With the stroke of a pen, 40 years of innovation and inspiration were consigned to the dustbin of history: Channel Nine no longer has the contract to cover cricket in Australia.
On Friday the 13th, unlucky in some eyes but not those of my wife Barbara-Ann, who celebrated her birthday, what Kerry Packer had joined together, the men from Cricket Australia put asunder. It was the end of an era that began with revolution and ended with resignation; 40 years recalled with sadness but brightened by the characters who made the cricket coverage essential viewing.
You can’t think of Channel Nine’s cricket coverage without immediately reflecting on the expertise of Richie Benaud. He was the glue that held all the innovation and technology together; meticulous with his diction and as cool as a pina colada when things were going awry. His performance as he introduced a day’s play at the Gabba once, encapsulates his value and expertise as a presenter. As he was articulating his thoughts, the backdrop suddenly collapsed. Without missing a beat he pushed back with his elbows to ease the Wide World of Sports logo off his head. Just then, his watch alarm started ringing. Continuing without a word out of place, he calmly searched under his cuff for the culprit and duly pressed the button to stop the racket.
There was a cavalcade of stars who inhabited the commentary box: Bill Lawry and Tony Greig going at it hammer and tongs on air and then dining out together at night. Michael Slater and Mark Taylor, who when they weren’t discussing the merits of country town Wagga, were arguing over who was responsible for the bulk of the run-outs that occurred during their productive opening partnership. Ian Healy would chime in with what sounded like either sports-medicine expertise or classic bs, which inspired one mate to text: “Even a broken clock is right twice a day Heals.”
“Benaud was the glue that held all the innovation and technology together; meticulous with his diction and as cool as a pina colada when things were going awry”
In the evolutionary stages the coverage was piloted by the genius of executive producer David Hill and eagle-eyed director Brian Morelli. When Hilly wasn’t being innovative, he would threaten: “You do another commentary stint like that and I’ll hit you over the head with a lead pipe.” You knew when Morelli was bored; the instruction to one of the long-tenured and dedicated cameramen would ring out as follows: “Okay, focus on his racquet, or that stick he’s got in his hand.”
The statistics that made the commentators sound like an audio version of Wisden were supplied by two eccentric sticklers for accuracy, Irving Rosenwater and Max Kruger., Rosenwater, from England, was endowed with a calligraphic hand and a parent’s protective instincts for his treasured cards. When I defiled one of them, which contained details of a player’s lifelong endeavours on and off the field, I was never again allowed to handle his cards. I could look but never touch.
There was a myriad of overseas guest commentators, headlined by the West Indies’ Tony Cozier and England’s Freddie “Effin” Trueman. Cozier would entertain with his Bajan lilt and Caribbean wisdom; Trueman would produce endless one-liners, while clearing the commentary box by puffing on his beloved cigar.
All this mayhem and magic were pulled together by the backroom “boys”: the director’s assistant, the floor manager, the make-up artist, the runners, and the people epitomised by the man of many talents, Renato “Ron” Castorina. For around two decades Renato kept us on time and on our toes.
On this day that ended an era, I felt most sad for the more recent hierarchy – executive producer Tom Malone, producer Brent Williams, and the talkative and talented director, Bryan Newton. Along with polished presenter Mark Nicholas, they were in the process of creating their own legacy when the tenure was cut short.
In the end the excellence of Channel Nine’s cricket coverage is best summed up by its beginnings.
Benaud was the epitome of the show-business dictum “The show must go on.” It all ended on April 13th, 2018, a day to reflect on what has been a thoroughly enjoyable era and a job well done.