By Paul Gardner
I'll need to switch sports for a moment here. But it's important. The greatest of television sports commentators died last week. Richie Benaud, the Australian cricket commentator.
I say the greatest -- not merely the best. Of course he was the best, but there is a level above being best, a level that soars higher than technical ability or intricate sports knowledge or simply talking. Something else comes into play, elements of personality, of warmth, of emotion, of well ... of humanity, of being natural.
Benaud (it’s pronounced Ben’oh) had those extra qualities, whatever they may be. They came naturally to him. His precise, clipped Australian voice helped, of course. It was smooth, but not superciliously so. Clearly he knew a thing or two about words and how to use them.
That part, I suspect did not come naturally. He worked at that. Even while still a player, he worked as a journalist on a newspaper -- the crime beat, they say. And he took a BBC course on TV presentation.
His knowledge of the game was unchallengeable. Not only had he played for Australia, he had captained Australia. But there was never any high-handed I-know-better-than-you attitude to Benaud. The tremendous knowledge and experience was woven quietly and seamlessly into his commentary. I don’t know whether he had an aversion to those embarrassing exchanges between commentators that start with “In your playing days ...” I hope he did, and certainly I have no recollection of him indulging in them.
His integrity, his fairness were admired everywhere. The heated cricketing rivalry between England and Australia was never a factor, he worked as much for English TV as for Australian. One of his most acerbic criticisms was directed at Australian cricket in 1981, after a glaring example of gamesmanship that appalled Benaud. You can listen to it -- a mere 40 seconds that chillingly skewers the Australian captain.
But Benaud never sounds vindictive. The criticism, harsh as it is, has an honesty to it that banishes all thought of maliciousness.
Anyway, that tone was not typical of Benaud because whenever he was commentating, the impression he gave was of someone forever smiling, someone who was immensely enjoying himself.
A co-commentator once remarked that the ball had “snuck” under the batsman’s bat, and quickly asked Benaud if there was such a word -- getting the reply “I can think of several words ending in -uck, but not one beginning with snuh ...”
In criticizing present-day soccer commentators -- who I think talk far too much and say far too little -- I’ve often made the point that people do not tune in to listen to them. But I’ll make just the one exception -- I have to, because I used to go to some lengths to listen to Benaud, back in the days when you had to constantly fiddle with your short-wave radio dial.
These were Richie Benaud's tips for commentating, which I think are worth some thought. Despite the obvious difference in the sports -- cricket is certainly more laid-back than soccer -- I think these guidelines could well serve as an introduction to TV commentating for the dozens and dozens of former soccer players who step straight into the booth without bothering to learn anything about their new way of making a living.
* Never ask a statement.
* Remember the value of the pause.
* There are no teams in the world called “we” or “they.”
* Avoid cliches and banalities, such as “he's hit that to the boundary,” “he won't want to get out now,” “of course,” “as you can see on the screen.”
* The Titanic was a tragedy, the Ethiopian drought a disaster, and neither bears any relation to a dropped catch.
* Put your brain into gear before opening your mouth.
* Concentrate fiercely at all times.
* Above all, don't take yourself too seriously, and have fun.
Benaud surely did not take himself too seriously, but when the occasion required he could be immensely moving. Just last year there was the tragedy of a promising young Australian cricketer who died after being hit on the head by the ball during a game. Again, Benaud’s words are few -- this is a 30-second clip -- but they are wrenching.
The brief, deeply felt, but glittering words of the master. The Greatest. Yes, Richie ... R.I.P.