May 14, 2015

Condolence Motion – Mr Richard Benaud, OBE

Federation Chamber

Mr ALBANESE (Grayndler) (10:50): I think it is appropriate that this parliament pay tribute to a great Australian in Richie Benaud. Is there any other sports commentator in the world who is so much of a cult figure that literally hundreds of grown men are prepared to don white wigs and cream-coloured suits in an annual fancy dress party to pay tribute? I doubt it. But, once a year at the test at the Sydney Cricket Ground, hundreds of cricket fans dress up as Richie Benaud. I noticed during this year’s test it was not just men. It does not matter if the temperature is 40 degrees. They are there all day—’The Richies’—paying homage to a man who became a familiar and a very welcome presence in their lives and in the lives of millions of people around the world over a period of more than six decades. I suspect there is something very Australian about The Richies’ presence at the SCG, and I think next year will break the record for the number of Richies, as I am sure even more people will pay tribute to this great Australian.

So much has been said about the death of Richie Benaud that it is hard to break new ground in any tribute to his remarkable life. The key word that comes to mind when I think of this great sportsman and journalist is integrity—integrity as a bowler and batsman; integrity as a captain who led his team with an intense fighting spirit but never forgot to treat his opponents with courtesy; and, later, absolute integrity as a journalist and commentator.

It is often difficult to explain to visitors to our great land how people can sit and watch every ball of a game that goes for five days without, potentially, getting a result. But what cricket is about is not just what is written down. It is what is unwritten: the culture of sportsmanship that someone like Richie Benaud embodied—a man who would never have claimed a catch that he knew had not been taken; and a man who played absolutely within the spirit of the game and embodied it as a sport—a contest, yes—but a sport. It was about relationships and bridging those relationships between all countries who play that great sport.

What made Richie Benaud stand out was his understanding that, while winning was important, what was more important was the way that you played the game. After his death last month, many people described him as the voice of the Australian summer. But the truth is he was the voice of world cricket—a man known as widely in other cricket-playing countries as he was in Australia. He was also the voice of English summer, which is remarkable—broadcasting every year, regardless of whether Australia was playing or not. He loved cricket, but he refused to let that affect his commentary as an Australian. He was above all a cricket enthusiast. He was as generous about the great batting of Tendulkar, or performances by Botham or Viv Richards, as he was about Mark Waugh or Allan Border or Dennis Lillee.

He was happy to offer criticism where it was warranted. When Greg Chappell ordered his brother Trevor to bowl underarm against New Zealand in 1981, Richie Benaud had no hesitation in condemning the decision. Whoever was playing, you always felt that when Richie was commentating, his key concern was you—the listener. He did not see his job as barracking for any particular team. His concern was to use his special knowledge and experience to help people understand and enjoy cricket. Much-loved ABC commentator Jim Maxwell perhaps put it best when he described Richie as ‘cricket’s pope’.

He was indeed a gentleman who I had the honour of meeting on a number of occasions. His knowledge, his authenticity and his genuineness just shone through. I will miss hearing that voice: he was very much a part of our lives. He played 63 tests for Australia; he was the first player to score 2,000 test runs and take 200 wickets. As Australian captain, he never lost a series; as a commentator, he had no peer.

Recently I was listening to an ABC radio documentary about the 1961 West Indies tour of Australia, which of course featured the famous tied test at the Gabba. Richie was interviewed for the program along with other greats of the era. What impressed me the most was the way that Richie and his opposing captain, the great Sir Frank Worrell, formed an informal pact at the beginning of the series. Of course they were going to try to beat each other, but the most important thing was they were going to play to win, not just to draw, and they played an exciting brand of cricket that re-energised cricket from that 1961 series on. I think that tells you everything that you needed to know about Richie Benaud: just as he put his viewers first when he was in the commentary box, he put those people at the ground watching the game first when he was a player and a captain. He knew that they wanted to be concerned about the style of the game as well as the outcome at the end of a test match. I think that was the secret of his greatness.

Even in his final months, as he fought the melanoma that he linked to sun exposure during his playing career, he was happy to appear publicly to urge children not to make the same mistake. His tribute to Phil Hughes was quite remarkable, even though he himself at the time was going through his illness. He never looked for sympathy. What he wanted though, with his campaign against sun cancer, was to make sure that others benefitted from his experience.

To his family and many friends, particularly his wife, Daphne, whom he spoke about often and so affectionately, I offer my sincere condolences. And to cricket fans here and indeed everywhere throughout the world, I say we are all very lucky to have shared time on this earth with Richie Benaud.