A multi-faceted personality

G. R. Viswanth is caught by Mike Brearley off Derek Underwood in the Madras Test in 1977. Tony Greig is seen appealing from silly point, his favourite position.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

Despite turning out for England, the South African within Tony Greig remained intact. He was a hard competitor on the field and a generous rival off it. By K.C. Vijaya Kumar.

Tony Greig quadrupled on-field excitement, compressed it into a verbal nugget and blitzed the air-waves. And when he passed away aged 66 at Sydney on December 29, after battling lung cancer, for a vast swathe of generations, it was Greig the commentator who held centre-stage.

Perhaps it came with the territory and much like Richie Benaud, Greig the strong television personality seemed to overwhelm his ‘former-cricketer’ days.

However Greig was not merely a chronicler of cricket or the man who negotiated contracts with a slew of leading players during the Kerry Packer years (1977-79). Most importantly, he was a top-notch all-rounder, who also led England well. Greig’s numbers – 3599 runs and 141 wickets from 58 Tests – are a loud affirmation about his presence in the England all-rounder club that has men like Ian Botham and Andrew Flintoff in its ranks.

Never a man for the dull platitude, Geoff Boycott struck to the point when he wrote about Greig in The Telegraph: “I remember him as an excellent cricketer. I don’t say nice things about people just because they have passed away. Tony was a far better player than many people realise.”

Born in South Africa’s Queenstown, Greig moved to Sussex and plied his wares there before becoming eligible for an England call-up. He made his Test debut against Australia at Manchester in 1972 and scored 57 and 62 besides having a match-haul of five wickets. England won the match and Greig’s start was perfect.

Despite turning out for England, the South African within Greig remained intact. He was a hard competitor on the field and a generous rival off the field, ever eager to share a few beers as Ian Chappell would testify. Greig also had his share of controversy that incidentally flared up in his tilts against the West Indies. Greig effected a run-out (a verdict that was later over-turned) of Alvin Kallicharran, when the latter presumed the day’s play was over and started walking towards the pavilion.

That 1974 tour of the West Indies also crowned Greig as the then supreme all-rounder in the world as he scored 430 runs, scalped 24 wickets and also revealed his felicity to bowl off-spin in addition to his regular staple of seam and swing. A few years later when he led England, Greig wound up the entire Caribbean when he spoke about making the West Indians ‘grovel.’

It was just his manner of stating a desire to dominate but coming as it did from an England cricketer of South African origin, his words acquired a racist twinge. Promptly Clive Lloyd’s angry bunch won the series 3-0. In that low phase, Greig’s trysts with redemption were evident in his 116 at Leeds and in the sporting gesture of ‘grovelling’ at The Oval.

Greig’s personality did not entirely hinge on the win-at-all-costs precept and he did care for the sport. As captain, during the 1975 Headingley Test, he concurred with his Australian counterpart Ian Chappell about the pitch being not suitable for the game on the final day after it was dug up on the fourth day’s evening.

The former England captain was a fine batsman as reflected in the hundreds at Brisbane and at Kolkata against the very best in the business – Dennis Lillee, Jeff Thomson and the Indian spinners. Greig was also a tough England skipper, who relished his success in India.

He bolstered the spirit within the national team before Mike Brearley lent his gravitas.

Equally, Greig was alert to validating his talent and finding its right commercial spin-off. Once Packer launched his World Series Cricket, derisively then known as ‘Pyjama Cricket’, Greig joined the movement and became the rebels’ shepherd. It was a move that finished his England career but spun a revolution in cricket as One Day Internationals acquired a fresh sparkle under lights and there was a seismic shift in player salaries across the cricketing globe.

The then England chairman of selectors Alec Bedser felt ‘betrayed’ and Greig’s relationship with his ancestral nation — his father was Scottish — based on love and respect had turned into one of revulsion.

He soon relocated to Sydney and after the World Series died down, he plunged into commentary and became intrinsic to Channel Nine. Time healed the rift and after two decades of frost, the England and Wales Cricket Board relented and the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) membership was conferred to him. Earlier this year, he also delivered the MCC’s Colin Cowdrey Lecture at Lord’s and in that he said: “Give your hand to cricket and it will take you on the most fantastic journey.” At that moment, life seemed to have come a full circle for him until cancer crept in and snuffed his life.

The profuse tributes emanating from England, are a belated recognition of what he achieved as an individual and as a leader. “He was my first captain. He changed cricket for everybody as we know it now. The game suddenly leaped forward,” remembered Botham. Watching all this from above, Greig might well be, to quote one of his famous lines, “dancing in the aisles.”