Tony Greig: All-rounder who courted controversy

Greig: A cricketing pioneer whose legacy on the sport's development cannot be underestimated. Picture: Getty
Greig: A cricketing pioneer whose legacy on the sport's development cannot be underestimated. Picture: Getty
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TONY Greig ended his England Test cricket career with figures that indicated a highly accomplished all-rounder – 58 matches (14 as captain), 3,599 runs at an average of 40.43, eight centuries, 141 wickets at 32.20.

However, it is his role as one of Australian mogul Kerry Packer’s key lieutenants in the seismic breakaway World Series Cricket of the late 1970s that marks him out as a towering figure who laid the foundations for cricket’s advance into the modern age.

In these days of IPL auctions and millionaire cricketing celebrities such as Shane Warne and Kevin Pietersen, not to mention the demi-gods of the subcontinent, it is worth recalling that it was only after the World Series split between 1977 and 1979 and in its aftermath that most players could pursue a full-time career at the top level of cricket.

Greig, who died at the age of 66 from a heart attack at his Sydney home yesterday, after being diagnosed with lung cancer in October, was one of the first leading overseas players to sign for Packer, who wanted access to cricket broadcasting rights for his commercial Nine network in Australia.

In return the magnate promised Greig “a job for life”, a promise that was kept, as he was an ever-present member of the Nine cricket commentary team until shortly before his death.

World Series Cricket popularised limited-overs, floodlit night matches, coloured uniforms and white balls, but for Greig the key was about giving the players a “fair shake”. He delivered the annual MCC Spirit of Cricket Cowdrey Lecture in June this year and said: “I couldn’t understand why we were only paid £210 a Test when we were playing in front of packed houses. The psyche of the administrators, the vast majority of whom I regarded as good friends, was that the honour of playing for England was enough – money shouldn’t be a consideration. Consequently, I couldn’t see an end to the game under-selling itself and there appeared to be no hope of expanding the revenue base for Test and county players alike, unless there was a revolution, or at least a big upheaval.”

A big upheaval there certainly was, as Greig lost the captaincy and never played for England again, but the received wisdom now is that it was a revolution the sport had to have.

Greig was a larger-than-life character, a burly 6ft 6in blond from the Cape Province in South Africa. He was scouted by Sussex and left for England in 1966, where he set himself the target of making the Test team within six years. He managed it in four. Greig qualified through his Scottish father under the agreement that allows England to select from the entire British Isles and provide a route to the highest international level for talent emerging from the Celtic fringe. Indeed, when Greig rose to the captaincy in 1975 it was another Scot, Mike Denness, he replaced.

Greig and controversy were never far apart and on the West Indies tour in 1974 he ran out Alvin Kallicharran while the batsman was walking back to the pavilion after the last ball of the day had been bowled.

Technically Kallicharran was out as the umpire had not yet indicated play had officially ended, but after spectators invaded the ground and threatened to riot, the batsman was recalled.

Later that year on the Ashes tour of Australia, Greig sometimes seemed to be playing the Australians on his own as Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson blitzed the hapless England batsmen with their pace, menace and bounce. He was promoted to the captaincy in the following year after England lost the first Ashes Test at home and immediately infused his own aggression and determination into the team, who drew the next three Tests against one of the strongest sides in history.

Greig attracted further unwanted controversy before a series against West Indies when he said he intended to make the tourists “grovel”, a statement made in the strong South African accent that never left him which struck an uncomfortable chord.

Following his WSC foray, Greig settled in Australia and became part of the fabric of the sporting summers there. His death moved the Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard to remark: “Greig’s standing in the game is matched by very few others.’’

Long-time colleague Richie Benaud said: “I found him a fellow full of courage; that was before he was ill. He was full of courage because of many things that had happened to him in his cricket life and his outside life as well. It’s one of those things where we know this was inevitable but there’s always a sadness when you see a good friend go.’’