Then Richie Benaud,
Captain and much-loved
Dust. Ashes to
So began E. J. Thribb’s moving eulogy to Richie Benaud in Private Eye. I was saddened to read of the death of that most urbane and modest of cricket commentators, who seemed to be a permanent part of ‘Test Match Special’ each time I returned to the UK. It was forty years ago this summer that I had the pleasure of meeting and chatting to the great man, at an occasion which may have been forgotten by all other participants, if any of them are still around. It was an event that deserves a mention in the archives of the Summer Game.
My fellow slow-bowler in the Old Whitgiftians Cricket Eleven, Bob Horn, had invited me to substitute for him in a team of ‘Cricketer Cup’ players designated to play a team of Internationals. (The Cricketer Cup was sponsored by the Cricketer magazine, and was a knock-out tournament between independent schools that was played each year.) Believe it or not, this match had been arranged to celebrate the millennium of the Little Missenden Parish Church, in Buckinghamshire (all very Wodehousian). Why this particular church deserved such recognition, I have no idea, but Wikipedia confirms that the Saxon foundations of the establishment were shown to have been laid in AD 975, which confirms that the match must have been played in the summer of 1975. Now Bob Horn had an excellent pedigree: he was in Holy Orders, editor of the Church Times, an Oxford man, who played frequently for Surrey IIs. And I? Well, I was a complete unknown quantity, having, after an undistinguished cricket career at Whitgift School, and then blossoming somewhat at Christ Church, Oxford, made my way up from the Old Whitgiftian Fourth XI to a regular place in the First XI. But Bob must have had confidence in me to recommend to E. W. (‘Jim’) Swanton of the Daily Telegraph, the non-playing captain of the Cricketer Cup team, that I would be a worthy substitute for him. I did have to telephone Jim – at his house in Broadstairs, I recall – to gain his approval, and receive instructions as to how to proceed to the game.
Now description of such events could rapidly fall into Tinniswoodian farce. (‘What possible interest can it be to know that E. W. Swanton wears maroon corduroy underpants and has in his study the complete collection of the records of Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas?’ – Tales From A Long Room, p 76) But Mr Swanton was kind and inviting (though I did hear ‘Do You Want To Know A Secret?’ playing softly in the background), and put my mind at ease about the challenge ahead. Thus, a couple of weeks later, on a beautiful June day, I took a day off work, and drove up to Amersham to check out the cricket ground early. There was no one around, so I parked my 1969 Hillman Imp carefully behind a large oak-tree, and waited for everyone to arrive. When they did, everyone seemed to know everyone else – except me. There were Lords with their Ladies, and distinguished cricketers, including the Test Players Tony Lewis and Richie Benaud. I swore I espied Lord Lundy in the background: he must surely have returned from ‘governing New South Wales’, and had no doubt encountered Richie Benaud there, and plucked him out of obscurity. I suspect some of the aristocrats had never consorted with anyone in trade before, but no one asked me what I did (or even spoke to me for a while, as far as I recall), and admitting that, for a living, I administered databases in Wigmore Street would probably not have been a good conversation-starter.
I don’t recall much about the match, except that the Cricketer team batted first, and did not do very well. I went in Number 9, and notched up a few runs, but the highlight of my innings was playing a maiden over from Benaud. Benaud was fresh from his triumph at Old Trafford just fourteen years earlier, where a remarkable spell of 6-70 (including the bowling of my Old Whitgiftian captain at that time, Raman Subba Row, for 49) won the Ashes for Australia [see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cOLY6k1vq3A] . He threw everything he could at me – leg-breaks, flippers, googlies, doosras, and one or two other concoctions I could not name, all in the space of six balls, yet could not dismiss me, as I refrained from trying to hoick him over mid-wicket, and kept my castle clean. I don’t think he was ever the same again, and soon abandoned the playing of the game to concentrate on his career in broadcasting.
Before lunch the great Jim (cryptonym ‘Gloria’) Swanton had addressed us in the changing-room: ‘We’ll wear our blazers, shall we?’, assuming that each would have brought his I Zingari or Free Foresters tribal uniform with him. Of course, I had no blazer, and that made me stand out as well. Anyway, I did get a bowl later, and Peter Marson (then one of the cricket reporters on the Daily Telegraph) turned down an absolutely cast-iron LBW appeal by me and the wicket-keeper, and the All-Stars won by about eight wickets. Afterwards, we listened to many highly amusing anecdotes about M.C.C. tours from Tony Lewis, while Benaud was the sole celebrity who chatted to me. We discussed bowling (I suggested that he was too square-on, and should raise his left shoulder a bit), and sundry other matters, including, if I remember correctly, Clive James’s use of metaphor and allegory. A charming man. I leave the final words for Peter Tinniswood, from The Brigadier Down Under, pp 12-13:
“Dear, dear Richie.
What a welcome he gave me when I left intelligence in his dinky little pigeon hole that I was staying at the same hotel as he.
He has literally showered me with courtesies and considerations.
I must be the only man privileged to have seen him ‘at his toilet’ as he bathes himself in asses’ milk and sprinkles his exquisite body with that rarest of rare perfumes, Essence of Sproat.
He showed me also his superb and dazzling wardrobe, which is under the personal and constant supervision of the Keeper of the Victoria and Albert Museum, Dame Zandra Rhodes, second son of the immortal Wilfred.
But the highest honour of all was when he allowed me to attend the midnight devotions of Australian cricketers round the hotel consecrated barbecue.
Words cannot describe the ecstacy [sic] that overcame me as I listened to the ravishing plainsong of Rodney Marsh and the stirring tones of that finest of all evangelical preachers, the Rev. Dennis Lillee, as he launched into his celebrated sermon.
‘Take heed, all ye unbelievers . . . . “ [We regret that we have to cut this extract short, as this is a family-oriented blog. Chief Webmaster, Coldspur Enterprises.]
The normal set of Commonplace entries added for the month. (April 30, 2015)