Climactic events demand we give an account of ourselves. Where were you when you heard that JFK was assassinated, or when the planes went into the World Trade Centre? If we can't remember, we fear we may convict ourselves of reprehensible levity.
In future years when I am asked what I was doing when Donald Trump was elected President, I shall have a ready answer: I was reading Brian Matthews' splendid reflection on Richie Benaud.
It is a writer's and a cricket lover's tribute. A difficult book to write: the fascination of Benaud's life lies in guessing at what underlies his poise, self-possession, skill and gift for telling words both as commentator and writer. But he refused all attempts to assist would-be autobiographers, including Matthews.
So Benaud does not probe what lies behind the public face but celebrates the gifts of an important public figure by teasing out the connections which created the possibilities that the man grasped. They include a day watching Clarrie Grimmet bowl, backyard cricket at a house later pulled down by a developer, the distant effects of the Maharajarkumar of Vizianagram on the ascension of Douglas Jardine to the English captaincy and to Benaud's tour of India, and the white clover flowers that helped the West Indies to tie a test. The book's detours invite reflection on our own times.
At the end of the 1950s many, including Don Bradman, feared for cricket. Test matches were characterised by a narrow competitiveness dominated by the fear of losing and by unhappy relationships between administrators and players. The games induced terminal boredom and diminishing public interest.
When by a series of accidents Benaud was made Australian captain the West Indian team was about to visit. He struck up an immediate friendship with the West Indian captain, Frank Worrall, whose path to the captaincy had also been circuitous, and both men committed themselves to play boldly. The first test was tied, the captains saw that both teams ate and celebrated together afterwards, lifetime friendships were made and public enthusiasm for cricket rekindled.
It was typical of Benaud to welcome people who were different and to celebrate their joys graciously. When Australia lost its first test ever to India, he led his team to applaud them and congratulate them personally. He also managed a racially mixed team in John Vorster's South Africa, drawing up guidelines that prohibited racial discrimination against its members, and standing up to local officials who tried to enforce discrimination.
His initiative had many critics, but now what stands out is is his desire to encourage black cricketers in the townships and to see personally what South Africa was like. He had a feeling for what we might call the globalisation of people.
"As the election of Donald Trump lit up a dark election campaign, the virtues of Richie Benaud were silhouetted."
Benaud also prepared himself carefully for his life. As Matthews describes, bowling leg spin is an unnatural art that takes years of constant practice to develop. Benaud gave the time needed, just as he spent time after a tour to study study journalism from the best practitioners. As a captain he knew the names — and the strengths and weaknesses — of all his opponents, including their 12th man. If captaincy was 80 per cent luck and 20 per cent skill, he worked systematically at the skill.
As a cricketer he saw himself as the servant of the game, with a deep knowledge of its history and an instinct for decent behaviour. But he was not a slave to authority or tradition. He demanded respect from administrators and refused to bowl players named by selectors if he believed they threw the ball. He welcomed the introduction of short form cricket as a legitimate innovation that developed skills for the benefit of the game.
He remained a man of few well-chosen words who focused on what mattered. In his commentary he would speak only to enhance viewers' understanding of what they saw on the screen. Otherwise he kept silent. Behaviour on the field that lacked due skill or responsibility were received not with a torrent of blame but with silence or irony.
Benaud, of course, was a cricketer of his day who remained influential in ours. Cricketers are now professional and decently paid, dependent on the globalisation of rent seeking. This confronts them and the game with its own challenges.
As the election of Donald Trump lit up a dark election campaign, the virtues of Richie Benaud were silhouetted. His instinctive welcome of people who were different and openness to new ideas, his feeling for the subtle network of relationships through time and space that constitute both games and public life, his sense that leaders serve the game and not vice versa, and his strength of character in which study, listening and silence were as important as words, are a silent reproach.
Richie Benaud was in the best sense of the word an amateur — a lover of his game. At a time when political professionals and commentators have become expert in hatred, Brian Matthews' account of his life was not escapist literature.
Andrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.
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16 November 2016
Though he was deserving, RB was fortunate to find as fine a writer as BM. And both were fortunate to find as elegant a tribute as this.
16 November 2016
An excellent review of the story of a great cricketer and great Australian, who set a great example of sportsmanship. I look forward to getting this book from the library.
17 November 2016
With Australian cricket currently in such disarray, this gracious tribute to a revered cricketer and fine man is timely. Whatever path Benaud may have chosen in life, the result would have been the same: integrity. Cricket was the winner. The contrast with the brash American President is evident. However, even though Trump has none of the elan of Benaud, we need to bear in mind that he has been given the captaincy by his people and we can hope for, if not an outstanding innings, one that includes some fine team mates.
17 November 2016
Thanks for the timely reminder to both Australians and South Africans that integrity Vs sledging and ball tampering are not being sportsmanlike in any way. A little good old time humour could help.. where are you Merv?
17 November 2016
Given the title of the email that linked me to here, I did expect to read comments by Benaud about (an earlier) Trump. It's a decent article, but I feel I was duped by Trump's name being used as clickbait.
17 November 2016
"bowling leg spin..takes years of constant practice to develop. Benaud gave the time".
Successfully putting spin on political policies likewise requires time and skill. Trump’s campaign combined two constituents. (1);- plenty of bombast… 'Make America great again'.. 'I will build a great Wall' … These were mixed in with and shrouded (2), what turned out to be the winning appeal to discarded workers, Promises to bring back their jobs. The former were over the top and easily dismissed as hype, but they led the unwary to also dismiss the promise that appealed so strongly to the abandoned workers, and won Trump the Presidency. If this was all contrived, it has the mark of genius.
17 November 2016
Years ago having just watched Trevor Chappell bowl underarm to NZ's Brian McKechnie (on the direction of brother Greg and despite protestations from Australian players including Rodney Marsh) to deny the batsman the opportunity to score the six needed to win the limited overs game - I remember a controlled but obviously furious Richie Benaud appearing on screen declaring that he had never witnessed such a 'gutless' act in all his years in cricket. Richie was an adornment to the game and sorely missed.
I feel sorry for Andrew that his memory of the great Australian is linked with Mr Trump's ascension.
18 November 2016
What a wonderful review of a book about 'a thoroughly decent man'. You have lifted my spirits, in a time of PTSD - Post Trump Stress Disorder. But, unfortunately, we are nowhere near being Post Trump.