Benaud died in a Sydney hospice five months after announcing last November that he was suffering from skin cancer – a condition caused by long hours spent bare-headed out in the sun during his playing career.
A master of the microphone for half a century, the much-loved Benaud was renowned as ‘the voice of cricket’. But the iconic veteran broadcaster had been unable to commentate for Australia’s Channel Nine since crushing two vertebrae when he crashed his 1963 Sunbeam vintage sports car into a brick wall near his home in Coogee, Sydney, in October 2013.
Cricket Australia responded to his death by stating: “After Don Bradman, there has been no Australian player more famous than Richie Benaud.”
And Australian prime minister Tony Abbott immediately offered Benaud’s widow, Daphne, the option of a state funeral for her husband. He told ABC Brisbane: “There would hardly be an Australian over the last 40 years who has not listened to Richie Benaud or warmed to his character and personality. He was a very, very effective cricketer, a great captain, and a great personality. He has been a part of the lives of millions of Australians and he will certainly be very much missed.”
News of Benaud’s death comes just a fortnight after Australia won cricket’s World Cup for a record fourth time, and marks a sad end to a summer which began in tragic circumstances when Test batsman Phillip Hughes died after being struck on the head by a bouncer at the Sydney Cricket Ground in November.
Born in Penrith, New South Wales, Benaud was a talented leg-spinning all-rounder who played in 63 Tests for Australia between 1952-64. He was the first man to achieve the double of 2000 runs and 200 wickets at Test level, and finished with 2201 runs and 248 wickets. Benaud never lost a series in his 28 Tests as Aussie skipper, and restored supremacy over Ashes rivals England.
While still a player Benaud completed a BBC training course after the 1956 Ashes tour of England. He had already moved into the commentary box by the time he retired as a player in 1964, and over the decades that followed his work with the BBC and Channel Nine gained him legions of devoted followers around the globe.
Benaud was a shrewd and perceptive analyst who seldom needed replays to give an accurate assessment of what had occurred out in the middle – one viewing was usually enough. He was economic in his use of words, and became famed for his dry, witty one-liners – plus popular catchphrases such as “marvellous effort”, “that’s in the air – but safe” and “goddim”.
When England all-rounder Ian Botham flayed the fast bowling of Australian great Dennis Lillee in the 1981 Ashes series – hooking a series of sixes despite appearing to face the ground as he played the shot – Benaud quipped: “He plays that shot very well; he doesn’t bother looking at it – just swats it away, rather as if he was swatting a fly.”
Benaud’s mellifluous commentary style, cream-coloured suits, neatly coiffured locks and characteristic side-on glances towards the cameras spawned a host of impersonators in playgrounds, cricket clubs and pubs around the world. His style was most famously parodied by Australian comedian Billy Birmingham in the famous ‘Twelfth Man’ series of Channel Nine commentary team spoofs, which also counted the late Tony Greig among its many victims.
And in recent years legions of beige-adorned Richie lookalikes enjoyed attending Tests dressed in affectionate homage to their hero – sometimes in groups of 200 at a time.
Test wicket world record holder Shane Warne – another former Australian leg-spinner – paid his own warm tribute to Benaud, writing: “Richie, you were loved by everyone, not just the cricket family. You were the godfather of cricket and you will be missed by all. RIP my friend.”