Shane Warne strode to the crease in his inimitable fashion, and produced an equally inimitable delivery. The man commentating the moment was, sadly, just as beyond peer and respectable copying as Australia’s greatest bowler. The ball fizzed through the air, held its line for most of the length of the pitch and then sharply curved and dipped to the leg side. The poor mug facing the ball was Mike Gatting, and he did what he had always done, and presented the face of his bat, but he had never before seen bowling like this.
The fizzing of the ball through the air was a fair clue of what was to come, as the ball bit the turf with severe venom and span past Gatting’s perfectly presented blade. The ball proceeded as if with divine intervention and clipped the top of the off stump. Warne flew into celebration, his first delivery on English soil largely regarded as the greatest ever bowled. Everyone lost their heads. Everyone, that is, except Richie Benaud.
He paused. He thought. Then he said, “He’s done it.” He paused again. “He’s started out with the most beautiful delivery.” Another pause. “Gatting has absolutely no idea what has happened to it.” One last pause. “Still doesn’t know. He asked Kenny Palmer (the umpire) on the way out, Kenny Palmer just gave him a raised eyebrow and a little nod.”
It was two masters working together in complete harmony. The new, young, brash leg spinner and the doyen commentator who was, coincidentally, a fine proponent of the leg spin delivery himself. I. like millions of other Australians, grew up with the voice of Richie Benaud filling the air in summer. We have a soft spot for Richie as he presented a dignified and respectable version of cricket that is so often lost.
I enjoyed and appreciated Richie’s commentary because every word he spoke was well considered and delivered with the natural drama of the contest. There was nothing forced about what he did, and he didn’t seem to put himself before the game or over it or under it. The game unfolded and there was Richie’s voice shortly afterward, adding something to it.
The secret to his success, in my opinion, is something that I wish other commentators could copy. He didn’t talk too much. Often a ball would be hit to the boundary with power or grace or luck and the ball would be almost to the boundary before Richie would say anything.
“Extremely fortunate that.”
He put his brain into gear and considered what it was that would sum up what had happened before delivering the message. He wouldn’t overstate it. He wouldn’t “put mayonnaise” on it, to use a modern saying. He would summarise the event with appropriate words. Sometimes the crowd would fill in the gaps, other times his beloved commentary team, of which he was undisputedly the captain, would do so.
Far too often commentators, no matter the sport, believe it to be their duty to fill in every second of sporting air time with words. Words and words and words and words. Sometimes you listen to them and you just plead to the heavens above that they’ll take a rest and let you watch the game. Other times you listen and wonder just how much they had actually considered their statement before they made it, as it is that foolish.
Richie Benaud never left you in any doubt that he always considered the events of the game with the respect it was due before commenting on it. Equally, you felt that he saw himself as additional to the game, a means to bring the sport, the events, to the people. With most other commentators, you get the opposite impression; that the sport is there as a means for them to talk endlessly and banter meaninglessly with their boofhead mates.
From the deliverer of the ball that deceived Mike Gatting and a cricketing world, Shane Warne, to Michael Slater, to Brett Lee, to Tubby Taylor, to Mark Nicholas, all cricket commentators are guilty of spouting meaningless, mindless gibberish every second they can. Cricket commentators are not alone, as my other preferred sport, Aussie Rules Football, has commentators that go close to ruining the game.
Dermott Brereton, a true champion of the game, could learn a lot from Benaud. Brereton regards the audience as a means to educate, and he looks at every moment of play as an opportunity to do so. He also makes the assumption that he is the only person on the planet who knows the slightest thing about footy. On top of that, he thinks he knows everything, and is assured in his belief that we all want him to bring us up to speed. He ruins footy.
Bruce McAvaney is equally painful. As far as useless statistical information, such as how many players in a team were picked in the top 10 of the draft, and how many come from WA, or how many have uncles named Stuart, he is at the absolute pinnacle of his craft. In regards to sycophantic, uneasy banter with his colleagues, he is without peer. If his job description is gushing endlessly over the play and referring to his fellow commentators’ past deeds of greatness, or turning every statement into a question, then he is surely meeting every KPI set him. In regards to seamlessly blending with the sport, or adding insight he is hopelessly lost. Totally out of his depth.
Yet despite the level of love levelled at Richie Benaud, and the amount of scorn that goes in the direction of commentators like McAvaney, it seems that all the commentators are copying from the wrong student’s work. From Cameron Ling to Brad Johnson, from Brian Taylor to Luke Darcy, they all talk too much.
Richie never did that. Never. I can remember specific things that he said in certain moments, like his commentary of a famous catch by Peter Taylor that was, once again, partly famous for Richie’s commentary of it.
“Oh what a catch! What. A. Catch.” A pause. “If Australia win this first Final, that’ll be the moment they look back on.” Excitement of the catch, a bit of dramatic gravitas, and then a summary of how the moment fit into the context of the match, even the series. There was then an extended pause, filled in only by the buzz of the excited crowd, there was a replay, and then after some time, Ian Chappell spoke. Richie had summed it all up perfectly, and all in so few words – he needn’t say anything else. He so often got it right.
Sadly, commentary has gone the other way from Benaud, and will continue to do so. I will, however, continue to believe that he was the height of the commentary game until I go to my own eternal rest. Hopefully I can do so with the same dignity and grace shown by him, but likely not. He was, of course, the master.
In the end I think that his success and his legacy comes down to one word: respect. Richie Benaud gave it and, in return, he received it. May he rest in peace.