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Ritchie Benaud as Captain: Nous and Allure

January 5, 2017

Brian Matthews, in The Australian 27 December 2016, where the title is “Lure of Benaud in Heady Days,” … being an extract from Benaud: An Appreciation, by Brian Matthews (Text Publishing). 

benaud Richie Benaud bowling at Old Trafford.

In the early 1960s I was one of that phalanx of Australian students — the best-known members among whom were Germaine Greer, Robert Hughes and Clive James — who took off for Europe at the end of their undergraduate days. And it was in central Israel, somewhere near a place called Kfar Vitkin, that a few fortunate moments of hilltop transistor reception on Saturday, July 8, 1961, set a group of young Australian travellers on what seemed a breathlessly daring path.

There, through the radio static, we learned that England had beaten Australia in the third Test at Headingley, Leeds, by eight wickets. The series was squared and the fourth Test at Old Trafford had suddenly taken on a critical importance. We decided to answer our country’s call and make a breakneck attempt to get to Manchester by Wednesday, July 26, in time for the start of the fourth Test the following day.

With the usual quota of mishaps, luck and eccentric though occasionally inspired decisions, we set out for Manchester, where the civic motto is Concilio et ­Labore — by wisdom and effort. Possibly short on wisdom, we nevertheless expended admirable effort and, with a cold English rain streaking the multicultural dust on our battered Kombi van, we rolled into town late on the afternoon of the 26th and found our way to Old Trafford.

If there were queues, we reasoned, we’d better join one and get some tickets; but I think we must have been too much haunted by memories of the MCG. There were no queues. No people. While we were standing there irresolute in gathering darkness, one solitary bloke emerged from the entrance gates and said, “Evening, lads.” Instantly picking our accents when we greeted him, he joked about the coming game’s foregone conclusion, as he saw it, and warned us about the weather.

“When you can just see the Derbyshire Hills in the misty distance from the Old Trafford ground,” he said, “it’s a sure sign of coming rain. When you can’t see them at all, it is raining.”

We were intent on seeing every ball of the decisive fourth Test, but we were a dishevelled-looking group — travel-worn, weary, unshaven and, as we ­mentioned to our new friend, without shelter, having failed to find any affordable accommodation during the few hours we’d spent in Manchester.

“Well,” he said, “I can solve that one for you straight off.” He explained that he was an Old Trafford groundsman and knew his way around these parts. “That building over there” — he pointed across the park to a long, low shed just visible in the thickening gloom — “that there’s the Old Mancunian Cricket Club equipment store. It’s full of matting you could sleep on, it’s got electric light, and there’s a lavatory and wash basin attached to the clubhouse next door. I’ll open them up for you, and you can kip there ­tonight and stay on if you like, so long as no one twigs.”

Within minutes we were moving in. It was cold and, even with sleeping bags, moderately uncomfortable — the matting look­ed inviting but was rock hard. In the rainy wind that seemed to blow most of the night, the structure rang with an orchestration of bumps, flappings and metallic creaks. But it was home, cost nothing and was a few minutes’ walk from the ground. We did not see our good Samaritan again, but he must have kept quiet because we stayed in uninterrupted residence until stumps were drawn for the last time, six days later.

When the flawlessly attired ­Richie Benaud and the similarly sartorial Peter May walked out for the toss, we might have been ­bristly and ragged around the edges, but we were well ensconced in good seats and ready to join the polite applause that greeted Benaud’s winning call and his decision to bat. May might have thought this a good toss to lose. We settled in to watch every day and every ball of what would become one of the most famous Test matches in cricketing history.

Benaud’s persona, quite apart from the extraordinary feats of bowling and captaincy he produced at Old Trafford, was magnetic. There was something about him, even allowing for the bias of our youthful Aussie enthusiasm, that was captivating, impressive and somehow promising in the way that great characters — great people — are promising.

