity game from 1975 when Richie was enlisted at short notice. ‘He hadn’t bowled a leg-spinner in anger since goodness-knows-when,’ Trueman said. ‘But in his first over he “dropped” all six right on the mark, and spun ’em too.’
By the end of his Test career, Richie’s economy rate as a bowler was 2.10 runs per over (calculated on all overs being of six balls). Of all wrist-spinners with 75 or more Test wickets, only one man has a superior economy rate: Bill O’Reilly (1.95 runs per over).
A little like Steve Waugh 30 years later, Richie stayed in the Australian Test team between 1952 and 1956 largely on potential. When he left England in 1956 after what for Australia had been a disappointing tour, his Test record read: 23 Tests; 755 runs at 20.97; 49 wickets at 34.44. To a degree, he had been a victim of circumstances, forced as a bowler to wait his turn behind the veterans from Bradman’s famous 1948 side: Ray Lindwall, Keith Miller, Bill Johnston, Doug Ring and Ian Johnson. A watershed came in India on the way home from England in 1956, when Richie found himself bowling first change during the opening morning of the first Test at Madras. He took 7-72, and then 6-52 and 5-53 in the third Test at Calcutta, giving him 23 wickets at 16.87 for the three-match series.
The real turnaround — for Richie and his great mate Alan Davidson — came on that ’57–58 tour of South Africa. The Australians were now a young team, led by 22-year-old Ian Craig. With the Invincibles all departed, Richie was suddenly a senior player and he responded with one of the finest all-round performances ever achieved in a Test series. He took five wickets in an innings in four straight Tests. In the fourth Test at Johannesburg, with Australia leading 1–0 in the series, he hit 100 batting four and took 4–70 (coming on second change) and 5–84 (first change) to inspire a 10-wicket victory. For the series, he took 30 wickets at 21.93 and scored 329 runs at 54.83 with two centuries.
After Ian Craig was struck down by hepatitis, Richie became Australian captain and first up he stunned England in 1958–59 by leading his men to a 4–0 triumph, taking 31 wickets in the process. In eight trying Tests in Pakistan and India in 1959–60, he took 47 more as Australia won both series. Then came his massive contribution to the clash with Frank Worrell’s West Indians in 1960-61, when the two skippers resolved to show that entertaining and hard-nosed cricket could be mutually conducive. Richie took 23 wickets in the five Tests, but most important for cricket history was his decision to go for the win when Australia needed 123 with four wickets in hand at tea on the last day at the Gabba. He and Davo had the batting skill to almost get Australia home, and then came the last-over drama that ended in Test cricket’s first tie.
Richie’s second famous performance in nine months came on the last day of the fourth Test at Manchester, the Test that decided the 1961 Ashes series, when he went around the wicket to aim at the rough outside the right-handers’ pads, and took 5-12 in 25 balls to win a game most thought lost. It was after this triumph that some people said he was a ‘lucky’ captain. The truth was that he had the courage to back his players, and himself, which sometimes turned around games, even series. He himself said that successful captaincy was 90 per cent luck and 10 per cent skill, ‘but don’t try it without that 10 per cent’. He never lost a Test series as captain.
Richie retired in 1964 with 248 Test wickets, 2201 Test runs and 65 catches from 63 appearances. He would remain the only man to complete the 200 wickets/2000 runs/50 catches treble in Tests until Garry Sobers joined him in 1971. Most remarkably, his days as a highly influential figure in world cricket had only just begun.
Richie’s first job outside of cricket had been as a 16-year-old clerk in a chartered accountant’s office. In 1950, he took a job in the accounts department at The Sun newspaper, where he stayed six years until he approached Lindsay Clinch, the paper’s editor, about a transfer to editorial. He was offered the chance to write a sports column, but declined, saying he wanted to work on news and police rounds. This led to him working under Noel Bailey, The Sun’s legendary crime reporter. ‘The finest training of all was to trail on the coat-tails of Noel Bailey,’ Richie would say years later. ‘It was wonderful to see and hear him in action.’
Richie would go on to write for a number of newspapers across the world, most notably the News of the World in Britain and The Sun in Australia. His words would be syndicated across the cricket world. He was also a columnist for numerous magazines, wrote 10 books, and contributed to or edited many more.
His career as a broadcaster had its origins in a decision he made before the Australians left for the subcontinent in 1956. Instead of touring around the UK or Europe, Richie opted to participate in a BBC television training course in London. During that Ashes summer he had been intrigued by the work of now-celebrated TV commentators such as Henry Longhurst (golf), Dan Maskell (tennis) and Peter O’Sullevan (horse racing), and while that course didn’t immediately lead to a career in this new media, it did provide a launching pad for all that followed. ‘Many are called and surprisingly many are given the opportunity behind the microphone,’ the famous sportswriter Ian Wooldridge observed in 2005. ‘Very few have served the slogging apprenticeship that makes a master cricket commentator.’
Richie dabbled in radio commentary in 1960, when he spent the Australian winter in England, working predominantly as a journalist and sub-editor, and playing a little cricket, including a series of televised one-day matches. His first TV commentary experience came in England in 1963. He would work with the BBC (1963–1997) and Channel 4 (1999–2005) in the UK, while in Australia he did some stints with Seven and then Ten when those commercial channels briefly covered Test cricket, before joining the Nine Network for World Series Cricket in 1977.
He became a cricket constant during Australian and English summers, a hugely respected and admired figure. He never lived in the past and always preferred to praise rather than criticise. His involvement as a consultant and commentator in WSC, controversial at the time, added to his reputation. A players’ rights man from first to last, Richie backed Kerry Packer’s cricket revolution because he truly believed in it. The credibility his support gave the new venture was priceless.
In return, Nine gave Richie a literal lifetime contract. ‘We never had a cross word,’ remembered James Packer on Richie’s death in April 2015. ‘His word was his bond.’
‘He never quibbled about money or asked for pay rises,’ recalled Nine’s current CEO David Gyngell. ‘He had no manager and arranged his own business. Agreements were reached on a simple handshake.’
Richie was an exceptional cricketer, a great captain and the greatest commentator. He mixed with the sporting and media elite, and with royalty and prime ministers. For 40 years, he and Daphne lived in summer all year long, at Coogee, in London and from 1992 in the south of France. He was positively and profitably mimicked by satirists and supporters, and like Dawn, Betty and The Don, his first name brought instant recognition. Yet, for all this, he still managed — as Ted Armstrong asked of him at Parramatta RSL in 1953, to retain the ‘common touch’.
The result is that the adjective that best captures Richie Benaud and the impact he had on people over more than 60 years goes beyond his cricket and his commentary, as brilliant as they undoubtedly were. For everyone — family, friends and fans — he was ‘much-loved’. We will never see his like again.
Leave a Reply.