SYDNEY - Within hours of his death on Friday, former Australia cricket captain and pioneering television commentator Richie Benaud was described as a "national treasure" and praised by his peers, current players and the country's prime minister.
Benaud, 84, died overnight at a Sydney hospice, surrounded by his wife, Daphne, and other family members. He had been fighting skin cancer since late last year.
A veteran of 63 test matches, Benaud later played a pivotal role in the formation of World Series Cricket in the 1970s and was one of the world's most recognized commentators, in Australia where he anchored the Nine Network's cricket coverage for decades, and in Britain.
His time in the commentary box ended after a car crash iin 2013 that left him with two fractured vertebrae.
"Richie Benaud's passing has robbed us not only of a national treasure but a lovely man," Nine Network chief executive David Gyngell said in a statement. "Richie earned the profound and lasting respect of everyone across the world of cricket and beyond. First as an outstanding player and captain, then as an incomparable commentator and through it all, as a wonderful human being."
Australian test captain Michael Clarke said Benaud was a gentleman who played cricket in the right spirit.
"He was a great player and a great captain; a wonderful leader of men and he continued that off the field," Clarke said. "He loved winning. He helped the Australian team have the attitude where they wanted to win. He played the game the right way."
Benaud, born in Penrith outside Sydney in 1930, was a wily leg-spin bowler and middle-order batsman whose career began in 1952 and ended in 1964.
He was the first player to score 2,000 test runs and take 200 test wickets but was most highly regarded not for his individual achievements but his captaincy — he never lost a test series as Australian captain.
After retiring, Benaud became a commentary icon initially with the BBC in England and later in Australia. His clipped and laconic commentary style was fodder for imitators and cricket fans across the world.
He announced in November that he was fighting skin cancer.
"When I was a kid we never ever wore a cap ... because (teammate) Keith Miller never wore a cap," Benaud said at the time. "If I knew, when I was at school and playing in my early cricket days, the problems that would have come if I didn't do something about protection of the head and using sunscreens and all sorts of things like that, I'd have played it differently."
Despite his retirement, Benaud did voice a touching tribute to Australian cricketer Phillip Hughes, who died during a match last November, which was screened before Australia's test series against India last December in Adelaide.
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said Benaud will be "very, very much missed."
"There would hardly be an Australian over the last 40 years who hasn't listened to Richie Benaud," Abbott said.
Cricket Australia chairman Wally Edwards said "our country has lost a national treasure."
"After Don Bradman, there has been no Australian player more famous or more influential than Richie Benaud," Edwards said in a statement. "Richie stood at the top of the game throughout his rich life, first as a record-breaking leg-spinner and captain, and then as cricket's most famous broadcaster who became the iconic voice of our summer.
"His crisp style, dry humour, understated delivery, and array of jackets made him one of the most loved personalities on television as he brought cricket to the lives of millions. Away from the camera he was a leader, mentor and positive influencer of an extraordinary number of cricketers."
Benaud was working as a professional journalist when he was appointed captain of Australia for the first time in the 1958-59 series against England. He took 31 wickets at an average of 18 in the 4-0 series victory and held the job until his final series in 1963-64.
His bowling was hindered by a painful shoulder injury sustained on a 1961 tour of England, but he still managed 29 wickets in his final two campaigns.
A colorful performer, he bowled with the top buttons of his shirt undone, and was a pioneer of the exuberant celebration, rushing up to his teammates after taking a wicket.
On the captaincy, he said: "Captaincy is 90 per cent luck and 10 per cent skill. But don't try it without that 10 per cent."
Later generations knew Benaud best as a commentator and presenter. His witty observations — he once described Glenn McGrath as being dismissed "just 98 runs short of a century" — and elongated vowel pronunciations were much impersonated.
"The only thing that annoys me about that is if I suddenly find someone on commercial radio or something like that, mimicking my voice or actions and trying to promote a product and pretending it's me doing it." Benaud said.
On Twitter, McGrath said "very sad news ... a legend of Australian cricket & the commentary box. We've lost a true Aussie icon." Australia coach Darren Lehmann added: "RIP one of the games all time greats! He will be missed by the whole cricketing world."
Benaud was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1961 for services to cricket and was inducted into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame in 1985. In 2007, he was inducted into the Australian Cricket Hall of Fame and two years later was inducted into the ICC Cricket Hall of Fame.
Later Friday a statement from Abbott in the prime minister's office said Benaud's family had been offered a state funeral and that "given the special place Richie Benaud has in our national life, I have asked that on the day of his funeral flags fly at half-mast."