Richie Benaud and Ian Heads, pictured at the unveiling of the sculpture of rugby league legend Herbert Henry `Dally’ Messenger outside Allianz Stadium. Saturday March 29, 2008.
It was a long and turning road that led me to joining a respected sports writing colleague and friend Norm Tasker in our creation of the book Richie: The Man Behind the Legend, celebrating the life and times of the great cricketer-commentator Richie Benaud.
The book’s introduction begins with these words: “The extraordinary reaction to Richie Benaud’s death in April, 2015, was born of an international respect that is the preserve of a very select group of people. Even the millions who did not know him felt somehow that they did, such was his command of the television medium. He was the ultimate communicator. To those who did know him personally — as a sportsman, as a television commentator and more importantly as a man —Richie’s passing meant so much more”...............
I suspect I was in the company of many young blokes of my generation when I bowled leg-spin (or attempted to) in the cricket I played - specifically because of Richie Benaud. I was a big fan of his in the early ‘50s, a regular attendee at the Sydney Cricket Ground for Sheffield Shield matches and occasionally at Tests if there happened to be enough money in the household to stretch that far. My mate from across the street, George Cragen and I would catch the bus to Paddington, and trek down the race from Moore Park Rd to the ground, to savour many accumulating summer days there. Our accompanying baggage would be autograph books, a couple of sandwiches in a brown paper bag - and a bat and a tennis ball which would be swung into action whenever there was a break, for a hit on the path which ran along the front of the Randwick-end Hill. During play, the autograph books were dug out on the occasions any fieldsman was despatched into the very deep `deep’ i.e. against the fence. It was there on such days, along with bunches of other post-WW2 kids, George and I learnt the game and came to know of the giants (to us) who played it; the likes of Sid Carroll, Syd Barnes, Ray Flockton, Keith Miller, Jim de Courcy, Warren Saunders, Brian Booth, Richie Benaud, Alan Davidson, Arthur Morris, Ray Lindwall, Bob Simpson, Jim Burke, Ian Craig. Even sixty years on a magic surrounds such names , as strong now for an old journo as it was then. Such players were gods to us, and their gathered signatures endured for years as Aladdin’s Cave bounty in autograph books sadly long since gone.
The dashing Benaud, modelled in turn on the debonair devil-may-care Miller, was a special favourite. But with him, and his young companion in spin, Bob Simpson, it was more than that. Watching them, I had a real sense as early as the mid ’50 of the dark, sweet allure of the art of leg spin bowling, with its many mysteries. After the fire and fury of the quicks the artists of spin would quietly enter the fray, seemingly innocuous, but armed with legerdemain that on some days masked the sting of a hornet.
Avidly absorbing this new and magical sporting theatre and having read as much as I could find in coaching books and magazines such as Sporting Life and Sports Novel I came by and by to the playing of real cricket myself – as a short-sighted, bespectacled member of the first ever team fielded by Vaucluse Public School. There, I became the resident spinner, doing my best to bowl out of the back of the hand. The genesis of that team came about in 1954 through the efforts of a man who would many years later provide me with a further, close link to the Great Benaud. Phil Tresidder, whose beginning in sports writing remains surely the dream introduction of them all in a working life, was the change-agent in question. `Tres’, as he was always known had gone to England as a journalistic teenage hopeful in 1947 and had, in succession, played a role in the coverage for the Daily Telegraph of: the 1947 Wallaby tour, the London Olympics of 1948, the legendary campaign of Don Bradman’s cricket `Invincibles’ of that year and the tour of the 1948 Kangaroos rugby league side featuring the young Clive Churchill. The deputy head master at Vaucluse Public, Mr Plunkett, chanced to be a family friend of the Tresidder’s – and it was Phil who convinced him that a cricket team would be a good thing for the school.
In toto, my own truncated but enjoyable cricket `career’ lasted from 1954-61 before being snuffed out by the reality of a working life. During that time my bowling efforts, with Vaucluse Public, Sydney Boys High and briefly the Green Shield teams of with Waverley and North Sydney, were doggedly (if not overly successfully!) of the leg-spin variety. Then, with a working life underway, came an unlikely opportunity to learn the craft of journalism , seguing into sports writing with the Telegraph. My weekends were gone – and largely, so were my cricketing days.
