CW Specials: My Close Encounters with Cricketing Greats – Part VI: Kersi Meher-Homji
After Keith Miller another cricketing superman I was close and personal with was Richie Benaud, He was an all-time great all-round cricketer; a crafty leg-spinner who captured 248 wickets in 63 Tests, an attacking lower-order batsman who hit one of the fastest Test centuries, a brilliant gully fielder with amazing reflexes and a crowd puller wherever he played. He was also a courageous and victorious leader of men, who lost neither a Test series nor his cool.
He had improved his batting stance by seeking Miller’s advice and practiced in front of a mirror. He hit a dazzling 121 in the Kingston Test against West Indies in 1955. His century came in 78 minutes, then the third fastest Test century. This onslaught prompted a Jamaican barracker to shout, “Do it to England, maan, not to us.”
In 1977-78, Richie and I were on opposite sides. He was one of the founders of World Series Cricket. I was against it. So much so, that I stopped my seven year-old son to watch it on television. To me cricketers who forsake their countries to play for money was a big no-no.
Richie gave a talk at the Journalist Club in Sydney promoting WSC in 1977. At the conclusion of his talk, I asked him a few curly questions for which I was applauded by the audience. Rather than getting peeved, he said, “You know your speech has failed when a questioner gets more cheers than the speaker.”
But Richie never kept this against me. When I requested him to write a Foreword for my book Famous Cricketing Families some time later, he agreed readily. He wrote, “Kersi, with a versatile approach to the world of cricket rather than just one country, is ideally suited for the pleasurable task of gathering together information about families and, with his knowledge of the game, he always adds a sympathetic touch to proceedings.”
This is going ahead of the story. In 1980 I was busy writing my first book Cricket’s Great Families. The Benaud family featured heavily in it and I wanted to get information not only on Richie but also on his 14 year younger brother John who represented Australia in three Tests in 1972-73 scoring 223 runs at 44.60 including a century (142 runs) in the Melbourne Test against Pakistan. This included 93 runs before lunch after being told that he was dropped in the next Test in Sydney.
I still meet John Benaud at Australian Cricket Society (NSW) meetings and exchange yarns. Cricket writer Ray Robinson once described John as having “a profile like a Red Indian’s minus feathers”!
Rather than approaching Richie who was then overseas commentating I contacted John in 1979 for more information on the Benaud family for my book. He gave me contact details of his father Lou and mother Rene who provided me all press clippings of young Richie and John.
Shoulder trouble forced Richie to retire at 33 in 1963-64. By then he had become the first cricketer to achieve the Test double of 2000 runs and 200 wickets. As an all-rounder Richie Benaud ranks as among the greatest.
Benaud’s contribution to cricket went further than on the cricket field. Pakistan cricket benefited from his advice when he suggested to President Ayub Khan that they do away with matting wickets. This was done and it led to an improvement in their cricket standard overseas.
In 1976, as manager of the International Wanderers, Benaud toured South Africa and fought for multiracial cricket there. The news that South Africa would end apartheid in sport in 1980s so pleased him that he exclaimed, “[this is] the best news I have heard in years.”
Less is known about Benaud the commentator. In England in 1956 he spent three weeks studying television broadcasting. He called it one of the best decisions he ever made. During the World Series Cricket days in 1977 he started commentating on Channel 9 and continued to do so till 2013. His distinctive voice was also heard on the BBC.
He was soon recognised as the game’s shrewdest analyst, delivering his insights with the dry humour and incisiveness which became his hallmark. It was a pleasure listening to him because he did not state the obvious and never got over-excited as some other commentators.
His on-air wit was dry but perceptive. Once Australian wicket-keeper Rod Marsh dropped catches in a one-day international in England in 1981. When a streaker was grabbed by a frustrated Marsh, Benaud commented, “That’s the first thing Marsh has caught today!”
In 1999 he was awarded a Logie for the most outstanding sports broadcaster.
I had the privilege to discuss various aspects of cricket in the Press Box during Sydney Tests few years ago. He took up my suggestion about placements of cameras during matches and discussed it with Channel 9 producers.
After the fascinating series against the West Indies in 1960-61, including the tied Brisbane Test, the series between Australia and West Indies was named The Frank Worrell Trophy. I suggested on the Australian sports website The Roar in 2009 that it should be called The Worrell-Benaud Trophy because both had contributed equally to the enchanting series.
When I sent this story to Richie he modestly wrote back that the decision was taken by Don Bradman and the Australian Cricket Board and it should remain as The Frank Worrell Trophy:
I have just received your email concerning the article you are apparently publishing concerning a change in name to the Frank Worrell Trophy. My comment on the article is below:
In my view it would be an insult to a great man who lifted West Indies cricket and West Indians with his leadership and wonderful ability to transcend cricket and embrace people. That’s why the Frank Worrell Trophy was conceived by Sir Donald Bradman and Australia’s cricket administrators of the time.
In October 2013, Benaud, then 83, was involved in a car accident and did not recover sufficiently to broadcast the Ashes series. In November 2014, he announced that he was been treated for skin cancers.
The Sydney Morning Herald requested me to write his obituary when he was nearing his end. Call it eerie but I learned about his passing by reading his obituary on 10 April 2015 written by me a week before. You can’t get more close and personal with your hero!
THE BENAUD FAMILY
The Benaud saga begins with their father Louis Richard Benaud who was of French origin. He was a gifted slow bowler and an inspiring captain who passed on his love of the game to Richie and John. Employed by the NSW Department of Education, Lou spent many years teaching in country towns.
To quote noted writer Johnnie Moyes, “Had Louis been stationed in the city [Sydney], had he been able to return to the city earlier in life, he might well have become the first of his name to play for his State.”
It was a privilege receiving interesting information on Richie and John from him and his wife Rene.
As a teenager Louis once achieved the unbelievable; capturing all 20 wickets in a match. For Penrith Waratah Club against St Mary’s he took 10-30 in the first innings including four wickets in four balls and 10-35 in the second.
In Jugiong, NSW, he established himself as a leg-spinner who can bat a bit with consistent performances; 7-55, 8-24, 8-37, 8-19, 6-1, 9-48, 116 runs retired and 5-24, 42 and 7-43, 113 retired and 3-22.
Louis would have gone higher but he was transferred from Parramatta High School as a teacher to One Tree Farm School, almost 1000 kilometres from Sydney. In 1929 he married Irene (Rene) – the union that was to produce two Test cricketers.
Louis died in 1994 aged 90 and Rene in 2008, aged 104. Till she was 98, Rene sent me hand-written Christmas Cards with lovely words.
What a family, goodness woven around greatness!