Richie Benaud has died and a small part of our brain that responds to blue skies, lengthening days and Test cricket has also died. You can’t spend as long in someone’s company as most of us have spent listening to Richie and not feel like you know them.
There are other public figures who we see a lot; people who are familiar from newspapers and TV – but you don’t actually sit there with them for any length of time. That’s the difference. Richie was, in a very real sense, part of many cricket fans’ lives. He wasn’t just the soundtrack – which would be enough cause for mourning in itself – he was the portal through which the sport arrived. He brought cricket and taught cricket and most of us will be forever grateful for that.
Don’t speak – the art of commentary
Commentating’s like writing – everyone thinks they can do it. They think that just because they know the English language, they can do the job. It doesn’t really work like that.
You know the bit in a Test match when they pan round all the people in fancy dress. They did that once while Michael Slater was on commentary. Batman came on screen. “There’s Batman,” he informed us.
It’s not easy to talk for two minutes when you have no script and haven’t planned in advance what to say. Nor is it easy to sit silent for two minutes when you know you’re working as a commentator. But it’s about adding value.
Sometimes that takes a lot of words and sometimes it doesn’t. For example, Richie Benaud didn’t require many words to put into place what should be the first rule of TV commentary: “Put your brain into gear and if you can add to what’s on the screen then do it – otherwise shut up.”
The impossible trick
Poor commentators are easy to name, but what’s truly telling is that even the good ones start to get on your nerves with certain things after a while. Nasser Hussain’s pluralisation, for example: ‘Your Gayles, your McCullums, your Kohlis, your Maxwells’.
Point is, you can’t talk for hours and hours and hours and not get on someone’s wick. Cricket is a long game and familiarity breeds irritation. No commentator is universally loved – you need only read a ‘dream commentary team’ debate on social media or in the comments of a website to appreciate that fact.
Except Richie was universally loved. At least insofar as that’s possible. We feel the same about Richie’s death as David Cameron does. Shane Warne’s written something that moved us. These aren’t people who we’d normally agree with, let alone both on the same day, but yet we’re united by this.
To touch so many people without also pissing them off when you’ve commentated on long, drawn-out Test matches for fifty years is an incredible, just about impossible achievement. Richie Benaud is, sadly, irreplaceable.
He wasn’t a bad cricketer either. Not a bad cricketer at all.