Richie Benaud R.I.P.

The first time I recall watching cricket was the First Ashes Test in 1968: long hours indoors glued to a black-and-white 405-line television set. The game captured me at once, and I’ve been under its spell ever since.

Only a few years earlier, Richie Benaud had been captain of Australia, a bold, attacking leg spinner  in an era when leggies were dying out. When his playing career ended, Benaud headed straight for the commentary box where, for the next five decades, he created and upheld a reputation as an insightful, thoughtful analyst who never once overwhelmed the viewer by telling him what he was seeing for himself.

It’s only two days since I woke up to learn that Stan Freberg had passed on, and only a month since we lost Terry Pratchett. This is becoming a seriously shitty year.

I have no actual memory of Benaud commentating upon the 1968 series. But the memory of Benaud that I do have is that he was always there. Every summer, as long as the BBC held the rights to Test cricket, no matter who the visitors, Benaud’s warm, smooth voice would be part of the summer months, when I would be watching all humanly possible hours. I simply can’t remember a time before him.

It’s not that I remember any particular phrases from him. He wasn’t that sort of commentator, drawing attention from the game to himself, though that didn’t mean he couldn’t summon up a very effective line when the moment deserved it. He was simply a presence. It was like sitting with an Uncle who knew everything you could want to know about what you were watching, and who would share the experience with you.

Benaud didn’t follow English Test cricket to Sky, holding to his belief that the game should not be kept from public gaze. Later, old age and issues with his throat prevented him from adding to the hundreds of games upon which he spoke. Now the voice is gone, and we are again deprived. I wish I’d been old enough to see him play. I’m glad I had so many decades to listen to him.

Travelling with Tinniswood: The Brigadier Down Under

“Who is this?”
The barman smiled smugly.
“Stone the crows, you must be a stranger,” he said.
“Of course I’m a stranger,” I said. “It’s the only way to cope with living in this godforsaken country. Now who the devil is this creature?”
At this the barman spoke two words, which were to engrave themselves indelibly on my heart and change the whole course of my stay Down Under.
“Kingsley Kunzel,” he said.
Kingsley Kunzel!
In the annals of Wisden his name reigns supreme.
I quote:
“Most centuries scored whilst drunk…  Kingsley Kunzel… 17.”
“Most inebriated batsman to have been given out ‘seen the ball twice’…  Kingsley Kunzel.”
Kingsley Kunzel!
How well I recalled the Australian tour of ’21, when, after the luncheon adjournment in the match against Derbyshire at Chesterfield, he was given out “sick hit wicket…33.”
With what pleasure I conjured up memories of the opening match against Worcestershire, when, despite suffering most grievously from the effects of Ansell’s Tummy, he was able with the aid of three runners and an auxiliary stretcher bearer to score an undefeated double century before opening time.
And, joy of joys, there he was lying at my feet blithely sipping a quadruple gin and lung tonic.
The third Brigadier book was again written both as a series of monologues and for publication, which followed fairly rapidly. What distinguishes The Brigadier Down Under from its predecessors is that it follows a constant theme, wrapped up in contemporary events, namely the England tour of Australia in the winter season of 1982/3 (won 2-1 by Australia).
It’s all because of the blasted lady wife and her confounded Bedlington terriers, and her decision to go to Australia and search out her long lost brother, Naunton. Which coincides with the Ashes Tour, led by Colonel ‘Mad’ Bob Willis.
The Brigadier is not mollified. The lady wife fails entirely to understand that one doesn’t watch cricket in Australia, one listens to it. At a cold, grey dawn, in the depths of an English winter, on the talking wireless. Nevertheless, the lady wife is insistent. Australia is a long way away. It is a foreign country, a ‘land of ravaged desert, shark-infested ocean and thirst-racked outback.’
Most of all, though, it is full of Australians. And especially Richie Benaud. The Brigadier is not a prejudiced man, but…
Well, actually he is, as we are very aware by now. And forthright of opinion to boot, especially when it comes to the subject of Australians, who he treats with his usual disregard.
The England team also come in for some rough treatment, though there’s a distinct degree of affection in the military titles the Brigadier vests in this motley party. As well as Colonel ‘Mad’ Bob, there’s burly Sarn’t Major Botham, Lt. the Hon David Gower of the 4th Leicestershire Lancers, Bombardier Fowler, dear old ragged Sapper Randall and more, names to arouse memories of a cricketing past.
Not to mention the sacerdotal calling on Monsignor Tavare, he of the quiet demeanour and portable confirmation kit, though my favourite line in the book, and possibly the entire Brigadier series is when Vic Marks is described as having the ‘familiar expression of someone who has just been told he is to spend the rest of his life as a junior lecturer in soap technology.’
It’s more of the same, focussed upon a different atmosphere: still full of inexhaustible jokes, puns, misunderstandings and malignments. It becomes increasingly clear why Richie Benaud never found the Brigadier to be funny, whilst Michael Parkinson would definitely have neded a sense of humour and a degree of humility (which no-one has ever described him as possessing) to accept his portrayal.
And it is no doubt due to Clive James’ unAustralian complete lack of interest in cricket that he did not take offence at his inclusion in these pages.
Tinniswood’s range of invention in this admittedly-limited sphere reaches either a peak nor a nadir on page 60 of the paperback edition when he lines up six prominent cricket writers/editors/broadcasters into one horrendous pun on a once-famous Sixties pop band.
As the sleeve photo to the hardback volume demonstrated, The Brigadier Down Under was written in close collaboration with the England touring team, Tinniswood having toured Australia to ‘research’ the book, though his account is distinctly different from any of the others I have read about that tour.
It’s more of the same, only different, and the same advantages and drawbacks to the previous books apply in equal measure. But it was very popular then.

