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Obituary: Tony Greig – an astute cricketer with a flair for words and an eye for controversy

Tony Greig was a larger than life cricketer who played a very important role with Kerry Packer in giving cricketers their financial due. If modern cricketers are getting paid handsomely, they have to thank the pioneering efforts of Greig in starting Packer’s World Series Cricket which changed the face of international cricket. Jaideep Vaidya pays a tribute to the colossus.

Tony Greig, the former England captain and commentator for more than three decades, passed away on December 29, 2012, from a heart-attack at the age of 66. Greig was diagnosed with lung cancer in October this year and was operated upon recently, but suffered a heart-attack Saturday morning at his Sydney home.

Thirty-three years after turning up in the Channel Nine commentary box for the first day of the first Test of the Australian summer, Greig had to watch Australia take on South Africa at the Gabba last month from the confines of his home. His employers and colleagues, in a heartening gesture, got the big man on the line in what was to be the last time the world would hear that electrifying, gripping voice. Replying to Mark Taylor’s question about his health, Greig said, “Well, it’s not good, Mark. The truth is I’ve got lung cancer and now it’s just a question of what they can do.”

For 33 long years, Greig had turned the dullest of matches into the most pulsating humdingers with his booming baritone and distinct accent. Who can forget the overflowing excitement in Greig’s voice when he goes, “It’s in the air…it’s going down to third man…it’s gonna be caught…and oh it’s a no ball…it’s a no ball…up goes the arm!“, and “He’s hit this one miles…oh it’s a biggie!“, and “Straight down the ground…wonderful shot…all the way for six!”,and my personal favourite: “It’s gone again! It’s on the way out…no it’s gonna be caught! Oh he’s got him! Tendulkar’s out! Ohh he’s dropped him! He’s dropped him! It’s gone over the fence for four.”

But for Greig, those 33 years were not enough. Far from it.

It’s been an incredible, very short journey so far and you have no idea how much one misses getting to the cricket on a day like this,”Greig told Channel Nine. “With setbacks like this, you’ve got to be positive. Yup, I’m definitely aiming to get back into that chair at some stage and stir it up as much as I possibly can.”

That’s what Tony Greig was. Passionate about his work: whether it was captaining the England side or commentating during the Australian summer. Greig oozed cricket from his veins and had this remarkable ability of infecting others around him with his bug.

Anthony William Greig, born on October 6, 1946, in Queenstown, pursued cricket through college and got the opportunity to trial for the Sussex county team in 1965. His Scottish immigrant father, who used to rant him for not concentrating on his education, eventually decided to give Greig one year to prove himself in England.

Turning up at three-down for his English county debut at the tender age of 20, with the score on 34 for three, Greig was up against a Lancashire team boasting the likes of Brian Statham, Ken Higgs and Peter Lever. The young, 6 ft 6 in tall Greig was visibly nervous as Statham came running up to the crease. “I was scared stiff,” Greig would admit later, as Statham – known for his pace and accuracy – rapped Greig on the toes first ball right in front of middle stump.

To Greig’s, Statham’s and everyone around the field’s amazement, umpire Albert Rhodes gave it not out. Greig went on to score 156 runs in just under four hours as Sussex recovered to put on 324 on the board. Tony Greig, a towering figure with flapping golden locks and a long jawline, had announced his arrival into the world of cricket – albeit thanks to a slice of good fortune. He soon wrote to his father saying that he was going to quit college and carry on with his cricket in England. Senior Greig wouldn’t have been too annoyed had he seen that knock.

A canny all-rounder who could bat in the middle-order, Greig could bowl both medium-pace and spin. And by his own admission, he loved fielding in close-in positions where he could snap up a catch from nowhere. Greig made his England debut in 1972 and soon begged to impress one and all. His aggressiveness, fearlessness and desire to win was what got him the captaincy three years later following a disastrous tour of Australia for the England team.

Greig was a very effective bat and bowl on every strip he played on and was Test cricket’s leading wicket-taker in 1974. Overall, he compiled a formidable record as an all-rounder, scoring 3599 runs at an average of 40.43, including eight centuries, and 141 wickets at an average of 32.20 – his best innings haul being eight for 86.

However, it was Greig’s overzealous attitude that often got him into trouble when he least intended to. The Alvin Kallicharran incident in 1974 comes to mind when Greig ran out the West Indian for leaving the crease after the final ball was bowled, but before the umpire had called stumps. Even though England revoked the appeal later, Greig became public enemy number one and was blasted by the press for not keeping with the spirit of the game. Greig, however, showed no remorse for his act and vehemently defended himself. “The guy was out of his crease and I ran him out! Simple as that!” he said at the 2012 MCC Spirit of Cricket lecture.