By then Richie Benaud himself was a journo – and deadly serious about it - a police roundsman with the Sydney Sun, learning the second of what would be his three `trades’ in life (cricket, journalism, sports commentary). Our paths crossed occasionally in the following years - although, being rostered to sports distant from cricket (rugby league and swimming mainly) there was not much more than occasional passing contact. That changed in later years, thanks again to Phil Tresidder who lived just up the road from Richie and his wife Daphne at Coogee – three or four beaches along from Bronte-Waverley where my wife Joy and I had a place. There began occasional enjoyable catch-ups over dinner with Phil and Richie and Daphne at which the conversation would roam over many subjects – albeit with cricket always hovering somewhere nearby. I recall one especially memorable night - when we met for pre-dinner drinks at Chez Benaud with its commanding view of Wedding Cake Island and the Ocean beyond. Eventually, Tres, Joy and I headed out for dinner with a special Benaud guest, the great West Indies (and Randwick!) speedster Wes Hall, who was catching up with old friends in Sydney. There followed a memorable dinner at a local favoured Italian restaurant.
Getting to know Richie more closely after early hero-worshipping days followed by working years of only distant contact, brought not even a faint hint of disappointment with it. The man was all I could have expected – so quietly impressive - and blessed with what seemed to be a mind in which cricketing and other stories were filed as if books in a library. His knowledge of cricket and its nuances was monumental. But Richie set his personal field placement far wider; in essence he was a polymath, possessing a curiosity and interest in many different things. Within him dwelt an obvious kindness, a calmness, a sense of care for people. And lurking just beneath the surface at all times was a lively, if dry, sense of humour…………………………………..
Fast forward to autumn 2015. It’s April 11 and the nation mourns at news of the death of the Great Benaud (still B’Nord to many of his old mates) at 84. A State Funeral offered by the Federal Government is courteously and quickly declined by Daphne and the family. To his friends this is in no way a surprise. They understand well that Richie, a quiet man, perhaps even shy, would not have wanted all the fuss.
The media coverage on those early days of sadness lit up with many fine and genuine tributes. Fran Benaud (Richie's daughter-in-law) and Cathy Gauld (PA) assisted Daphne to organise (in three frantic days) a private farewell for him, held on April 15 in the presence of an invited crowd of 300+ at his home golf course - a place so much a part of his life - The Australian, at Kensington, Sydney.
The seeds of the book Richie: The Man Behind the Legend, featuring Brendan Read’s stunning cover photo of Richie at the ground he loved, the Sydney Cricket Ground, were sewn that afternoon in the many stories told during the official ceremony and in private conversations that stretched well into the afternoon. That day there began a process which would ultimately expand across the globe – reaping an extraordinarily rich and varied harvest.
Almost simultaneously in that first week of mourning, a separate conversation took place between the two former Sydney Sun workmates and friends, Richie’s brother John and Norm Tasker, in which the possibility of a book telling Richie’s story and stories was raised. In due course Norm and tabled the idea with respected Sydney sports historian and publisher Geoff Armstrong , to an enthusiastic response despite the tightness of deadlines. Later, I took to Daphne Benaud this growing thought of a book that would in some ways be about the `Unknown Richie’ - addressing the great diversity of his life, in cricket and way beyond. It became a consideration and discussion point – and then a positive reality – with the strong and committed support of the family……..
The work began in early June, 2015, and inviting the contributions that would eventually fill almost 400 pages of tales of Richie, the editors/compilers, Norm and I, pursued our quest to encompass the full breadth of Richie’s life via those who had known him – all the way from primary school mates back in the late 1930s. Through the scholarship of the book’s editor and publisher – cricket historian and author Geoff Armstrong – came wonderful photos to enhance and complement the text, and countless long-forgotten facts, dusted off from the archives to add to the mix. And so, in a short, intense period a book was born and produced….
By the end of the gathering period we had compiled a `team’ of 88 people across the world who, with love and readiness, had offered their personal memories and stories of Richie. Channel 9 generously offered more tales via their heartfelt work in a major tribute program which featured observations and memories of Richie - the unchallenged `captain’ of the Nine commentary team for many years
Many of the stories in Richie are from cricketers who played with or against him through some famous encounters. Some are from people who knew him as a child, and grew up with him. There are those from journalists and broadcaster who worked with him, in press boxes and commentary boxes around the world. There are tales of summer days in the south of France, of the travails of maintaining his fabled Sunbeam Alpine motor car over half a century, and tales of innumerable acts of kindness, many underpinned by the strand of humour that was such a part of the Benaud persona……
Together, the many scores of `tales of Richie’ gathered illuminate the highways and byways of a unique life in sport, the media – and beyond. RICHIE : THE MAN BEHIND THE LEGEND – is a book that does justice to the modest, much loved figure who is at its heart – and to his inspiring and uplifting story of quiet, yet breathtaking achievement.
RICHIE:THE MAN BEHIND THE LEGEND
A very special book telling the full story of one of the greatest of Australian sporting lives.
Available wherever good books are sold
To order the book online, below are recommended sites.