It was September 2013 and Richie Benaud would be in Barbados for the first time since appropriately delivering the annual Sir Frank Worrell Memorial lecture at the University of the West Indies, Barbados campus, a decade earlier.
At 83, he was unlikely to come again. As it has sadly turned out, it was his last chance to catch up with the five of the West Indian survivors from the unforgettable 1960-61 series in Australia when he, as inventive home captain, and Worrell, his similarly minded West Indies counterpart, influenced their teams into an exuberant approach to the game that revived the fading image of Test cricket.
Immediately sparked by the unprecedented tie first up in Brisbane, the series captured the public’s imagination to such an extent that 100,000 thronged the streets of Melbourne to hail their popular visitors at the end. It was a phenomenon unheard of, before or since.
A lunch at one of the island’s top restaurant, overlooking the spectacular Rockley beach on Barbados’ south coast, seemed the ideal setting for Benaud to be joined by his 1960-61 challengers, Garry Sobers, Wes Hall, Seymour Nurse, Cammie Smith and Peter Lashley. Everton Weekes, then 88 and as effervescent as he is two years on, was also along; he had piled up runs while Benaud twirled his legspin in the 1955 series in the Caribbean. By then, it was Sir Garry, also one of Barbados’ ten national heroes, Sir Wes and Sir Everton.
I knew them all as friends, principally from years of covering West Indies wherever they ventured, Benaud from the eight seasons in Australia as part of the Channel Nine panel, learning the intricacies of television, as opposed to radio, commentary under his guidance. In addition, I first met Richie’s wife and soul mate, Daphne, when she was secretary to the renowned cricket writer, EW Swanton.
I was in no doubt they would all be as enthusiastic about the idea as they immediately were. Yet the exercise turned out to be not quite as straightforward as it appeared.
As keen as he was, Richie had one caveat. He was coming for an event unrelated to cricket (it was a special birthday celebration of a close friend of the Benauds, a Trinidadian long since resident in Sydney) and didn’t want any diversion from the occasion.
“One possible problem that springs to mind is if media outlets demand access with cameras, tape recorders and notebooks, something which, if it happens, would certainly detract from the idea,” he emailed when I put my lunch proposal to him. He was, after all, then as famous for his second career as television’s most authoritative commentator as he was as captain and player.
I nervously assured him that wouldn’t be the case, that I had it in all under control. So the date was set, the restaurant booked, the local contingent confirmed and sponsorship agreed with the Cricket Legends of Barbados group. I got my son Craig busy designing a four-page menu, entitled “Remembering the great times”, carrying images of the seven players along with the iconic pictures of the final run out of the tied Test, the summarised scores of the matches and, of course, the menu (Opening Batsmen, starters; Middle Order, main course; Tail-Enders, sweets). Then, suddenly, a setback.
Richie had fallen in the shower at his west coast villa and damaged his ribs. After examination at a nearby clinic, he was transferred to a private hospital on the outskirts of Bridgetown for a couple days’ observation.
Crestfallen, I cancelled the restaurant reservation and advised the others of the situation. Somehow, word got back to Richie. Daphne called to say that whatever I had done I should undo it since Richie was adamant he wasn’t going to let a little pain and some tight strapping around his upper body put him off. He would be there at the appointed time.
So the lunch arrangements were restored and, to their shared delight, the invitations to the local contingent reinstated. There was only one anxious moment when Richie arrived at the restaurant; as Wes Hall approached as if to greet him with a hug, he recoiled. “No hugs today!” he exclaimed, pointing to his rib cage.
The group, including Daphne, Michele Kennedy-Green, the birthday girl from Sydney, and her sister, Patricia, took their seats at a round table at 1.10 pm. We reluctantly broke up three hours later.
After glasses were raised in memory of those of the 1960-61 team who had passed on — Sir Frank, who died of leukaemia, aged 42, Sir Conrad Hunte, Gerry Alexander and Alf Valentine — the banter became increasingly animated, the stories more and more richly embellished, the laughter louder, Cammie Smith’s as infectious as ever. It was just what everyone had expected.
Within two months of Benaud’s return to Australia, the joy of that day turned to apprehension over his well-being after he fractured two vertebrae in a car crash driving home from a round of golf.
When, a year later, he revealed that he was receiving radiation treatment for skin cancer, the anxiety turned to trepidation.
He battled his ailment gamely. Daphne emailed occasional reports, revealing that they had been walking each morning along the beach in Coogee, the location of their flat between the innumerable summers in England for BBC television. Richie even talked optimistically of returning to Channel Nine commentary for Australia’s Sydney Test against India last January. It proved a forlorn hope.
His death on Friday has thrown a pall of gloom over cricket’s global family. West Indians of a certain vintage especially remember his role, along with Worrell, in overseeing as influential a Test series as the game has known.
Those of more contemporary generations, who knew him mostly from his reassuring presence on their television screens, appreciated his professionalism, noticed his immaculate dress sense, marvelled at his remarkable cool even in the tensest situations and, above all, valued the absolute impartiality of his measured commentary, a rare attribute at a time of much overt jingoism.