Courage under Fire

tony greig 4The death of the former England captain Tony Greig this weekend at the age of 66 has been greeted by the usual round of tributes. This is to be expected and very welcome. Greig was a fine cricketer, a quirky and very engaging commentator and rather a likeable man.

What is perhaps a bit surprising for someone of my years is that the greater part of the tributes have been linked primarily to his role as a broadcaster. It is totally understandable, you cannot help when you are born. My direct memories of Richie Benaud are from his commentary and not from his illustrious playing career.

Even so, it has been a little disappointing. When I googled Tony Greig, there was very little of him playing but endless yardage of him jamming his car keys into one pitch or another or conducting some highly amusing airwave attacks on Bill Lawry or, equally, been peppered by Geoff Boycott.

All good fun but not what I was hunting because for me Tony Greig was a cricketer, first and foremost; an all-rounder, a captain, a man who, in spite of born and bred in South Africa, wore the lion on his England jersey with the pride of any Yorkshireman you may care to mention.

Tony Greig was probably my first cricket hero which makes it strange that I have no autograph.

Alan Knott and John Snow were also up there and I still have theirs, Knott’s a standard black and white photo with a marker pen signature; Snow’s is the same although this one came accompanied by a short personal letter. I must have been advised to ask him a particular question because there is a line telling me that his run-up is 15 paces. And the letter was signed as well. (I think I tried the same tactic on Steve McQueen with less spectacular results but that is another story for another time).

Distinctive and flamboyant, Greig's Test record is better than Andrew Flintoff and the equal of Ian Botham
Distinctive and flamboyant, Greig’s Test record is better than Andrew Flintoff and the equal of Ian Botham

I liked Snow and Knott but Greig was the favourite, the six foot six blonde dashing all-rounder who could take on Lillian Thomson or Roberts and Holding; who led from the front.

I got in trouble at school when I was eight or nine for including him in a short essay on English heroes alongside Horatio Nelson. Whether it was because I had spelt his name wrong – I had written Craig rather than Greig – or simply because the munificently breasted Mrs Browning thought I had undermined the good name of Nelson, I don’t know. Mrs B was certainly not amused.

I had a friend called Sunil Surana. When we played cricket together, he was always Bishen Bedi and I was Tony Craig or Greig, I forget which. I wonder what Sunil is up to these days.

Perhaps part of the romance of Greig was that he existed in an age before television recorded every senseless wide (perhaps not so senseless to those betting rings in Bombay and Bangalore) in every match of every dubious international standard around the world. Outside the English summers, he lived on the radio and in newsprint and some occasional grainy footage that may have popped up on Sportsnight when I was already in bed.

I never saw his dashing century against the Australians in Brisbane when he perfected the upper cut nor his 8-86 to topple the West Indies in Port-of-Spain – I loved the fact that like two other great all-rounders Garry Sobers and Mike Procter, he could switch his mode of bowling to suit the surface.

Perhaps the period I remember best is when he took over the England captaincy in 1975 through to his decision to join Kerry Packer two years later – with whom, of course, he helped to change the way watch cricket on television.

When he took over from Mike Denness, England were floundering in a sea of uncertainty against the unapologetic aggression of Ian Chappell’s Australians. Greig adopted what might be termed a South African rather than an English approach and decided to give it straight back to Chappell and his team. England lost the series 1-0 but might have levelled it at Headingley had it not been for the supporters of the convicted George Davis.

In 1976, came his lowest moment and, for me, his crowning triumph; both at the hands of the West Indies.

To be honest, the whole “grovel” thing passed me by a little bit. Certainly, the significance of a white South African saying that he intended to make a team of predominantly black West Indians grovel went over my head. I won’t apologise. That is how it was when I was 13.  But it became apparent during the series that he had made a significant faux pas and Clive Lloyd’s team intended to get Greig on his knees.

That 1976 series was brilliant. So much drama and much tighter than it appears now when looking at the scorecards. And the sun shone forever. England were competitive. The first two Tests were drawn, England having held the advantage at Lord’s.

Greig's 116 at Headingley was a marvellous display of composure and fighting spirit under intense pressure
Greig’s 116 at Headingley was a marvellous display of composure and fighting spirit under intense pressure

But at the heart of this summer – never mind Viv’s glorious batting or Holding with the ball – was the performance of Greig at Headingley in the fourth Test. At least it was for any English schoolboys. It was 1-0 West Indies at the time after their victory at Old Trafford in the third Test.

Greig had been in terrible form with the bat having scored 0 at Trent Bridge, 6 and 20 at Lord’s, 9 and 3 at Old Trafford; 38 runs in five innings. The West Indies have long had a policy of targetting the opposition captain and Greig was no different.

The Leeds Test got off to the worst possible start for England as the West Indies openers Roy Fredericks and Gordon Greenidge made jelly of the English bowling attack that included Snow, Bob Willis and Derek Underwood, adding 192 in just over two and a half hours. England did well in the end to bowl them out for 450.

When England slipped to 80-4, in strode Greig. His team needed an innings and he proceeded to play one. it was not his most fluent by any stretch but it was bloody-minded as they come.

His shirt collar as always turned up in the style that Eric Cantona fell in love with some 20 years later, Greig appeared to grow taller as the innings progressed, the reach of his drives infuriating the West Indian bowlers, delighting the Yorkshire crowd.

First he added 89 with Chris Balderstone and then 152 with Allan Knott. He almost ran Knott out when he went for his 100  but when he got it there was no punching the air, kissing the helmet and saluting his mates in the dressing room. There is a brief congratulations between the two batsmen and Greig raises his bat and doffs his cap. And then takes guard again.

He made 116, as did Knott. Willis responded by taking five wickets and suddenly England had the chance to square the series, set a target of 260 in the fourth innings.

At 23-3 with Steele, Hayes and Balderstone all back in the hutch, the game looked over but Bob Woolmer ground out 37 and when he went, Greig came in to join Peter Willey. Greig picked up where he left off in the first innings, peppering the bundary as he sensed the victory.

At 140-4, the match was there for England. But Holding nicked out Willey and he and Daniel worked their way through the tail. Only Greig stood firm. When Willis was the last man out and England had lost by 55 runs, Greig was still there unbeaten on 76. It was a thoroughly courageous performance.

tony greig 2
Greig always showed humour in the game and an understanding for the spirit of the game; play hard, play fair

After losing the West Indies series and self-deprecatingly gone down on his knees to grovel to them, he took England to India where he worked the crowds with his humour and in bloody-minded fashion led his team to a rare series win.

Then came Packer and World Series Cricket. He was stripped of the captaincy at the start of the 1977 season but remained a part of Mike Brearley’s Ashes-winning team. And then he was gone. From Sussex. From England. Only ever to appear again in the pyjamas of WSC and as the man in the panama for Channel 9’s cricket coverage.

I later had the good fortune to bump into him in the press box from time to time. I will not go so far as to claim that we were close buddies because we weren’t. But when we did chat he was always good-humoured and happy to converse.

tony greig 3
As a commentator, Greig was a firm favourite alongside former rival on the field Ian Chappell (centre) and Bill Lawry (right)

With some ex-Test cricketers there is a snootyness in the box towards their colleagues whose own cricket careers have not risen far above the village green. But Greigy was always very straight in that respect. In spite of his great height, he never looked down on others.

And in that respect, I will always remember him as a fine cricketer, an entertaining broadcaster and a very warm and affable human being.

©Barney Spender 2012