Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Tony Greig

I started a post about Tony Greig a while ago, but held it back when I discovered that David Tossell had written a biography of Greig that made my point at greater length: that people had forgotten what a top-class cricketer Tony Greig was. The intention was to get hold of the book and turn my piece into a review. News of Greig’s death – ever the showman, between the Melbourne and Sydney Tests – means that now is the time to finish it.

Many of the obituaries have – at last – set out the case for Greig the player, as well as giving him the kudos he deserves for his role in liberating the game from aristocratic cricket governance. Even so, Tony Greig is rarely mentioned when the great all-rounders are being discussed, even though he absolutely deserves to be. Why not?

His involvement in the creation World Series Cricket is central to the answer. Use of the language of the time to describe his role in the events that tore the cricket world asunder in May 1977 will illustrate the scale of the opprobrium that was heaped upon Greig then and suggest why its effects have continued to have an unjustly deleterious effect on his reputation ever since.

He was Kerry Packer’s “recruiting agent”, cricket’s “Quisling”, “tempting”, “seducing” even, his teammates into “disloyalty” and “desertion” in favour of Packer’s “pirates/rebels/circus”. John Woodcock wrote that Greig’s problem was that he was “not English through and through”, quite the silliest thing that great cricket writer ever wrote.

It may astonish those unfamiliar with these events that Greig’s role did not involve the secreting of barrels of gunpowder under the Long Room at Lord’s, nor the planning of the assassination of the President of MCC, but merely the promotion of an opportunity for under-rewarded cricketers to earn more for playing the game. Even though the traditionalists’ view of World Series Cricket has been the subject of revisionism that has exposed it to the ridicule it so clearly warrants, Tony Greig’s enduring association with it has continued to draw attention away from his fine playing record.

Then there was the fact that nobody ever said “when will there be another Tony Greig?” after he left international cricket in 1977, because as Greig exited, Ian Botham entered, a ready-made replacement, an improvement even. Yet comparison of Greig’s record with that of Botham is instructive. For a start, Greig’s Test batting average is 40.43, Botham’s 33.54. Greig scored 50 or more every 3.32 innings, Botham every 4.47 innings. Of course, Botham batted with wonderful panache and daring, but if he was Errol Flynn, Greig was at least Douglas Fairbanks Junior, as those of us who saw the highlights of him slicing Lillee and Thomson through gully and over the slips at the Gabba in 1974 will tell you (nobody in today’s sports-channel era could conceive of how exciting it was to watch those nightly half-hour highlights packages, a glimpse of the sharp light of the Australian summer bringing relief from the December drabness of the old country). Or, once more in adversity, at Headingley in 1976, centuries for Greig and Knott against Roberts, Holding and Daniel (and an unbeaten 76 leading an unsuccessful run chase in the second innings).

Greig the batsman relished the challenge of intimidating bowling and raised his game against the best, as great players do. In contrast, Botham’s batting average against the West Indies, the titans of his time, was 21.40.

This is not to denigrate Botham, a truly great player, first choice for All-time England XI (well, maybe second, after Alan Knott). Botham is a street ahead of Greig—and everybody else—as a bowler. But Greig was a fine bowler too with 141 Test wickets at 32.20, mostly from medium fast deliveries bowled from a loping, angular delivery, but with the ability to switch to off cutters, as he famously did to win a Test at Port-of-Spain in 1974.

Nor should it be forgotten that Greig was only 30 when he played his last Test, his best years, particularly as a batsman, still ahead of him. Had he continued into the the early eighties, he would have been bracketed with Botham, Hadlee, Imran Khan and Kapil Dev as a totem of the era of the all-rounders. We never saw the second half of his international career.

The third reason why Greig the cricketer has been overlooked is that he was, for more than three decades, one of cricket’s most irritating commentators: “Got ‘im!”, “Goodnight Charlie!”, “It went like a tracer bullet!” etc. He was always long on exuberance and short on analysis. Some would say that the same applied to his captaincy, but it should not be forgotten he was the first England captain since Jardine—and one of only four in total[i]—to lead his team to a Test series victory in India.

The case for the prosecution would conclude with his famous “I intend to make them grovel” remark in advance of the 1976 series against the West Indies. As I have written elsewhere[ii], for any England captain that would have been an unfortunate and poorly judged remark; for one with Greig’s harsh South African accent at the height of Apartheid it was inflammatory. Yet that apart, Greig’s record on racial issues is unblemished. Some of the obituaries say that Greig’s family was anti-Apartheid. It should be remembered that, unlike Allan Lamb, Chris and Robin Smith et al, Greig aligned himself with England before it became clear that South Africa was out of the international game long-term. He made his debut in the wonderful, neglected, series against the Rest of the World XI in which replaced the cancelled South Africa tour in 1970 (those games were regarded as Tests at the time, but are not so now; it was a fantastic series, and I must write about it).

One personal memory from 1976. Kent were drawn at home to Sussex in the second round of the Gillette Cup: http://cricketarchive.com/Archive/Scorecards/36/36340.html. We won the other two one-day trophies that season, but were bundled out of the 60-over competition by a brilliant all-round performance by Tony Greig, whose 62 and three for 45 were the best batting and bowling of the game (he took three catches too). This against the best side in the country. He was quite brilliant. Nobody who saw him that day could doubt that Tony Greig was a great cricketer.

[i] Gower and Cook are the other two.
[ii] http://mylifeincricketscorecards.blogspot.co.nz/2011/08/fire-in-babylon.html

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