Cricket: Richie Benaud dead at 84

Richie Benaud. Photo Getty
Richie Benaud. Photo Getty
Former Australia cricket captain and renowned commentator Richie Benaud has died, aged 84.

Benaud, arguably the most influential Australian cricketer post-World War 2, had been fighting skin cancer, and died overnight, the Nine Network reported today.

A veteran of 63 tests, Benaud played a pivotal role in the formation of World Series Cricket in the 1970s and was one of the world's most recognised commentators, anchoring the Nine Network's cricket coverage for decades.

"Richie Benaud's passing has robbed us not only of a national treasure but a lovely man," Nine Network CEO David Gyngell said in a statement.

"Richie earned the profound and lasting respect of everyone across the world of cricket and beyond. First as an outstanding player and captain, then as an incomparable commentator and through it all, as a wonderful human being."

'End of an innings'

With sleeves rolled up, shirt open to the navel, and graceful, clean-limbed movements, Richie Benaud cut a god-like figure on the cricket field.

As a bowler he turned legbreaks and test matches, as a batsman he hit the ball with fluent power and as a fieldsman he had the quickness of a cat.

His captaincy was adventurous and shrewd, and he had the happy knack of seeing his hunches transformed into victories.

He and Sir Frank Worrell were the architects of perhaps the most thrilling test series ever played - the "tied test" rubber between Australia and West Indies in 1960-61.

That contest revitalised test cricket, which had fallen into a torpor during the late 1950s, when the game was blighted by negative tactics and drawn matches.

For later generations of cricket followers Richie - the first name was sufficient to identify him - was the face and voice of cricket, much admired, much imitated, and in his later years something of a cult figure.

In the Sydney Ashes test of 2014, when Benaud lay in hospital with complications from a serious car accident some months earlier, hundreds of his admirers came to the match dressed as him, complete with grey wigs, signature cream jackets and replica Channel Nine microphones. "The Richies" soon became a fixture at big matches.

At the time of his death in Sydney overnight Benaud had witnessed - as both player and commentator - well over 500 test matches. No one alive or dead comes near it.

Cricket writer and historian Gideon Haigh describes him as "perhaps the most influential cricketer and cricket personality since the Second World War".

A trained journalist before he became a test cricketer - he cut his teeth doing police rounds at the Sydney Sun - Benaud wrote or edited more than a dozen books about the game.

His metier, however, was the microphone, and his commentary made him a household name in both Australia and England.

He was equally at home working for the BBC and Channel Nine. He may not have had the rich tones of Alan McGilvray or the poetic vision of John Arlott but he knew cricket so intimately his insights into the game were unrivalled.

His distinctive voice and clipped delivery style ("marvellous") were much parodied. Billy Birmingham, aka The Twelfth Man, made a career out of mimicking Benaud and his fellow commentators.

Following the 1956 tour of England, Benaud spent two weeks training at BBC Television where he learned the first law of commentating, which is to say nothing unless you can add to the picture on the screen.

It defined his later work; when he said something it was worth listening to.

As a player, Benaud appeared in 63 test matches between 1951 and 1963, becoming the first man from any nation to score 2000 test runs and take 200 test wickets.

His Australian record test tally of 248 wickets has since been overtaken by many, most notably fellow legspinner Shane Warne, whose career tally of 708 was unimaginable in Benaud's day.

Benaud scored three test centuries and once hit 11 sixes in a first class innings.

As captain he led Australia to four consecutive series victories, beginning with a 4-0 demolition of Peter May's 1958-59 tourists (Benaud took 31 wickets in the five tests).

He never lost a series as captain.

Possibly his greatest personal triumph on the field was at Old Trafford, Manchester in 1961, when he single-handedly snatched the Ashes from England when they were coasting to victory.

Benaud brought himself on to bowl around the wicket, a bold move as he had taken 0-80 in the first innings.

Pitching the ball into the rough made by the bowlers' footmarks, he immediately had the rampant Ted Dexter caught behind, then bowled May around his legs for a duck.

Benaud took 6-70 as England lost nine wickets for 51. Australia won by 54 runs.

With his background in journalism, Benaud always understood the importance of publicity and the media. He was the first test captain to invite reporters into the dressing room for after-match press conferences.

By contrast, he stayed away from the Australian rooms when he turned to commentary so his impartiality could not be questioned.

He also shunned personal publicity, routinely declining interviews lest it draw attention from the game and its players.

In his later years, however, he seemed to accept that he was a public figure. He voiced a short but wonderfully poignant tribute to Phillip Hughes, who died in November 2014 after being struck on the back of the neck by a bouncer in a Sheffield shield match at the SCG.

Benaud also lent his distinctive style to a number of television advertisements.

He was a notable figure in the World Series Cricket revolution of 1977. His presence lent WSC authority and credibility and Kerry Packer repaid him with a job for life.

The 2013 car accident - he lost control of his beloved 1963 Sunbeam Alpine near his home in Coogee, Sydney - kept Benaud away from television screens in the 2013-14 Ashes series, when Australia regained the Ashes with a 5-0 clean sweep.

He had multiple injuries and three months later was found to have fractured a vertebra.

In November 2014, Benaud announced he was fighting skin cancer on his forehead and the top of his head, further reducing his television appearances.

Typically, he turned his announcement into a public service message to warn young people about the dangers of skin cancer, advising them not to follow his example of playing without a cap or hat.

Richard Benaud, OBE, was born in Penrith, Sydney on October 6, 1930, the son of Lou and Irene Benaud.

His father was an accomplished cricketer and his younger brother John also played test cricket for Australia.

Benaud's first marriage, which produced two sons, was dissolved. In 1967 he married Daphne. They had no children.

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