London: Tony Greig, who died in Sydney on Saturday, was one of the finest — and most controversial — cricketers to represent England.
At 6ft 7in, blond and full of vitality, he was an outstanding figure in the 1970s. He also captained England in 14 Tests and his tour of India in 1976-77 was as successful as any England have had in Asia, including this winter, though his three victories there were the only Tests he won as captain.
He was also an adventurer, and the first of several South Africans who took advantage of what English cricket had to offer, before moving on to Australia as soon as more lucrative opportunities offered. He not only signed up for World Series Cricket when he was the England captain, but used his position to act as the main recruiting agent for Kerry Packer and WSC.
However, even when he acted with disdain for the traditions of old-fashioned English cricket, he did so with such vitality that many of his fiercest critics were disarmed. This characteristic, of using his exceptional reach and grabbing any opportunity with both hands, like a ball edged into the slips, was manifest from an early age.
He grew up playing sport at Queen’s College in Queenstown, where the cricket professional was Mike Buss, who also played for Sussex. Greig, having played a first-class match for Border, secured a summer’s contract at Sussex with Buss’s help in 1966. He also took advantage of the fact that his father had been born in Scotland, before emigrating to South Africa and becoming prominent in the air force.
Greig was to see no contradiction or inconsistency in his position. In his autobiography, published in 1980, he said: “Children in South Africa have to do very little for themselves. White families such as ours have servants doing all the menial household chores, and it was unheard of, for instance, for me or my sisters to have to do the washing-up.”
But he was not going to pay the collective price for apartheid, of isolation, in return for these privileges. Exempted from national service in South Africa, he seized the chance to emigrate and play professional cricket — not an option in his native country, before Packer and WSC made their global impact with his material help.
He was never a great cricketer but always a great competitor, and his cover-drive illuminated one of England’s less colourful eras. On his championship debut on 1967 he scored 156 not out against a Lancashire attack containing three England seamers. He averaged 40 for England with the bat, against 31 in first-class cricket overall.
Selected for England in 1970 to play against the Rest of the World, when South Africa’s tour was abandoned, he again rose to the challenge with the bat, but his seam bowling was considered too erratic (he bowled some offcutters too), so he did not win a full England cap until 1972. Rapidly he became an integral member of the England team, forming its spine with Alan Knott at No. 6-7.
But his keenness to take advantage of situations almost led to a riot during the Trinidad Test in early 1974, when he ran out Alvin Kallicharran, who started walking to the pavilion after the last ball of the day (the appeal was withdrawn and Kallicharran reinstated overnight). Yet he became a media favourite because of his openness, and — already captain of Sussex — the heir apparent to Mike Denness.
When England were torpedoed by Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson in 1974-5, Greig stood tall to make a brilliant century in Brisbane where, typically, he signalled a four himself after one stroke, to wind up the whole of Australia.
After becoming captain during the 1975 Ashes series in England, Greig — always good for a quote — said he would make the 1976 West Indian side ‘grovel’. Clive Lloyd’s team, blessed with fast bowlers, were keen to make a statement on behalf of the Afro-Caribbean community in Britain — and a white South African helped to bring out their best. But fair play, after West Indies won 3-0, Greig knelt down at the Oval and did a quick grovel to acknowledge his mistake.
Greig’s finest hour was as an inspirational leader in India in 1976-77. The showman in him knew how to get Indian crowds on side. He became a brilliant silly point on that tour, as well as second slip, and made one of England’s most disciplined centuries when he had a fever in Calcutta, 103 in seven hours.
His signing for Packer while captain of England has to be judged in the time’s context. Since childhood he had suffered from epilepsy, but it was kept secret — even when he collapsed at Heathrow in March 1975, the media agreed to keep the story quiet, in those pre-Twitter days. Trust still existed.
So when Greig led England in the Centenary Test in Melbourne two years later, and simultaneously negotiated with Packer to become his main recruiter, it was widely felt that he was abusing the trust vested in him, and he did use the England captaincy to influence the biggest names outside Australia to sign for Packer. He tried to justify his position by saying: “I have sacrificed cricket’s most coveted job for a cause, which I believe could be in the interests of cricket the world over.”
And WSC prompted many beneficial changes in established cricket: notably year-round contracts, ie. professionalisation. But these consequences were not Greig’s primary motive in signing for Packer. He was guaranteed a job for life as a cricket commentator on Packer’s Channel Nine after WSC closed down. Again his vitality was to the fore as he stuck car keys into a pitch to illustrate its moisture, or captured the day’s excitements. Most impressive though was the interview he gave in November, before undergoing an operation, for the dignity he radiated, along with the last of his vitality.
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2013