The Ball of the Century

I hardly need set the scene for this recollection, do I? The title identifies the time, the place, the people, the moment. It brings up the picture in all cricket fans’ minds, that twenty years after, still has the power to awe us.
But this blog is for more than just the already aware, so let me describe what I’m talking about.
It was 4 June 1993, after lunch, on the Second Day of the First Test between England and Australia, at Old Trafford, a somewhat dark, overcast day, with the threat of rain at several points. I was, as usual, holidaying from work, taking the full five days of the Test, and sat in the Pavilion. Australia had won the toss and elected to bat, and had scored 289 all out. England began their reply comfortably enough, scoring 71 for the first wicket, which had brought former captain Mike Gatting to the wicket.
I confess to not liking Gatting, especially as an England captain. Everybody spoke of his qualities as a leader, that the players would follow him anywhere, without ever conceding that he had no idea where to lead his team. He’d played under Mike Brearley and hadn’t even absorbed Brearley’s simplest maxim – if it isn’t working, try something else. Nor could I admire his habit of deliberately misunderstanding the question whenever he was called upon to defend himself over the way he had thrown away his wicket, and England’s chances of success, in the 1989 World Cup Final against Australia.
Personally, I didn’t believe he deserved his place, but I wasn’t a Selector, and have never suffered from the apparent belief of Selectors everywhere that past success demands a player be selected forever. That he was to be at the wicket added a personal pinch of spice for me.
Australia had brought over a bowler, a leg-spinner, who was being boosted as the next greatest thing. And a leggy as well: that art had been virtually dead until Abdul Qadir opened the tomb and started entertaining everyone. His name was Shane Warne, and he looked like a bleached beach-bum and surfer, and in his only Tour Match to date, against Worcestershire, Graeme Hick had taken him apart quite thoroughly. So, another Aussie wonderboy who would prove to be unable to make an impression outside his native land, then. They got us with that one, and good.
Border decided that it was time to bring Warne into the attack, his first Test over in English conditions. They placed the field, somewhat conventionally. Gatting, the master of spin, the aggressor and smiter of the twirly men. Except in one mean and malicious heart, sat before the Pavilion, everyone was mentally settling in for some lusty blows from Fatty Gatting.
So Warne started ambling in for his first ball. Just an aimless few paces, wandering forward, before springing into his delivery stride: pretty much what I did when I bowled, in fact! Gatting clearly decided it should be left alone and didn’t play at the ball.
But wait! The Aussie slip cordon and the keeper were roaring, and sprinting forward, waving their arms! Warne was celebrating. Gatting was standing there, looking the picture of What The Hell. Was he out? He was out? How the Hell…?
Those people who were sat in Old Trafford with something like a straight on view of the wicket already knew what Warne had done: the rest of us, including the whole Pavilion, were left to look at the big digital screen for a replay of what we had witnessed but been unable to interpret. Even Gatting, heading back to the Pavilion, stopped to look at just what had been done to him.
These early big screens were far from HD, and often the ball was visible only as a dark blur, or smear, if it could be seen at all. It took two replays to comprehend it. One to simply stare in disbelief, the other to begin to look, with cold calculation, at what it was we were seeing.
Warne brought his arm over, released the ball. It was the prototypical loosener, pitched on leg stump and then drifting further out in its trajectory to pitch well wide of leg: imagine into existence a second set of stumps, continuing the line, and this would have pitched middle stump on set 2. And then it leapt, yes, leapt, spun viciously back on itself, spat past the precautionary edge of Gatting’s bat and hit off stump on the corporeal set.
