Review by Ken Piesse, author of 52 cricket books
Richie Benaud was the free spirit behind cricket losing its stodginess of the late ‘50s. His passion, inventiveness and sheer skill heralded an extraordinary new era for Australian teams he controlled. Unlike most, his contributions were magnified long into retirement with his Channel 9 commentaries and frontline involvement in the Australian-led revolution of the game from 1977.
In his appreciation of Benaud — the latest in a long line of celebrations about the life and times of Australia’s best known cricketer since the Don — academic, historian and fan Brian Matthews pens a beguiling and personal tribute to one of his sporting heroes.
Matthews admits he became obsessed at penning the Benaud story, even though he was one of many to have been rejected by the great man who felt one biography, written by the notable AG ‘Johnnie’ Moyes and published in 1962, was enough.
Overcoming the roadblocks, Matthews centres his own Benaud story on some key moments in the Benaud career, particularly his finest hour as a player, leader and adventurer at Old Trafford in 1961 when Australia clutched a stunning Ashes series victory totally against the rhythm of the game.
Outside the tied Test, it was the greatest and most memorable of his career. Switching to around the wicket, a totally unconventional move later made famous by Shane Warne, Benaud bowled Australia to the unlikeliest of victories.
England was rapidly mowing down a last day target and Ted Dexter unstoppable before Benaud bowled five tight, scoreless deliveries from wide on the far return crease.
Dexter, as Matthews recalls, ‘was waiting for Richie to drop one short and I went for a cut against a ball which bounced a bit, was too close to me and I nicked it (behind, to Wally Grout).
‘You have to give Richie good marks for going around the wicket. The reason he did that was not because he could bowl us out, but to stem the tide of the runs. Bowling leg-spin outside the leg stump is a famous way of drying up runs for a right-hander.’
In 25 balls, Benaud took five for 12. It was the most stunning spell of his career. Matthews and his holidaying mates saw every ball of that Test. With little money and no accommodation, they slept six nights in a row on matting in the local cricket club’s equipment store, courtesy of the old Trafford groundsman.
Benaud was the hero of the hour that unforgettable late July week in the summer of ‘61. And for many of us, even into his 80s, he never lost his charisma.
Benaud allowed cricket ‘to let the sunshine in’. He changed the face of the game he loved and according to Matthews, ‘revolutionised the ways in which its innumerable charms, complexities and rituals were communicated. He became its welcoming voice and encouraged patrons from the rough-and-ready suburban ovals to the most famous Test arenas in the cricketing world.’
If cricket’s standing as Australia’s favourite sport was in jeopardy before Benaud became captain in 1958, its joyful re-emergence centred around the inspiration of one man. This is a compelling story brilliantly re-told.