Tony Greig: From showman to pariah – and a blond god

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After all the furore over his involvement in the Packer Affair it is easy to forget his talents

Tony Greig changed cricket forever. As the captain of England, his startling alliance with an Australian TV mogul provoked a revolution which transformed the way the game was played and dragged its players out of a form of legalised serfdom.

The formation of World Series Cricket in 1977 came to define the rest of Greig's life. In the long aftermath, the effects of which are still being felt, it was easily overlooked what a considerable performer and inspirational figure he was.

After signing up with the boss of Australia's Channel 9, Kerry Packer, he also became his chief recruiting agent. Forgiveness by the establishment was a long time in coming, and when Greig died yesterday at the age of 66 after a heart attack, having being diagnosed with lung cancer two months ago, there were probably still those who bore a grudge.

Somehow, he never quite received his due, and in some quarters the feeling continued to exist that he was therefore being accorded his just deserts. There was at least a sense of closure when he delivered, stirringly, the annual Sprit of Cricket lecture at Lord's last summer, though there was never the remotest chance of his appearing in an honours list.

If altruism on behalf of his fellow players was not his sole objective in embracing WSC, it was, as he always maintained, a significant by-product. Packer's Circus, as it came derisively to be known, was born because Packer was understandably miffed at being denied a chance to bid for Australian cricket's broadcasting rights, though he was prepared to offer significantly more than the rival Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

The opprobrium heaped on Greig when WSC was revealed in May 1977 was fuelled by a sense of betrayal but aggravated by the timing, his position as captain, his status among the public and not least the fact that he was born and educated in South Africa. Greig had been appointed as England captain two years earlier, and it is difficult to overstate his stardom. He was charismatic, candid and controversial. There had already been incidents which typified his competitive streak, but his persuasive charm put him on a pedestal which, at 6ft 7in topped off with a mane of fair hair, he hardly needed.

While he seemed to court controversy he also overcame it. There had been the running-out of West Indies' Alvin Kallicharran after the last ball of the day in Trinidad in 1974; the bravura inflammatory approach before the fury of Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson in Brisbane in 1975 as he scored a defiant century; and the declaration that he intended to make West Indies grovel in 1976.

When he took England to the Centenary Test in Melbourne early in 1977 he had just orchestrated a wonderful Test series victory in India and proved hugely popular with the crowds. He was a showman who instinctively knew what the public wanted. If he had feet of clay, he was still a blond god. The Centenary Test was a triumph. England lost by 45 runs but Greig made sure that his side kept chasing until the end. It seemed to be an affirmation of all the old virtues. Yet days after its conclusion, Greig flew to Sydney for his first fateful meeting with Packer. He had no clue of what was being offered until Packer said he would like him to lead a World XI in his proposed tournament for A$90,000 (around £60,000) over three years.

In 2005, when interviewed by me for this newspaper, he looked back again on that tumultuous period. "Regrets? None at all," he said. A pause. "No, one. I would have loved to have come clean straightaway. Then nobody could have criticised me. Basically the criticism was that I was recruiting players while I was the incumbent captain."

But he was an idol, surely? "Yes, earning £1,200 for playing five Test matches in front of full houses. Sorry, I'm not impressed. If you want the reason, there it is, purely financial. I was 30 with a young family.

"But it's been a wonderful journey for me and, coming back to England, if I've got to cop a bit of flak from people it will never get anywhere near to the pluses that came about because of what I did. Look at the quotes, old boy."

Indubitably so. Cricketers were paid properly because of Packer and Greig's intervention and the advance of floodlights, coloured clothing and one-day cricket, the introduction of razzmatazz, the exponential improvement in televised cricket, were all down to the Circus. Greig's own WSC performances were poor, perhaps because of the sheer weight of responsibility. For the last 30 years or so, he became an accomplished commentator. Packer, the broadcasting rights long since acquired, never forgot the debt he owed.

His views were marked by frankness and enthusiasm. In the early days the expression "Goodnight Charlie" at the fall of a wicket became a trademark. He became a confidant of several modern players and Michael Clarke, the present captain of Australia, readily acknowledges the debt he owes Greig for his advice and wisdom.

Greig deserves full restoration as a cricketer. He averaged 40 with the bat and 32 with the ball for England in 58 Tests. But it was the thrilling effect he had as much as anything else that lingers in the memory.

That innings at Brisbane in November 1974 personified him. England were up against it, discovering the menace posed by the sheer pace of Thomson and Lillee. Greig stood there and delivered, his blade flashing through the radio commentary all these years later.

He drove on the up, using his great height, slashed deliberately over the slips and accompanied many of his 17 fours in an innings of 110 with a boundary signal designed to annoy the bowler – and succeeding. He was a blond god.

The great all-rounder

Batting

Matches/Runs/Ave

Tests 58/3,599/40.43

ODIs 22/269/16.81

First-class 350/16,660/31.19

Highest scores

Tests 148 (v India, 1972-73)

ODIs 48 (v West Indies, 1973)

First-class 226 (Sussex v Warwickshire, 1975)

Bowling

Matches/Wkts/Ave

Tests 58/141/32.20

ODIs 22/19/32.57

First-class 350/856 28.85

Best bowling

Tests 8-86 (v West Indies, 1973-74)

ODIs 4-45 (v New Zealand, 1975)

First-class 8-25 (Sussex v Gloucestershire, 1967)

Catches made Tests 87; ODIs 7; First-class: 345

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