I did not know that Richie Benaud holds down the same team captain role for the English free to air cricket telecast as he does here in Australia until I arrived in the old country one summer. England played the West Indies that year and Richie was at the helm, keeping viewers advised and entertained with his expansive knowledge and a dry wit suited to the Poms. This English production is a more sedate presentation than would have been created by Australia’s Nine Network, yet it suits Richie and it suits test match cricket, like a relaxed conversation between two gentlemen of the members on a rain interrupted fourth day.
From a studio set up, Richie gives a rundown of the selection criteria: qualities such as to be outstanding in any era, and to hold a lasting influence on the game. Though Richie acknowledges that mixing eras is difficult, this lengthy hypothetical is based on his 55 years absorbed in the game of test match cricket. And so the former Australian selector explains his selection philosophy so as to allow two back-up players for every position including six openers. A choice of thirty-three players in all with names such a Trumper, G. Pollack, Larwood and Tendulkar, as well as favourites of mine like Greenidge, Botham and the Master Blaster to name but a few. There is also some supplementary footage of many others unlucky not to make the final list of candidates.
Our Richie is joined by Mark Nicholas, a British broadcaster who never played the game and has just introduced his vague calling style to Australian cricket viewers on Channel Nine. Despite this, the format is right because it allows Benaud to expand as the sole authority. The two lack chemistry so in a popularity contest I will blame the Pom. A reference to bodyline is a welcome dig, for we all know that the mere mention of the infamous series is a sledge to rally the antipodean market. Yet Nicholas’ enthusiasm remains flat.
It would not be giving too much away to admit that the only automatic selection in this team is our Don Bradman. Any other choice at first drop would be sacrilege, sure to stir up controversy the likes of which no cricket commentator had seen, most especially the ‘voice of cricket’ himself. So, are there any controversial inclusions in this team, or even in the list of candidates for each post? That will be for you to decide, and there to help you is some excellent footage of the unquestioned greats of the game, and the wisdom of one of its foremost students to guide you.
Richie’s explanations are accompanied by basic statistics and a focus on particular innings or series to illustrate the points he makes. The well edited piece strings together interesting assessments of the players’ particular strengths (and the occasional weakness) and what it is that makes them special; that extra criteria that gets them into the squad and the team itself. It is certainly a side any fan of cricket would love to see play but where is Dean Jones?
We may be growing accustomed to widescreen digital quality sports broadcasts but do not expect it here. The 4:3 format is good enough and the picture quality reminds us that this is a television show. The blue screen behind Benaud glows a horrid sky blue and needed toning down. Some of the old footage is typically grainy, including some of the colour segments but most of it, even the black and white reel, is quite good to excellent. Of special interest is the final over of the tied test between Australia and the West Indies, and the legendary six sixes in one over from Gary Sobers. The package is completed with well preserved original commentary in Dolby two channel stereo.
There are not a lot of extras but they are useful. The best of it is A life in Cricket. We are treated to Richie’s memories as a boy listening to the test matches on the radio, as well as early playing days and inspirations. He gives a range of opinions on the game and its evolution, such as the one-dayers, the onset of professionalism, sledging and his less than generous attitude to match fixing. Not to mention a quick lesson in the art of leg spin bowling.
With the feature including short animated profiles on the first eleven, the twelfth man and the manager, the remaining twenty players are profiled as part of the extras. There are also comprehensive statistics sheets and a two page synopsis on each of the thirty-three players. Highlight reels accompany the menus but are too brief. There is a lot of good cricket during this presentation but not enough.
You know what they say about opinions: as with certain parts of our anatomy, everybody has got one. And just like parts of the human anatomy, I am not interested in seeing everyone’s but I am happy to take a good long look at the one belonging to this former Australian captain and legend of cricket broadcasting. It is not the most riveting made- for-television sports shows but Benaud’s sheer weight of experience keeps it together despite his colleague’s unconvincing air of appreciation. The archive footage with original commentary provides some great memories of cricket’s past. It is a mostly interesting and enjoyable watch though lacking a little bite, which is more than compensated for by the chance to see Dennis Lillee charging in and Viv Richards in full flight once more.