Allan Massie: Tony Greig was a Scots sporting great

Tony Greig, former England captain, pictured in 1969
Tony Greig, former England captain, pictured in 1969
Have your say

TONY Greig was born in South Africa in 1946, the son of Scottish parents, his father, a wartime RAF pilot, being described by the Australian cricket writer, Gideon Haigh, as “harsh and demanding”.

He was certainly as Scottish as many who have represented Scotland in other sports, and if few would include him in an all-time England XI, he would certainly get into an all-time Scottish one. Remarkably, when he was appointed to captain England in 1975, he took over from another Scot, Mike Denness.

Greig came to England aged 19 before opposition to the apartheid regime led to South Africa’s exclusion from international cricket. Yet, had that not happened, he might have chosen to represent his native country, playing alongside Graeme and Peter Pollock, who like him were of Scots ancestry, and Barry Richards. The South African team of the middle Seventies – the Test team that never was – would have been one of the strongest in the history of the game.

Qualified for England by reason of his Scottish parents, he soon established himself in the Sussex team. Six foot seven in height, he was a powerful driver and a more than useful dual-purpose bowler, able to bowl fast-medium seam-up and slow-medium off-cutters. Because of his height he achieved unusual bounce. He was indeed a genuine all-rounder, hitting eight Test Match centuries, and taking 856 first-class wickets and 144 in Tests. In 1974 he took 8 for 86 and 5 for 70 against the West Indies, with his off-cutters, to secure an England victory, outbowling the great Derek Underwood to do so.

Comparisons between different generations of cricketers are speculative. Nevertheless, among English all-rounders since the Second World War, Greig may be ranked behind only Ian Botham and alongside Trevor Bailey and Andrew Flintoff; he was arguably the best batsman of the four. Admittedly none of his innings was quite as spectacular or game-changing as Botham’s two famous centuries against Australia in 1981, but he stood up to the most fearsome fast-bowlers, hitting 116 against Denis Lillee and Jeff Thomson at Brisbane in 1974 when Lillee was much faster than he was in 1981, and he also hit a magnificent century against the equally frightening battery of West Indian bowlers in 1976. It is unfortunate that his stupid promise, as England’s captain, that he would make the West Indies “grovel” is better remembered than the way he batted against them – bare-headed or wearing a cap in these pre-helmet days; that took courage, even if Greig’s head was higher in the air than most. That said, in his first innings after making his “grovel” promise, he was bowled by Andy Roberts for a duck.

As a captain, he was no great tactician, but led by example, notably when winning a series in India in 1976-77, one of only three England captains to succeed in doing so. That series was followed by the Centenary Test in Melbourne, during which Greig was approached by the Australian millionaire newspaper-owner Kerry Packer, who, having been rebuffed in his attempt to secure the TV rights for Test cricket in Australia, was engaged in setting up a rival tournament, World Series Cricket. Greig agreed to act as a recruiter for a Rest of the World side to play what would be unofficial Tests against Australia. Not unnaturally, the English cricket authorities took a dim view of this, and appointed Mike Brearley captain for the forthcoming Ashes series. Nevertheless Greig was selected for all five Tests, though his form dipped. He made a duck in his last Test innings at The Oval.

Cricketers since have reason to be grateful to Packer and Greig. Though the “Packer Circus” lasted only a couple of years, and came to an end when the Australian Cricket Board did a deal with Packer, it changed the game in several ways, and cricketers have been very much better paid ever since. Nevertheless this was the result, rather than the intention, of Packer’s decision to challenge the ACB, and it was understandable that many at the time thought that Greig had behaved disloyally. From his point of view he was trying to secure his future, which was uncertain for other than cricketing reasons; he had suffered from epilepsy since childhood and indeed had an epileptic fit at Heathrow in 1975, something the cricket Press knew but did not reveal.

Packer promised him a job for life, first as a cricketer and then as a TV commentator, in which role he was accounted a great success, at least in Australia where he settled and won great popularity. The present Australian captain, Michael Clarke, is one of many Australian cricketers to have spoken gratefully of the help and encouragement he offered them. Happily, peace was made last summer when he was invited to deliver the MCC Spirit of Cricket Cowdrey Lecture at Lord’s. In it he explained his motivation in signing for Packer: he was 31, knew that the England captaincy was never for the long-term, and wanted to secure his future and his family’s. Having cleared the ground, he gave a lecture affirming the traditional values of cricket, explaining where and how they were at risk, and suggesting what was necessary to meet the challenge. Four months later he was diagnosed with lung cancer, and, while preparing for chemotherapy, died of a heart attack. He will be remembered as a man with a powerful and generally winning personality, a successful broadcaster, and a very fine cricketer who at least touched greatness.