Chris Waters: Benaud’s warmth went beyond the mic

Richie Benaud has died at 84
Richie Benaud has died at 84
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I SPENT a bit of time rummaging around at home yesterday and eventually found what I was looking for at the bottom of an old box containing some childhood memories.

The writing on the letter has faded now but is still visible on a sheet of yellowing paper.

Dated August 23, 1989, the letter reads:

“Dear Chris,

“The flipper is a delivery bowled with a completely different hand action in that it is “flipped” from underneath the wrist and the ball is spinning from left to right.

“It is extremely difficult to bowl and Bruce Dooland had to change his entire run-up and action to accommodate it, which he did with marvellous success for Nottinghamshire.

“He taught me how to bowl it in 1956. Best wishes.

“Yours sincerely,

“Richie Benaud.”

As news broke yesterday of Benaud’s death at the age of 84, my first thought was not of his skill and style as a broadcaster.

It was not of his catchphrases and comments such as his famous line at Headingley in 1981, when Ian Botham was taking it to the Australians, “Don’t bother looking for that, let alone chasing it, that’s gone straight into the confectionery stall and out again.”

It was not of his wonderful career as a cricketer – so often overlooked due to his broadcasting legend – and his record of 248 Test wickets and 2,201 runs for Australia.

It was of that letter he had sent to me all those years ago – a youngster he had never met – in response to a naive enquiry about how to bowl the “flipper” (one of the variations used by a leg-spin bowler) in the days when I was foolish enough to believe that I might one day be a successful leg-spinner myself.

It was a simple act of kindness which, for me, summed up the man behind the microphone.

For I wonder to how many other youngsters he must have written over the years – each of whom would have harboured similarly implausible dreams of becoming professional players – and how he must have been deluged with enquiries from the television audience.

For when you listened to Benaud, you felt as though you were listening to a friend or father figure, someone kind you could easily approach.

He once summed up the connection between himself and the audience thus: “What I want most from being a television commentator is to be able to feel that, when I say something, I am talking to friends.”

To judge by the tributes that poured into him yesterday, he had more friends than the average person could make in a thousand lifetimes.

To those of my generation, Benaud played an enormous part in our early cricket-watching experience, helping develop our love of the game.

We hung on his every word – always measured, always meaningful – and we tried to copy his style in our playground commentaries.

We mimicked his accent – terribly – and revelled in catchphrases such as “Morning everyone” and “Thank you, Peter” after he had been introduced by the presenter Peter West.

It seemed that every cricket-loving schoolboy tried his hand at a Richie Benaud impersonation, but few could do it; indeed, one wonders whether anyone has been so badly impersonated, such was Benaud’s unique style.

That style was based on the simple premise that “less is more”.

Indeed, Benaud once said on the art of commentary: “If you can add to what’s on the screen, then do it; otherwise, shut up.”

He insisted that the key for any commentator was “to learn the value of economy with words and to never insult the viewer by telling them what they can already see”.

Benaud often went minutes without saying a single word.

In a recent article for The Yorkshire Post, I complained at how I felt the World Cup just ended was almost unbearable at times due to the suffocating nature of the television commentary.

I unashamedly admit that I did the old Fred Trueman trick of turning down the sound and just looking at the pictures.

It was as though we were listening to a gaggle of anti-Benauds – people who could literally not go more than five seconds without saying something, describing in impossible detail things that we could see perfectly well for ourselves or pontificating at length on cricketers’ technique, which is invariably what happens when you cram a commentary box full of ex-players.

Benaud was different.

He was not only an ex-player, but a journalist too.

He had a spell on the Sydney Sun and he appreciated that there is so much more to the art of commentary: colour, description, atmosphere, and so on.

On air, Benaud recognised that silence is golden – not something to be shunned like the plague – and allowed the play to breathe and the drama to develop in the viewer’s mind.

I often wondered what he must have thought about the way that standards had plummeted.

He was far too polite to criticise the current brigade, of course, just as he was always loath to criticise players on air for he appreciated the stresses and strains that they go through each day.

In my brief experience of seeing him from a distance around the press boxes of England circa 10 years ago, Benaud always struck me as a very upright figure – a man unlikely to get outwardly angry or flustered by anything.

He seemed to have an innate calmness and composure, a dignity that was not assumed but merely part of his character.

What Benaud really thought about modern standards, however, can be deduced from an article in the 2003 edition of Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack in which he gave these tips to aspiring commentators…

“Everyone should develop 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…” or “I tell you what”. “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: when commentating, don’t take yourself too seriously, and have fun.”

Nowadays, it seems that the “have fun” bit is just about the only thing that modern commentators can do, normally at the poor old viewers’ expense.

Too many commentators are brash, full of their own self-worth and oblivious to what made Benaud the doyen of their trade.

When the great man died yesterday, a part of us died with him.

It was as though a part of our own childhood had been lost, a part that will always be fondly recalled.

All will have their own favourite memories of Benaud, but mine are to be found at the bottom of that old box back at home.

Yes, the letter dated August 23, 1989 and addressed “Dear Chris” may be faded now, but I am proud to own it and will treasure it always.