Evaluating Tony Greig: Inspirational Leader and Much More

Michael Atherton, in The Times and The Australian

Tony GreigMIKE Selvey, the former England bowler who is now cricket correspondent of The Guardian, called Tony Greig the most inspirational captain he had played under — quite a compliment when you consider that Selvey played most of his county career at Middlesex under Mike Brearley, widely considered to be the best England captain of modern times.  It takes all types, of course, but if the character of England captains could be measured on a scale, then Brearley and Greig would be at opposite ends of it. Brearley: bookish, thoughtful, measured — albeit with a volcanic temper — and apt to winkle the best out of people by psychological assessment. Greig: brash and colourful with a preference for dragging players with him by the force of his personality.

In the 33 years that Greig fashioned himself into something of the voice of cricket for the Nine Network in Australia and the subcontinent, where they preferred his over-the-top style and gimmickry to Richie Benaud’s cool dispassion it is sometimes forgotten just what an outstanding cricketer he was. Captain, swashbuckler, medium pacer, fast off spinners, brilliant close catcher, there was little on the field that Greig could not turn his hand to with skill and style and success.

“Fearless” is a word that has been used in many of the tributes paid over the weekend, particularly by Dennis Lillee, to whom Greig squared up in that iconic Ashes battle of 1974-75. If there was one series that ushered in the modern game, then it would have been this one, the savagery of which compelled a move to protective headgear thereafter. Clive Lloyd’s West Indies were put through the mill the next summer, prompting a rethink and subsequent decision to challenge teams through fear.

This was a macho world — big hair, big moustaches, cigarettes, booze and no sun-block — in which Greig was entirely at home.

It is hard for the modern cricketer, swaddled in protective gear since childhood, to appreciate that, in Greig’s era, raw courage was a crucial ingredient of success. No modern batsman knows what it is like to stand at the crease in the knowledge that one small mistake could kill you.

“Ashes to Ashes, dust to dust, if Lillee don’t get you, Thommo must” was rammed down the throat of every England batsman during that 1974-75 Australian summer. More bones were broken in that series than in the Bodyline Tests four decades earlier, and the barracking from the edge was uglier, too. Amid the wreckage of the first Test in Brisbane, Greig stood tall with a mighty hundred.

He refused to be intimidated and even went out of his way to wind up Lillee, signalling boundaries himself, a red rag to Lillee’s bull. There was cricketing intelligence behind the matador’s apparent suicide, though, as Lillee bowled shorter and faster, and Greig, against convention, stayed inside the line of the ball (rather than getting behind the line, as the coaching manual dictated) and carved away through the off side.

This fearlessness, and refusal to be intimidated, was never more needed three years later when he decided to throw in his lot with Kerry Packer’s World Series revolution. It was a move that alienated many observers in England — including The Times’s cricket correspondent John Woodcock, who wrote that giving up the national captaincy was easier for someone who was clearly not an Englishman “through and through”.

Of all the gibes, this was the one that Greig found hardest to ignore — and to forgive. What he never regretted though was his decision. For sure, it was a move that made him financially secure for good, tying himself to Packer’s raft so that there was never any danger of submerging in later life. But every cricketer who has made even a half-decent living from the game since then owes Greig and his contemporaries a debt of gratitude for the battle won against the rapacious administrators of three decades ago.

Give the recent hosannas thrown in the path of Alastair Cook’s conquering tourists, it is worth recalling Greig’s India tour of 1976-77, which remains among his most brilliant achievements. England won the first three Tests by margins of an innings and 25 runs, 10 wickets and 200 runs — this at a time when touring India was a hardship posting rather than an exercise in brand-building.

Greig’s flair and feel for the media was highlighted on that tour when he seduced the crowds as expertly as could any local snake charmer. Indian umpires were just one of many roadblocks between a touring team and success, and Greig shrewdly used the pulpit to neutralise the threat by praising them publicly whenever he could, and the crowds loved it when he feigned injury by falling prostrate in the middle when a firecracker went off in Kolkata.

Although occasionally he was apt to misread the mood — most famously in 1976 when he said he would make Lloyd’s West Indians “grovel” — it came as no surprise that his post-playing career came at the microphone and in television. He was made for it.

But if this last role is how he will be remembered by a generation that never saw him play, then it has been deliberately underplayed here. The controversy that ended his international career meant that his playing achievements have been wrongfully understated ever since. After 58 Tests, the differential between his batting and bowling average, for example, remains greater than either Ian Botham’s or Andrew Flintoff’s.

But he was not easily forgiven for his dalliance with Packer, although there was a homecoming of sorts in the summer when he delivered the MCC’s Cowdrey lecture. The recent OBE awarded to Mike Denness, Greig’s predecessor as England captain, means that of all the men who have captained England with any longevity since then, only Greig had not received any official recognition, reflecting his outsider status.

For a long time that is how he liked it, but more recently, with his second, young family came a mellowing. It cannot be rectified now.

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