It was in Benaud and his leadership and deeds that we saw the truth of what became an aphorism thereafter — and one not always spoken flippantly — that the captaincy of the Australian Test team is one step below the office of prime minister and occasionally, in the case of this or that prime minister, a step above.

Though we wore no adornments or colours, as became de ­rigueur years later, we were rec­og­­nisably Australian, and we quickly became engaged in amiable chat, chiacking and argument with the people around us. Three venerable Lancastrians immediately in front of our seats were especially vocal, outlaying a pro­vocative ball-for-ball knowledge of that disastrous third Test and assailing us with dire predictions about what would happen in this one.

Benaud resting an injured arm in 1961. Picture: UPIBenaud resting an injured arm in 1961. Picture: UPI

It was all very pleasant but, in the manner of such encounters, what happened on the ground endowed the friendliest of exchanges with a bit of edge, as, for example, when Bill Lawry immediately and effortlessly off-drove Freddie Trueman — the destroyer of the previous Test — for three and, conversely, when (Bob) Simpson’s attempted leg-glance off Trueman came off the back of his bat and went through slips for four. The groans and derision of our fellow onlookers had scarcely subsided when Simpson parried at the next ball outside the off-stump and was caught by the wicketkeeper, John Murray. And so the famous fourth Test at Old Trafford was under way.

Neil Harvey, forced to come in early after the failure of an opening batsman, was called “a virtual opener” by the commentators. This was what he now did, striding on to the cold and overcast oval with the score at 1 for not much, and the weather bleak and deteriorating and absolutely not the sort in which to be whacked by a fast bowler. Not that any of this seemed to influence Harvey. ­Australia’s 50 came up in 46 ­adventurous, sometimes heart-stopping minutes.

When Harvey, who seemed well in control, was nicely caught at slip by Subba Row off (Brian) Statham and the new batsman, Norm O’Neill, was almost bowled next ball, our friends’ wryness and ­stereotypical dourness leaned towards smugness. O’Neill seemed thoroughly unsettled. (Jack) Flavell hit him twice with successive balls, both times above or below the protection of batting pad or thigh pad. When O’Neill, obviously discomforted, resumed, he missed a pull shot and was hit fair and square in the groin. As O’Neill dropped to the ground doubled up in agony, an English voice observed above the orchestration of “oohs” and “aahs” circling the ground like a chant, “right in the balls”. For most of the grown men watching, it was an eye-watering moment.

There was a long delay, but when O’Neill finally faced up again, in one of the most courageous moments I have seen on a cricket ground, he went for ­exactly the same shot. This time it sped through mid-wicket, where it was supposed to go. O’Neill’s day ended pretty much as it had proceeded — sensationally. Hit on the arm by a bouncer from Trueman, he overbalanced and flicked a bail off with his foot.

The morning’s play, which had been thoroughly absorbing and given neither side a clear ascendancy, became the subject of conversation, dispute and speculation over cold pork pies and warm beer. After lunch it rained — solidly and with grey determination. Over a few more beers and before abandoning Old Trafford for the day, our three Lancastrian friends wondered what adventures, good luck or consummate planning could have brought us to this ground and this match.

The short answer was Benaud. Only a matter of months earlier, under bright Queensland skies and over five extraordinary days of cricket, Benaud had joined Frank Worrell — with contributions from luck, benign fate and the exquisite skills of the two teams — in changing the face of Test ­cricket. Here was a figure of captivating importance, influence and quality. This Benaud was worth travelling a long way to see.

That evening we went to a Chinese restaurant near the ground. There were only a couple of other diners and, in contrast to our awe-struck, almost rude staring, they were clearly uninterested when Benaud, Harvey, Alan Davidson and “Slasher” Mackay walked in and, once settled, began reviewing the state of play — which was 4-124, Lawry not out 64 and Booth not out 6. We could hear just about everything. When we left, we gave them a politely muted round of applause and some Australian vernacular encouragement and, to our surprise and delight, we shook hands all around.

Extracted from Benaud: An Appreciation, by Brian Matthews (Text Publishing). Australia won the series 2-1.

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