Video of Greig explaining the Kallicharran incident:

Greig’s love-affair with the West Indies did not end there. Two years later, when the Windies toured England in 1976-77 following a disastrous tour of Australia which they lost 1-5, Greig told the BBC prior to the start of the series that he intended to “make them grovel“. However harmless Greig later pleaded the remark to be, coming from a white South African, it obviously had different connotations with the West Indies players and public alike. Greig apologised and even appeared on radio, saying, “I’m a press-man’s dream. If you talk to me long enough I will say something controversial. I am bound to offend someone and get myself into deep water. ‘Grovel’ was simply an instance of that.” But the damage was done.

The last straw, however, was Greig’s signing a deal with Kerry Packer’s revolutionary World Series Cricket in the late seventies and drawing a lot of English, Australian and West Indian players to it. It was a move that cost him his captaincy and eventually, a place in the England side. Incidentally, it was Packer who first gave Greig his first go at commentary in the eighties.

It was this second innings of Greig’s illustrious cricketing career – in the confines of the commentary box – that the big man earned much of his fame and repute, at least for people like me who grew up in the nineties. Greig was a man who would easily figure in every cricket aficionado’s top-five commentators list. An astute cricketer and captain in his playing days, Greig carried forward that trait into his commentary and, eventually, into his writing through blogs and tweets.

However, Greig was a perennial controversy’s child. Never someone to shy away from speaking up for himself nor the game, Greig courted controversy again during the last few years of his life as he spoke up against the BCCI’s rule over the game and conversion of cricket into a money-making venture (read IPL). He was severely criticised: with people calling him jealous of India’s prowess in world cricket in the last decade and branding him a hypocrite, having propagated World Series Cricket himself during his playing career, but Greig defended his words to the grave.

It wasn’t that he was a hated cricketer in the subcontinent. During the 1976-77 tour of India, which England won handsomely, Greig the captain won a lot of followers as he embarked upon victory laps around the stadia with his team. Greig’s successor to English captaincy, Mike Brearley, wrote in his book The Art of Captaincy, “Greig understood pageantry. The vast crowds in India in 1976-77 responded adoringly to his simple idea of having his team, resplendent in orange-and-yellow-trimmed blazers, salute all sections of the stadium shortly before each Test began. We even did a lap of honour after the Calcutta Test, a popular gesture despite the home team’s defeat by ten wickets.”

Thus was the enigma that was Tony Greig. As David Tossell succinctly put it in his biography, Tony Greig: A Reappraisal of English Cricket, “As a player, a personality and even now as a commentator, he has always managed to polarise opinion…He seemed to spend half his career winning approval for his deeds and the other half trying to explain them away. For every act that elevated him there was one that led him down the path of apology and self-justification. But whether it was charming his fans in India, thumbing his nose at Lillee, talking himself into trouble against the West Indies, holding England’s fragile team together or ‘buggering up Britain’, he was never less than the most compelling of characters.”

Tossell isn’t the only one who said that Greig was a misunderstood character. Mike Atherton, one of the finest thinkers and writers in the game, wrote in 2009, “Greig remains one of the most underrated England cricketers of the post-war period“. Alec Bedser, who was responsible for giving Greig the England captaincy and repented it later, said, “The enigma of Tony Greig’s many-sided character will no doubt fascinate future generations as much as it has puzzled his contemporaries.”

Puzzled it has and fascinate it will. Tony Greig was a fantastic cricketer, person and entertainer. He had that special something about him that set him apart from the rest, be it in his cricket or his commentary. If there are better words than Bedser’s that describe the life of Tony Greig, they are these:

“You need talent, but you need more than that. You need this special thing that some people have which makes them play above themselves; a little better than you perceive they should be, based on talent alone. You need to relish confrontation. I adored backs-to-the-wall situations.”

No prizes as to guessing who said them.

Whattaplaya!

Read all related stories to demise of Tony Grieg

(Jaideep Vaidya is a multiple sports buff and writer at Cricket Country. He has a B.E. in Electronics Engineering, but that isn’t fooling anybody. He started writing on sports during his engineering course and fell in love with it. The best day of his life came on April 24, 1998, when he witnessed birthday boy Sachin Tendulkar pummel a Shane Warne-speared Aussie attack from the stands during the Sharjah Cup Final. A diehard Manchester United fan, you can follow him on Twitter @jaideepvaidya. He also writes a sports blog - The Mullygrubber )

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