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Benaud’s voice to be missed forever from the airwaves

April 10, 2015

The moments of silence across the globe as cricket fans reflect on Richie Benaud’s life will speak volumes about his contribution to the game.

It was the frequent pauses — the air time between comments — as much as the insightful observations and dry wit that endeared the elegant former Australian test captain to people who followed cricket.

He spoke with an assured authority, clipping his words in a distinctive manner that spurred so much reverent mimicry that added to his appeal.

Benaud, who was born on Oct. 6, 1930 at Penrith in Sydney’s outer west, died on Friday at the age of 84 from complications from skin cancer.

He took months to recover from chest and shoulder injuries after crashing his vintage sports car on the way home from a round of golf in October, 2013.

Last November, he revealed he was receiving treatment for skin cancer.

“When I was a kid we never ever wore a cap ... because (teammate) Keith Miller never wore a cap,” Benaud said at the time. “If I knew, when I was at school and playing in my early cricket days, the problems that would have come if I didn’t do something about protection of the head and using sunscreens and all sorts of things like that, I’d have played it differently.”

Cricket Australia chairman Wally Edwards said Friday “our country has lost a national treasure.”

“After Don Bradman, there has been no Australian player more famous or more influential than Richie Benaud,” Edwards said in a statement. “Richie stood at the top of the game throughout his rich life, first as a record-breaking leg-spinner and captain, and then as cricket’s most famous broadcaster who became the iconic voice of our summer.”

Benaud’s life revolved around cricket, and his involvement took on many forms from student and player, to newspaper reporter, writer, radio broadcaster and TV host.

He played 63 tests for Australia, making his debut against the West Indies in 1952 and culminating in 1964 against South Africa, a transformative period in the game.

A dashing, attacking lower-order batsman and skilled leg-break bowler, he was the first player to score 2,000 runs and take 200 wickets in test cricket. When he retired, his career haul of 248 test wickets was an international record.

As a captain, he never lost a series and was credited with helping re-enliven the test format after a period of staid, defensive stalemates that had slowed the game to an almost glacial pace and attracted widespread criticism.

He encouraged his batsmen to lift their scoring tempo, his bowlers to cut down the time taken between deliveries and overs and his fielders to be ever ready. A tied test against the West Indies in 1961, the first in history, added to his legend.

Benaud batted down the order for Australia, and tallied 2,201 runs from 97 innings at a respectable 24.45, including three centuries and nine half centuries.

His 248 wickets came at an average of 27.03, with best innings figures of 7-72.

He ventured from newspaper reporting into TV after doing some training at the British Broadcasting Commission before he’d finished playing test cricket. When wealthy Australian businessman Kerry Packer was looking for somebody to help him revolutionize the game at the start of the World Series Cricket era in 1977, he persuaded Benaud to join his broadcast team to give the controversial concept the kind of standing it needed to supplement the high-profile stars he’d recruited to play.

Benaud continued to split his time between Australia and Britain, accumulating a cache of experience that exceeded 500 tests and making him a household name in both places. He was considered a master of understatement, and the wry remark. When calling Shane Warne’s first ball in an Ashes test in 1993 — later dubbed the ball of the century — Benaud famously said Mike Gatting “has no idea what has happened to it,” quickly analyzing the wicket before adding as the England batsman trudged off: “He still doesn’t know.”

In later years, he advised Warne on the art of commentary, and arguably the greatest bowler of all time knew his place.

“He’s just one of the great men, Richie,” Warne said. “He’s sort of a captain of the team and whatever Richie says goes.”

Benaud was a Wisden Cricketer of the Year in 1962, one of the highest accolades in the game.

“If one player, more than any other, has deserved well of cricket for lifting the game out of the doldrums, that man is Richard Benaud,” Wisden noted in its profile. “Captain of Australia in four successive and triumphant series to the end of 1961, he has demonstrated to enthusiasts all over the world that the intention to make cricket, particularly test cricket, attractive and absorbing is every bit as important as skilled technique in batting, bowling and fielding.”

Benaud’s last broadcast in England after 42 years was at the last test of the Ashes series at The Oval in 2005, when the English reclaimed the old urn.

On the final day, the stadium announcer let the crowd know it was Benaud’s last day, and the capacity crowd rose for a standing ovation.

Australian players in the field, including Warne and Glenn McGrath, clapped above their heads.

As the test was winding toward a draw on the last evening, Benaud’s live TV monologue segued from his fondness for a particular song to his own departure.

“That wonderful duet, ‘A Time To Say Goodbye.’ And that’s what it is, as far as I’m concerned. Time to say goodbye,” he said. “Thank-you for having me. It’s been absolutely marvelous for 42 years.”

Benaud is survived by his second wife, Daphne, who was at his bedside Friday with other members of his family when he died. Benaud’s younger brother, John, was also a former journalist and played three test matches for Australia and in 47 first-class games.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has offered the family a state funeral and flags will fly at half-staff on the day of the funeral.

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