Think Tony Greig, think Kerry Packer. The two names are indelibly linked. Yet there is another link in this chain that can easily be forgotten.
Why was Greig, who died on Saturday at the age of 66, sought out by Packer to be at the forefront of World Series Cricket in 1977? Because he was one of the most charismatic and gifted cricketers on the planet.
Packer's intervention, which was regarded by many as a cataclysm at the time, has tended to dwarf just how good a cricketer Greig was. In the end the figures don't lie. In 58 Tests for England – and there obviously could have been many more – Greig scored 3,599 runs at 40 and took 141 wickets at 32, which does not compare too badly with Ian Botham (5,200 runs at 33 and 383 wickets at 28) or Andrew Flintoff (3,845 at 31, 226 at 32).
Somehow it is a surprise that we should find him in this same bracket as Botham and Flintoff. He was surely too gangly to be a great batsman and his bowling too bland to trouble Test players. But behind the bluster here was an intelligent, streetwise cricketer at his most formidable when the challenge was at its most extreme.
When he scored a brilliant hundred at the Gabba on the 1974-75 tour of Australia he signalled his own boundaries off Dennis Lillee. This was a provocative act, not always appreciated by his colleagues ("Please don't make him mad," pleaded Derek Underwood at the other end). My guess is that Greig's histrionics did indeed rile Lillee somewhat (actually there is not much guesswork involved here); they made Lillee bowl shorter; they made him lose control. This was brilliant theatre from Greig; it was also shrewd tactics.
In Calcutta, in 1976, Greig was capable of scoring a seven-hour hundred at a strike rate way below the norm for Jonathan Trott while keeping 80,000 spectators entertained in the process. Greig wooed the Indians; they loved it when he fell to the ground poleaxed after a firecracker had been let off. Such adulation eased the path of his team around the subcontinent. Under his leadership that series was won 3-1.
Greig could bat all right. And he was a successful bowler, but more through force of personality than any intrinsic venom. He could swing the ball and, even though he did not make full use of his height, the odd delivery would bounce more than expected. But it was when he improvised with his off-breaks that he had the most remarkable success. In Port of Spain in March 1974 he took 13 wickets and therefore contrived to square a series against West Indies that England seemed bound to lose. Geoffrey Boycott scored 211 runs in that match and wryly observed that he and Greig had kept Mike Denness in his job as England captain.
But by 1975 Greig had taken over from Denness and he would captain England 14 times. Ask any of his team-mates and they speak of an inspirational captain. None of them has a bad word to say about him and the testament of a dressing room is as reliable as it gets. Of course Greig could raise hackles. There was the run-out of Alvin Kallicharran in Trinidad, which might have terminated that tour of 1973-74 rather abruptly if the diplomats had not got to work overnight.
There was the "grovel" remark, a rare occasion when Greig's PR had disastrous consequences. In half a sentence he managed to galvanise West Indies' tourists of 1976 to even greater resolve. Usually Greig manipulated the press brilliantly. He never shied away from a microphone and he could dictate the news agenda with easy charm. He understood how the media operated and how they could be used to his advantage far better than the current England setup.
And, of course, there was Packer. It took balls to forsake the England captaincy and to take on the establishment, but it was already apparent from his exploits on a cricket field that he had big ones. Greig often protested that he enlisted with World Series Cricket for the greater good. He was also candid enough to admit that he was able to secure his family's future by taking the plunge and aligning with Packer. He procured a job for life with Channel Nine in Australia and younger cricket fans will be more familiar with Greig's ever-enthusiastic commentary than his swaggering strokeplay.
In England he was branded a traitor. The venom seeped from the MCC establishment. In their eyes Greig's decision to join Packer was far worse than any subsequent defection by England cricketers on a South African rebel tour. Even though it transpired that the "Packer Circus" did not precipitate the end of the cricketing world after all, Greig was ostracised for decades.
There was a homecoming of sorts in the summer of 2012 when he was invited by the MCC to give their Spirit of Cricket Cowdrey Lecture at Lord's. This was the last time I saw him.
He looked a little shackled by the format but he was clearly thrilled to be asked. He delivered a carefully chiselled speech, reading every word. But afterwards there was a forum conducted by Mark Nicholas. Once the question-and-answer session was under way Greig was at his best: instinctive, mischievous, funny, outspoken, enlightening and always engaging.
Greig was different to the run-of-the-mill professional. He was not just a better player than most; he was braver; he operated on a different level, fascinated by successful men beyond cricket; obviously he was prepared to challenge the status quo in a manner that most would never dare. Yet he was never aloof.
I made my debut in first-class cricket against his Sussex side in the Parks in April 1975 (I dropped him and he made a century, as it happens). More importantly I recall this Adonis of the cricketing world, who had just returned from Australia, a battered hero but one who would soon accede to the England captaincy. And I remember how he made time to chat away freely to us young, inconsequential students as if we were proper cricketers. That impressed us as much as the runs, the wickets and the golden locks.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
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