Could a ball do that? I mean, it had, but it had never done that before, not in my life or my experience. In the moment of that first replay, there was a strange sound from the crowd, myself included. It was shock, awe, appreciation, all mixed into the sound of a moment of passage from past into future,
It was just a ball, just a bloody good leg-spinner, but in that moment, Shane Warne won not merely the First Test but the entire series, and he shifted Cricket itself into a future where, having shown what could be done, he had initiated a furious race to do it again. We have lived in Shane Warne’s world since then, and cricket has been immeasurably better for it.
And it was his first bloody ball too! What would he do when he’d warmed up?
The first thing he went on to show was that that was not a fluke, as if, in some corners of desperate English minds there was the faintest of hopes that it might have been some sort of freak ball, something that could never happen again. But later in that innings, he bowled one to Alec Stewart that pitched on leg stump of the imaginary set and came back so far it passed outside off stump of the real set.
The two sides were playing in different dimensions from that point on. The crowd was intent upon Warne’s every delivery, none of this relax and wait for him to come in and bowl, every delivery could be something unforgettable and no-one wanted to miss any of it. From the Pavilion, we were all helplessly reliant on the big screen to show us what we were watching. I remember laughing my head off, unable to control myself, when Warne induced Gooch to throw his wicket away with a hasty swipe to mid on: it wasn’t that ball that got Gooch out but the half dozen before it, the balls that Warne were making boom every which way, and Gooch unable to pick anything, until the sloppy full toss came straight at him and his desperate resistance broke in the chance of a hittable ball, an actual hittable ball, and he bagged it straight to the fielder.
Oddly, the same game offered another I was There moment on the final day. England were batting for the draw, hoping to hold out, and generally managing with relative comfort, thanks to the captain’s innings by Graham Gooch, which had already reached 133 runs. And in comes the gloriously moustached Merv Hughes, with his mincing, almost tiptoe run and his upper body bulk, and unleashing a delivery. Gooch tries to cut but it’s too close to his body. He chops the ball down into the ground behind him: it bounces to waist height and drops back. It’s going to hit the stumps, but Gooch sweeps his right arm at him, knocks it away off his forearm, and I’m going ‘oh shit’ and that’s before the Aussies go up.
He’s out. I’ve never seen it happened, but I know the Laws, he’s handled the ball. He could have knocked it away with his bat, and it would have been Hit Twice but he’d have been ok because of In Defence of Wicket. He’d have been safe with the back of his hand, as long as it held the bat. But his arm was free and he’s used his forearm and he’s Out. Only the sixth English player in Test History to be out Handled the Ball.
Dickie Bird knows it’s out, the Aussies know it’s out, but he tries to give them the chance to withdraw it, to not do this, for some, unbelievable reason to not claim the wicket of a top rank opponent holding out against victory, for a perfectly legitimate, merely rare dismissal. Are you sure you want to do this? he asks out there, as the crowd waits in suspense for a decision. But he’s out, clear as day, and why should Australia withdraw? So Goochie has to walk, and with him goes the faint hope of denying the Aussies victory.
Two incidents in one memorable Test. The Ball of the Century and a Handled the Ball, in one game. Almost an embarrassment of riches. You don’t expect such things to come to you in clusters, but they did, and I was there.