The first Test I saw live was the Second Ashes Test of 1977. The first two days had been school trips, all raucous laughs and dodgy stories from the bigger boys in the back seats, but the third day was spent with my father and my brothers. My dad didn’t care for the big South African in the England middle-order, but he liked the way he stood so very close at silly point and we liked the way he lifted the only six we saw during three days watching,away , up and over the sightscreen. That’s what Tony Greig did throughout his life in cricket – find a way to make people dislike him and like him at the same time.
As a player, he was unfortunate to be followed by the golden age of all-rounders (one that the schedules have ensured will never come again), so he is seldom placed in the front rank of those gifted enough to warrant a place through either skill. But he was a great all-rounder – a stand and deliver attacking middle-order batsman, a bowler who could bowl handy medium pace or off-breaks that bounced and turned and a fielder whose physical presence and reach was used to great effect anywhere around the bat.
He knew all this and so did those around the game, but the two defining moments of his life meant that the public and the media (of the time) never seemed to acknowledge his talents as a cricketer – a wrong that was righted a few months ago with some wonderful appreciations of his monumental seven hour century at Eden Gardens to set up England’s series victory over India in 1976/77.
Those two defining moments were, of course, the “Grovel” comment prior to the West Indies all-conquering tour of England in 1976 and the handshake with which he sealed the deal with Kerry Packer to be his recruiting sergeant for World Series Cricket.
In the age before sport saturated the media, nobody really understood mind games and Greig, typically, had seen the future and leapt into it without really thinking it through. “Grovel” was a gauche attempt to gain a psychological edge over players that he knew were better than the ones at his disposal. It hardly helped that it came in the accent of a white South African, an accent he never attempted to modify. He did the wrong thing in every sense, but had the good grace to leave The Oval on his hands and knees to the delight of the throngs of West Indians in the crowd – the “Grovel” man had been made to grovel by one of the greatest teams in history. Mind games were to become more sophisticated – and more tedious – in the future.
Though better understood now, many have never forgiven Greig’s role in World Series Cricket, particularly the subterfuge involved in signing up players whilst still England captain – but revolutions are never pleasant to observe close-up. History was on Packer’s side, as so many other sports have shown, and the balance of power was always going to swing towards the players – had the semi-feudal administrators of the game seen that and done something about it, the unpleasantness, the court cases and their humiliation would have been avoided. Kerry Packer knew the debt he owed to his point man and honoured his word by giving Greig a job for life in television where he has been an ever-present for thirty years or more. Greig’s media work divided opinion too – but I don’t suppose he minded that, as he enjoyed plenty of spats in the box with Bill Lawry et al.
Greig was much more than just a cricketer, but it is as a cricketer that he should be remembered first and foremost. And, as his Test record shows (3599 runs at 40 and 141 wickets at 32, playing his last Test at 30) he was a very, very fine cricketer indeed.