Understated punch. Evocative of a gentle breeze. Unflappable. Wry. Precise. Droll. The silences that let images speak for themselves. The pauses that amplified what came after. A deep love for the game. A mastery of its intricacies. Marvellous.
There is tribute heaped over tribute. There are many words strung together in eulogy. But sometimes words are not enough. Celebrating Richie Benaud’s mastery as a commentator requires us to awaken other senses. To perk up our ears and open our eyes. The image and audio must synchronise. Words can’t be two-dimensional black squiggles on a white page or screen. They need to live and breathe. They need to stretch out and tumble out.
Some statements need a minor aside. Great players need middle names. Others need to be referred to with their initials (Shane Warne and Dennis Lillee? Nah. Shane Keith Warne and DK Lillee. Now we’re talking.) Players need to be concatenated as one (Not Warne and McGrath but Warnunmcgraaa.) Some all-time greats don’t even need to be mentioned in name. “This 17-year-old scoring a century,” will do just fine.
Take four-and-a-half minutes to watch this video. (Hat tip: @ishangodbole)
What can a commentator do in four minutes and thirty-three seconds? Is it enough time for him to take us on a joy ride through 35 years of cricketing history in Australia? Can a man of so few words help us understand the revolutionary changes in the game since the late 1970s? Can he inform us about the advances in broadcasting, while also highlighting unforgettable games and players? Will his words stick in the mind?
This is not a live broadcast. There are trumpets playing in the background, music assisting him, and a custom-made montage to play with. Benaud is not extemporising. He has probably rehearsed this many times before the actual take. Yet, it’s hard to ignore the magic with which the words drip out.
“This all goes back to the Chappell era,” he says with close-up images of Ian and Greg in their World Series gear, “the brrruthers themselves” – that emphasis on brothers telling us how much they mean to Australian cricket. Then a pause… before a sensational little drag on the “to” – tuuuu – “DK Lillee” (accompanied by a front-on image of that side-on action), “Jeff Thomson” (golden mane fluttering in the breeze) … “unnd” (in its full Australian glory) “the one and only Doug Walters”. (Crucial that the “one and only” was not for the Chappells or DK or Thomson but for Walters, conveying what an absolute cult figure he must have been.)
“These fine men inspired a resurgence in cricket” (image of Lillee trapping Alan Knott to wrap up the Centenary Test)… a further pause… “but somehow”… (a classic grandfather’s pause this, full of reflection and wisdom) “it wasn’t translating either to the players pocketssss … or our television screens.
“That’s where Kerry Packer came in”, a pause accompanying the close-up image of Packer and then a classic dip in tone for “the way he always came in… ” (six words that would have been lost without the expert pause and dip in voice, from a man who knew that the image on the screen – a newspaper article headlined “Cricket War” – spoke for itself.)
“It’s 35 years now since the breakaway… since Wuuurld Series Cricket changed the game for the better… (image of Lillee hitting a batsman on the helmet) “and… for-ever”.
Clip of “C’mon Aussie, c’mon” – the iconic soundtrack for World Series Cricket.
This is a promotional clip, a video made for Channel Nine to celebrate 35 years of broadcasting. Yet, Benaud has been telling us a story for more than a minute and not once has it felt like an advert. Not once has he put his employer above the game. Even when he says, “Channel Nine did things others overseas didn’t do” it comes through as a fact and not a brag. He is not a salesman luring us to buy a product. We are not his customers or (that detestable word) consumers. Instead Benaud, as Russell Jackson wrote recently, is the “wise, kindly grandfather”, patiently telling us how things were.
“My old team-mate, a mate-for-life Bill Lawry… we’ve been calling cricket for Nine ever since. In the summer of ’79-’80 Ian Chappell and Tony Greig joined us in the commentary box. “Together…” (a gentle pause allowing us to admire a still picture of four of the most iconic commentators of our times) “we’ve seen them all” (again, not a brag but plain old fact.”)
“Saw Dennis Lillee pass my Australian wicket-taking record” (you can almost hear him blushing even as the camera shows him actually blushing); “Javed Miandad… he didn’t applaud Lillee… but-uh (that critical uh, imbued with the sagacity gained over many years of playing and watching cricket) “it does get hot out there… you only had to look at Greigy’s weatherboard.” (stunning segue from Lillee to Miandad to Perth 1981 to Greig to Channel Nine’s weatherboards… in ten seconds.)
“Ian Botham” (bare-headed Botham looking like he is all set to burn down the confectionary stall in Headingley), “Michael Holding” (splattering stumps) “and Malcolm Marshall” (celebrating a wicket).
“The master blaster” (no name needed since the image shows Viv Richards blasting a left-arm spinner over long-on and then adjusting his cap), “the rotund Allan Border” (taking strike), a quick intake of breath followed by “Richard Hadlee” (image showing Hadlee trapping a left-hander lbw with a classic in-dipper; Benaud waiting, waiting, waiting and then with a tinge of awe…) “no wonder the knighthood”.
“Saw Whitney and McDermott hanging on” (no mention of where, when etc. It’s like grandpa Benaud is telling us that everyone knows about the draw in Melbourne in 1987. And that if they don’t know, they ought to)… “stump cam … Shane Keith Warne” (middle name adding so much)… “this seventeen-year-old scoring a century” (an image of Tendulkar raising his bat, probably in Sydney in 1991-92 – one of Benaud’s favourite Tendulkar hundreds – or the one in Perth, which he said deserved to be seen by 100,000 people)… “and there’s Brian Lara…” (that’s enough on that front. No age, no mention of century, nothing. Just “And there’s Brian Lara”.)
