I first heard Richie Benaud during the 1991/92 tri series between India, West Indies and Australia in Australia. A few days later I heard him in a rerun of the 1975 World Cup final. I remember being amazed at how long he had been commentating and the fact that he sounded virtually the same seventeen years on. His voice had a mesmeric quality, a silky smoothness that wine tasters will claim only the finest vintages have. Amidst the unfolding cacophony that a cricket game could often be, his narration provided almost meditative pause, never looking to force the action at you, but always setting up context that you as a viewer sometimes wanted but did not exactly crave every ball.
Benaud was the only commentator whose silences added more to the action than his utterances because he knew how to use the pause and silence to great effect. That didn’t mean he wasn’t quick with a turn of phrase or did not possess a sharp wit. But he always, like the devoted cricket fanatic he was in all senses, deferred to the game in the middle. His measured tone and grandparently twinkle in the voice that everyone of the current generation remembers seem to run contrary to the narrative of him being a risk taking captain (Australia never lost a series under him) and cricketer (a fine legspinner, at that). But perhaps having played the game, he knew exactly the distance he had to accord to it as a chronicler to let people soak the visuals. During the 1992 World Cup final, when Wasim Akram’s scorcher cleaned up Alan Lamb, only Benaud could have come up with a line so beautiful in its banality – “Left arm round the wicket…Alan Lamb has been cleaned up and so too, perhaps, England.” Rightfully, he let the moment have its own limelight. Thankfully Rameez Raja was on the field playing, and on field cricketers would not be miked up till about 20 years later.
When he was on the mike, Richie Benaud was not watching the game to you; he was watching the game with you. That realization came to me as I was watching the 1996 World Cup. India were playing the West Indies at Gwalior and Azhar just introduced the offspinner Aashish Kapoor as Shivnaraine Chanderpaul looked threatening. The over began and as Kapoor delivered his first ball, there was silence on air. Chanderpaul was dismissed. Azhar completed the catch. Chanderpaul started his walk back. Benaud just said “And he’s got one, straightaway.” The pithiness and succinctness of it all was mind boggling to me. The moment was not the most crucial one in the game, let alone the tournament, yet it sits easily accessible in my bank of memories precisely because the commentator on air let me experience that for myself before he came in. I always marveled at how he would keep quiet during a glorious shot and then offer about four precisely measured words in praise of the shot.
My next important Benaud tryst was when I tried the videogame Brian Lara Cricket. Many things about the game did not feel cricket-y enough to impress me, except one thing – Richie Benaud’s voice. The moment he’d describe even the most ridiculous cheat-code aided six you hit, the cricket would suddenly feel brilliantly authentic.
And my most recent admiration of him comes from digging up some archival footage on YouTube of Kapil Dev’s famous running catch to dismiss Vivian Richards in the 1983 World Cup final. In a game that was seminal for India and maybe one day cricket, Kapil’s catch was the seminal moment. Benaud’s description of it was classically Benaud. “Shot…” he said as Viv ferociously pulled a short one from Madan Lal and then paused as the camera panned to midwicket and a running Kapil, who slowed down, adjusted and caught the ball just over his shoulder. Still silence. Kapil celebrates and Benaud completes his sentence with the post-hoc correction “…not so good”.
Much as the commentary box has been richer for a Bill Lawry’s enthusiasm and a Tony Grieg’s unbridled joy, nothing says warmth and fondness like Benaud’s ‘Good Morning, Everyone’. And nothing ever will.