I cried a few tears yesterday morning at the news that the wonderful Richie Benaud had died. He was the narrator of my childhood summers, the twinkly-voiced friend of cricket who brought Test matches to life, often by saying almost nothing. If only some of his successors had actually been listening.
Watching the video above this afternoon, featuring Richie's last stint as a commentator in England, it's hard not to be moved. A decade on, it's also hard not to see it with hindsight as a signifier of something more important.
That marvellous Fifth Test of the glorious summer of 2005 marked the end of the Benaud era. Whether we quite suspected it or not, it also marked the start of the reign of the man who has dominated English cricket for the subsequent ten years: Kevin Pietersen. With his ridiculous raccoon-bleach haircut, and some equally preposterous shots, Pietersen swaggered onto set and swung the series England's way. Without him, the Ashes would have remained Down Under.
Inevitably, perhaps, Pietersen even had the nerve to interrupt Mr Benaud. The game meandering to a draw in the afternoon sun, Richie began offering up his final farewell to cricket in England. Like all his commentary, it was carefully considered, with a mix of wistfulness and humour. Then Pietersen suddenly got bowled by Glenn McGrath, and Richie had to abandon his valedictory, and the moment had gone.
|The dark clouds were looming.|
It didn't matter at the time, perhaps. Our joy at regaining the little urn enabled English cricket fans to celebrate Richie's passing magnanimously, to forgive our new batting hero his chutzpah. We'd won the Ashes! England were on the up and up! Cricket was the new football!
In truth, looking back, the moment marked a sea change in English cricket. The end of the beginning of Pietersen was the beginning of the end of the Ashes, now properly pulverized in the mortar of ECB greed. Australia have bounced back inevitably, whilst England have reverted to confusion, on and off the field.
More importantly than that, cricket in England has faded from public view. September 12th 2005 was the last day that an Ashes Test match would be broadcast on free-to-air television in the UK. Despite more and more games being played, the number of people who can actually see one live, on their telly, is trivial. At the exact moment that cricket was there to be shown to the masses, it disappeared behind a paywall. Richie left at the right time.
Ten years have passed. Ten years without terrestrially televised Tests. Ten years without Richie, and now forever. It felt at the time that September 12th 2005 was a rebirth of English cricket. Now it seems to mark a death instead.