For more than 30 years, he has peered out from our TV screens, sporting his award-winning collection of bone, fawn, beige and off-white jackets, wearing his silver hair parted neatly on the left, and welcoming us to the coming day’s play with the soothing and reassuringly familiar salutation: Good morning, everyone.
Richard “Richie” Benaud has been part of the fabric of our summer, as much as flies on the beach, sand between the toes and the smell of sausages cooking on the barbecue. There are middle-aged men in this country who have never known a time when televised cricket has not meant hearing or seeing the sainted one in the studio, with the green outfield as his backdrop. And when they hear his signature “Marvellous shot, that” on the first day of the first Test, they know without consulting a calendar, or seeing a swallow flit past, that summer has well and truly arrived.
But perhaps we’ve had too much of a good thing. Richie let slip during a one-dayer last week – while answering a trivia question about how many runs the great West Indian Garry Sobers had made in one-day cricket – just how long he’d been in this commentary caper. He said he covered Sobers’ only one-day international, while working for the BBC in 1973. Yes, some 35 years ago.
The grand old stager is 77 now and the truth is becoming increasingly difficult to mask: Richie’s time is fast coming to an end. He now has little to offer Channel Nine’s coverage apart from wry asides – and some of them are so cryptic as to be unintelligible.
When it comes to meaningful analysis of the modern game, the one-time doyen no longer cuts it. The introduction in recent summers of recently-retired players like Ian Healy, Michael Slater and Mark Taylor has only highlighted the paucity of Benaud’s offering. They are able to identify and highlight tactical moves in an instant; Richie, meanwhile, contents himself with stating the bleeding obvious.
And when he recently vacated the anchor’s chair for Mark Nicholas, again we were reminded of how accomplished he was in his pomp, and how far he has fallen. The smooth Englishman, who effortlessly segues between his various roles as commentator, anchor, go-to man on a wet day and tea-time interviewer, is the young Richie incarnate.
Even the most successful captains of industry have shuffled off to retirement by the age of 70. Sir Eric Pearce, the prince of TV newsreaders in Australia, gave it away at 73. There comes a time when even the best and brightest have to confront the fact that old age has caught up with them in the great race of life and their once-dazzling powers now have all the illumination of a 25-watt globe. And, after playing in and covering more than 500 Test matches, and at least as many one-day games, that time has come for Benaud. Even icons have a use-by date.
But before the Crikey switchboard lights up with complaints – because if the nation has a favourite uncle, it is the benevolent, ever-affable Richie – we can’t forget his contribution to the game in this country: as a leg-spinning all-rounder, attacking and unbeaten Test captain, coach, tactician, commentator and statesman. It can never be underestimated. Even when the professional game has degenerated in recent years to disgraceful behaviour on the field, and tawdry political in-fighting off it, Benaud has stood apart, the epitome of good grace and decency.
He turns 78 before South Africa’s tour of Australia later this year. He should be given a dignified retirement by Channel Nine, and remembered as a national treasure, before he tarnishes a great career.