In case you’re not aware, cricket is a pretty big deal down here. Over the Aussie summer it takes over this rather large island nation, with every advertisement sporting crickets past and present spruiking any and every company’s products, every news bulletin seemingly topped and tailed with news of Michael Clarke’s hamstring or the latest musings on the hilarious collapse of English Cricket, and people of all ages dragging their metal stumps and Kookaburra Bats out of their sheds to have a hit of backyard cricket with the kids down the road. It’s a wonderfully magical time of year and one of the reasons I love living in this country.
But the even more telling sign that summer and cricket had arrived, were the distinctive voices of the men that commented the game on the telly for most of the modern era, certainly all of my lifetime. Yesterday we sadly lost another of these cricket icons, former Australian cricket captain and leader of the Channel 9 commentary team, Richie Benaud. Growing up, Richie Benaud was almost omnipresent throughout summer, with his rather unique voice on every television in every shop, “that’s a marvellous shot” he’d say after the batsman played a beautiful cover drive for four. Richie was more than just a former cricketer, or the voice of summer, he was a cult icon and in many ways the embodiment of Australia’s love for sport.
And the country’s love affair with sport makes gods out of men and the great minds of sports broadcasting – Richie Benaud, Tony Greig, Bill Lawry, Ian Chappell – are often at front and centre of the cricket-loving public’s minds. Sure growing up watching the sport it was the likes of Dean Jones, Allan Border, David Boon and Merv Hughes that entertained on the field and had us hooking the ball over the neighbour’s fence in the backyard. But rest assured that when that ball was caught one-hand one-bounce by your sister or edged to the automatic wicket-keeper, the cries of impersonating Bill Lawry’s “GOT HIM” or Richie Benaud’s “Marvellous Catch” could be heard across the neighbourhood. Unless you’d caught a blinder a short leg that is, in which case you’d “pulled a Boonie“. But the fact still remains that the voices of cricket were as much a part of the sport for most Australian kids – and adults no less – than they guys in their whites out in the middle.
While cricket video games have had some time in the sun – Shane Warne ’99 is still a classic – they’ve never quite clicked in the same way a simple board game by the name of Test Match. Dubbed “the authentic all-action cricket game” on the box, Test Match was taken very seriously in my household, and I’d hate to think house many hours were spent laying on the floor or sitting at the table ‘bowling’ a ball bearing down a ramp toward the batsman. We’d prepare the green-felt surface with the same tender love and care Damien Hough would curating the Adelaide Oval pitch, we’d make sure the boundary was long on every end, and once the game had begun we’d carefully place our fielders in the slips in the hopes we’d catch the batsman’s outside edge. It was a highly tense and competitive environment, with all focus concentrated on the field, hoping for the odd nick to the catcher or for the ball to knock over middle stump. The battles of Test Match were always fierce and often long, and as frustrations on both size continued to rise, so too did the sledging. We are Australian, after all. But the battle began even before the teams were out in the middle, even before the field was prepared, as we’d fight over which legends of the game we’d have in our teams. Even though they were nothing more than names on a scoreboard, they represented something we’d hope would give us the competitive edge, that somehow Shane Warne would make runs at the end of the order or Viv Richards would go on to make a double century. A team of legends would bring us Test Match glory, we thought. But the real fight was always over whose team Richie Benaud would captain. I pulled out my old Test Match Board game today and found pages upon pages of scoresheets that accumulated over years, each one littered with famous names from cricket past. Joel Garner. Rodney Marsh. Ian Chappell Graham Gooch. Shane Warne. Even the current Australian coach, Darren Lehmann gets a guernsey in later years. But the one thing most of the matches between greats of the game is that, somewhere, Richie Benaud’s name is on the scorecard. Before every match and before every toss of the coin, there was guaranteed to be fighting over Richie. It may have been symbolic, but to us, it meant something real.
So here’s to our great national pastime, getting out into the sun, having a hit out in the nets. But more importantly here’s to Richie, the voice of cricket, and the most prized player in Test Match history. What a marvellous innings.
I highly recommend something great I read the other day about the difficulties of an Aussie expat living in Canada adjusting to life without Aussie sport. If you’re not across cricket, I also recommend reading something I wrote a while back about how cricket isn’t baseball, because it’s really, really not.