When you’ve grown accustomed to seeing and hearing someone on TV – especially someone with a voice both commanding and calming like Richie Benaud’s – often they appear in real life much smaller than how you’d built them up in your imagination; more like the rest of us than you’d perhaps anticipated.
Richie Benaud wasn’t one of those people. Arriving at the MCG far earlier than necessary one summer morning as a child, I’d heard that if I loitered around the members entrance area there was a fair chance I’d be able to secure an autograph from a player or two as the team bus pulled in.
None came, at least not any I recognised, but then all of sudden there was a scramble of activity as Richie Benaud and Tony Greig strolled down the tree-lined hills of Yarra Park from the direction of the Hilton Hotel. To this 12-year-old they both looked as imposingly tall and grand as the ground’s light towers, Greig’s famous hat shielding the sun and Richie draped in the bone-coloured suit subject to so much parody but like every other aspect of the man, somehow still so far above it all.
Patiently and sincerely, the pair of them gave scrawls to everyone who wanted one and then wandered inside the doors to the media entrance, leading me to wonder what world of magic sat behind them - the world that beamed cricket into the family living room all summer. It was there that Benaud was teacher, babysitter and grandfather to Australians and the world.
As a player and Australian Test captain he’d dragged cricket out of its torpor of the late 1950s, helping to inject it again with a joy and spirit that had started to disappear. As a journalist and commentator, he made a sport that might otherwise have been erroneously written off as aristocratic and anachronistic appeal to the masses. He didn’t do that by dumbing it down or appealing to base impulses but by gently guiding us towards its subtle pleasures and reminding us when need be of the way that history so often repeated itself. He’d lived it, he knew.
If Benaud was cricket’s grandfather, he never grew jaded or cynical of the endless arrival of the pictures his grandchildren drew. “I thought I had seen just about everything in cricket,” he once said of Sachin Tendulkar’s batting, “but it is always unwise to think along those lines.” How lucky we are to have had him thinking through the game and sharing it with us.
In the past few years I’d guess a lot of us have realised that we took the reassuring presence of Richie’s voice for granted. He’d been there for us every summer, welcoming us to the MCG, the Adelaide Oval, the Gabba, the WACA, Bellerive; places we might never have visited but where this wonderful man made all of us feel at home, sagely easing us through the rhythms of the summer and making us love it as much as he always did.
These days sport has an increasing tendency to speak at us, not to us. No-one is more representative of that lost world of gentle, measured discourse than Richie, the greatest and most dignified stealth marketing man that cricket ever had.
I’ll always remember the sight of him walking down the hill that day. In reality he was only clocking on for another one of thousands of days at the office but what walked into the commentary box with him that day was history, humility, humanity and every value of which a sport could love and be proud.
This article was written by Russell Jackson, for theguardian.com on Friday 10th April 2015 03.03 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010