The view from Billinudgel

Giants of their times
Remembering Richie Benaud and Peter Walsh

Last week saw the deaths of two important Australians who will, in their different ways, be greatly missed.

The first, of course, was the irreplaceable Richie Benaud: the most articulate, informed, considered and above all restrained commentator cricket has ever known.

And he was even more than that: he was a mover and a shaker, the finest and most adventurous captain of his generation. Then he moved on to another role, raising up the game from its postwar badly paid and lackadaisically administered malaise to become the fully professional operation that we have just seen throughout the highly successful World Cup. It is gratifying indeed that Benaud lived to watch it.

But for me and my generation, Richie Benaud will be best remembered as the flamboyant player who galvanised the mighty New South Wales side some 60 years ago. He was then a swashbuckling batsman, a mesmerising leg spinner and wonderfully agile fieldsman, one of the great trio of romantic all-rounders – the others being Keith Miller and Alan Davidson – who transfixed us at the Sydney Cricket Ground while we watched the Sheffield Shield triumphs of our youth. Brylcreem-plastered hair and shirt unbuttoned to the navel, he was the man. Benaud was our hero, our idol. And he never let us down. He has been described as the most influential person in the history of cricket; certainly it is hard to think of a superior.

Inevitably and rightly his demise has been overshadowed by another figure’s. One from another sphere, but who was almost equally revered by his colleagues.

Peter Walsh was seldom in the limelight – his television appearances were rare and he never courted publicity. But as Bob Hawke’s finance minister, he was one of the most important members of that high-flying government.

He personified toughness and broke through the obfuscation that the treasury officials so frequently demanded. He despised attempts at diplomacy and spin. He called it as he saw it.

Of course, he made enemies: he routinely referred to John Howard as “the former failed treasurer”, and the powerful Australian Medical Association was denigrated as “the doctors’ union”. He was rumoured to have compiled a “shit-list” of slurs and insults ready for any occasion.

His cabinet colleagues suffered, too. I recall the time when the education minister Susan Ryan introduced Walsh to her university student daughter. The young woman was curious about the child endowment her mother received, and when she was told the amount, responded contemptuously: “But that’s not even enough for two strawberry daiquiris.” The finance minister exploded: that was exactly the kind of indulgence he had spent his life opposing.

In the end, he regarded his career as less than successful: echoing his adversary’s tag, he called his memoir Confessions of a Failed Finance Minister. But few contemporaries would have agreed. He may have been feared, even loathed, but he made a difference.

The acerbic Western Australian and the much-loved New South Welshman – two great Australians. In these bleak and often bland times, both stand as giants of their times and both lives should be celebrated. I will remember them with admiration and affection. Vale Richie and Peter.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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