TELFORD VICE, Cape Town
AUSTRALIA lost one of its finest players and cricket nothing less than its voice when the great scorer came to write against Richie Benaud’s name last week, and SA was central to his journey in the game. Benaud, too, played a role in cricket’s racial progress in SA.
Before the tour to SA in 1956-57 Benaud had seldom starred for Australia. One century and three five-wicket hauls in 27 tests is the stuff of fringe players, not the giant he would become.
But, in that series against SA, Benaud scored two hundreds in seven innings and claimed five wickets four times on his way to a swag bag of 30. He reached two more centuries and went home with 106 wickets at an average of 19.39 in the 18 first-class matches he played on tour. Benaud’s batting average, which would settle on 24.45 after his 63 tests, leapt to 54.83 for that rubber – his highest off all 16 series he played.
“That tour made him and it was the hard work he put in behind the scenes that made him so successful,” former SA captain Ali Bacher said on Monday.
Bacher, then 15 years old, remembered watching Benaud bowl at a piece of cardboard a foot square placed on a length outside off-stump in the Wanderers nets “for hours after the rest of the team had finished training”.
Benaud had played against SA in Australia 1952 and he ended his test career against them there in 1963-64. He also represented International Cavaliers teams in SA, Zimbabwe – when it was still called Rhodesia – Kenya and India in 1960 and 1963.
All of Benaud’s engagement with SA cricket as a player, then, happened when teams were racially segregated by law. He returned to the country in 1976 as the manager of the International Wanderers, another composite team that flouted the mounting international boycott against apartheid sport.
However, Benaud took the opportunity to strike a small but – at that fraught time – notable blow for deracialised sport in SA.
“He insisted that every team they played against had to be mixed,” Bacher said. “Surprisingly the SA government of the day agreed.”
Benaud called the official end to apartheid sport in the 1980s “the best news I have had in years”. When initial efforts were made to grow the game in black communities, Benaud gave what Bacher – by then the managing director of the United Cricket Board – called “an unprompted and very generous donation” to the development programme.