“South Africa back after twenty five years…” (image of Warne knocking back Kallis’ off stump with an outstanding legbreak) … “Warney …” (superlative pause as Warne whirls his arms around in celebration) “makes them wish it was fifty” (the last six words uttered slightly faster, hammering the point home and bringing the joke to life.)
“Warnunmcgraaa … spearheading the bowling” (as if to say: they were two bowlers but one mighty unified force)… “Taylor” (pulling), “Slater” (kissing his helmet), “the Waugh brothers and Healy the batting.”
“Myurali…” (the bowler’s eyes lighting up in his delivery stride and the batsman driving through the off-side and taking off for a single only for Benaud to continue…) “hello Ricky Ponting” (such a great player, such a light touch for an introduction.)
“Snicko… and speedgun… as Tubby and Heals head up to our commentary box.”
“This once-in-a-generation player” (again, no need to mention his name. Just an image of Adam Gilchrist pulling through midwicket) “makes his debut.
“Steve Waugh… his famous century at the SCG … the most capped Australian Test player ever… and lookout…” (as if driving along a highway and glancing at the rear-view mirror) “here comes Michael Clarke … a century in his first Test in Australia.”
A lot has been said about Benaud allowing images to talk for themselves and you get a glimpse of his genius at 3:33.
“Just six years ago … sweet revenge …” he says before bringing forth a proper silence. The screen moves from Ponting celebrating a hundred to Hussey celebrating a win to the players in the pavilion celebrating a win to Ponting celebrating again to Gilchrist lofting a spinner to a distraught Flintoff looking skywards to Warne getting a wicket to confirm the return of the Ashes …. And Benaud has sat back and let us take it all in.
And then comes the sensational finish. “These are the reasons we love our cricket… the sounds and… images of summer,” he says, keeping his tone measured even as Lawry and others are going ballistic in the background with action images taking your breath away. The contrast is stunning: the pictures are showing cricket at its most emotional and here’s grandpa Benaud calm as ever, putting the whole thing in perspective.
“In another 35 years we’ll have more stories to tell…” (the tone controlled even as Michael Clarke is uncontrollable on screen) … “more champions to crown” (a sedate Benaud in the background, a buccaneering Dave Warner on screen plastering a bowler)… “more contests to call” (more composure from Benaud even as Shane Watson and James Pattinson go bananas after getting their wickets)
“Right now… it’s the first Test of 2012-13. Australia versus South Africa … ffrumm the Gabba. Right here on the home of cricket … Nine’s one and only Wide World of Sports” (never stuck in the past, always looking ahead, always looking forward to new champions and new adventures.)
“In conversation we express ourselves between and around words as much as in them,” said Kassia St Clair, the books and arts editor of the Economist, when writing about the power of the ellipsis. “The thoughtful phrase, the embarrassed lull, the frigid hush and the exquisite hesitation before a punchline add nuance to the bald landscape of syntax.”
Richie Benaud understood this better than anyone. And as much as we will remember him through his books and columns, through his pet phrases and epic lines, we will also remember the blanks and the dots, the empty spaces and the silences.
At 2:22pm on Friday many Australian cricket lovers observed a minute’s silence to remember the great man. There is unlikely to have been a better tribute.
6 thoughts on “Richie Benaud. RIP.”
Superb micro-analysis of a wonderful video, Sidvee. I stumbled on this video a couple of weeks ago and my reaction was similar to yours: watch it repeatedly for an hour, take in the mastery of Richie’s commentary and marvel at the breadth of events he has been witness to.
Apart from all the Richie-isms that make this video a treasure, the thing that struck me the most is something you dwelt on: how he turns an advert into a fascinating history lesson (when commentators these days turn a live game into an advert). There is a sense of matter-of-factness, a sense of authority wielded gently and, most of all, believability that is rare to find (Dravid speaking on the IPL often comes close).
I watched 20 seconds of a video on loop last night (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tQC85AqAHUk#t=0m37s). A great bowler bowls a good length ball outside off stump; a great batsman whips the ball past square leg; two fielders converge from perpendicular directions; the ball goes past the boundary; the crowd roars (and a bit more roaring). For all this time, there is complete silence from the commentator(s). And then a gentle “Wonderful talent”. More silence. The camera pans to the bowler staring, not at the batsman in anger, but at the ground, in resignation. Then: “And Curtly might be thinking the same thing. 24/2”. I was probably too young to appreciate it then, but this really is a cricket package at its best: great bowler, great batsman and a great summation.
Fantastic. The timing on ‘Curtly maight be thinking the same thing’ is the key to everything.
Got goose bumps reading it. Wonderful !
Frommm the Gabba…
Ah those wonderful early morning’s of cricket will be sorely missed!!!
Thanks for this Sid and thanks Sriram, for the youtube link. One thing though. Instead of stopping it “Curtly must be thinking the same”, you might want to extend it by 10 more seconds to hear Greigy go “OOOOh! What a shot!”. As cliched as it sounds, one can only hope that they continue to call the game from up there and keep the good lord entertained.