Cricket-captain-turned-cricket-commentator Richie Benaud died in Sydney this morning. He would have been 85 next October. That last pair of sentences contains, believe it or not, two of the most crucial facts in modern Australian history.
As of the last (2011) census, approximately 24 million people lived in Australia. It is a fair bet that (whatever the Fourth Estate supposes) fully two-thirds of them would struggle to remember – on the optimistic assumption of their ever having known – who Malcolm Fraser was, or who Gough Whitlam was. (From the mere fact that voting at Australian elections is compulsory, it need not follow that voting at Australian elections is literate.)
But every single Aussie now alive, and sentient enough to avoid 24/7 medical care, knows who Richie Benaud was. Solely through 45-year immersion among the Trappists might you have avoided Benaud’s distinctive tenor-cum-baritone, in televised cricket’s commentary box, chauntering with invariable gentlemanliness through the soundtrack of your antipodean life. And though Trappism would be a necessary condition for such avoidance, it would by no means be a sufficient one.
Now Benaud is gone. That he should be gone, seems, hereabouts, unbelievable. Were the British to imagine an equivalent loss at home, they would need to imagine Buckingham Palace demolished and Stonehenge ‘untimely ripp’d’ from Wiltshire. Experts must judge the specifics of Benaud’s talents, both as player and as subsequent televisual possessor of Platinum (not mere golden) Tonsils. The following lines attempt to expound how an Australian author actively hostile – not at all indifferent – to cricket must regard Benaud as a pure sociological phenomenon.
Like most Australian-born TV stars who emerged before the mid-1980s, Benaud began in radio (1960) rather than in television. That ingress constituted, for him, a rare faux-pas. Radio could not do justice to Benaud’s appeal, in which the aural and the visual jostled for precedence, jostled vigorously yet civilly.
Benaud seemed nowhere to lose his temper, nowhere to indulge in the sub-atomic, sub-Ruby-Wax sniping which the cricket commentator’s flesh is usually heir to. Without having confided to the microphone – so far as the mere deadline-plagued obituarist can determine – a single observation more immediately spellbinding or epigrammatic than a stockbrocker’s report, he conveyed to his gigantic audience the indefinable but powerful sense that, even if atheists had purged God from His heaven, ‘all’s right with the world.’
The adjective ‘avuncular,’ seldom used in 2015, comes tolerably close to Benaud’s public essence but somehow falls short. ‘Avuncular’ has managed to acquire vague connotations of emotional blackmail, of Santa Claus bestowing goodies in a transaction tinged with risk. ‘Risk’ and ‘Richie Benaud’ seem hardly to belong in the same sentence.
On-screen, at any rate, unfailing neatness marked Benaud’s attire and his grooming. His bronzed skin bore no tattoos. His face possessed a welcome absence of piercings. No Benaud eyebrow, no Benaud nostril, no Benaud lip, ever short-circuited airports’ metal-detectors through its applied ironmongery. These voids in themselves distinguished him from the bulk of his current compatriots.
The Benaud voice, a boon to parodists, eschewed shouts and murmurs. It eschewed even snarls. An equable, apparently eternal mezzo-forte marked his exegeses. And how sheerly pleasant that voice remained: a middle-class Australian voice of a kind, once frequent, which has probably died with him. Never for Benaud the fake-prole rasp of ex-Prime-Minister Bob Hawke; the fake-aristocratic rasp of ex-Foreign-Minister Alexander Downer; or even that curious, petitionary, almost whinnying timbre which always seemed to afflict John Howard when he reaffirmed the triple doctrine of ‘I feel your pain’, ‘We shall fight them on the beaches,’ and ‘You shall fight them on the beaches.’
As the preceding roll-call implies, Benaud could have become the nation’s Dear Leader to delirious acclaim at five minutes’ notice, so popular, and (not at all the same thing) so respected, was he. Perhaps now that he is dead, some Savile-type scandal will obliterate his good name. One suspects, one prays, that it will not. The living Benaud could have prepared whole curricula for Caesar’s wife in staying above suspicion.
Not only did Benaud avoid the politician’s greasy pole. He also avoided the huckster’s still greasier pole. It is impossible to imagine him having tarnished his public image by becoming a talking head in prime-time commercials for Ponzi-scheme investment banks, for fashionable anarchistic rent-a-mobs, or for underarm deodorant.
The sole figure in the last 100 years of Australia’s existence who seems at present to warrant comparison with Benaud, in terms of embodying decency and dignity, is Sir John Monash (who achieved his Great War fame despite his family’s German-Jewish origins, the surname having originally been Monasch). Even before 1929, many important Australians wanted to see Monash – very much a private citizen after 1918 – granted dictatorial powers.
Demands that he be supplied with such powers became a great deal louder in 1931, with the Great Depression at its most depressing, and with democratic government in disrepute from Madrid to Montevideo. Why not make Monash an Australian Mussolini, an Australian Pilsudski, an Australian Primo de Rivera? What, given the esteem which the Australian public held Monash, could possibly prevent a Monash-led coup d’état?
Monash himself could. And he did. To those who dreamed of making him a despot, he barked: ‘I have no ambition to embark on high treason.’ Before 1931 had concluded, Monash himself had breathed his last. Historians estimate that his obsequies were attended by one-third of Australia’s entire population.
About Benaud’s funeral, and about no other antipodean funeral likely to occur in our lifetimes, the following can be asserted: supposing that one Australian in three did indeed attend it, this outcome would be unsurprising to anyone conversant with antipodean culture. No lesser epitaph will do, to illustrate Benaud’s impact upon the Australian psyche, than Mark Antony’s words:
He only in a general honest thought
And common good to all, made one of them.
His life was gentle, and the elements
So mixed in him that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world, ‘This was a man.’
This most certainly wasn’t a chav.