Tony Greig: 'I'd love to have come clean straightaway. Then nobody could have criticised me'

Return of the golden one - The man whose pact with Packer tore the game apart is still seeking rightful recognition

Like all human gods, naturally, he had feet of clay for which impediment he reaped the whirlwind, some of it self- provoked, much whipped up by lesser mortals. His epic story has come pouring back this summer, partly because he is back in the country to commentate for Channel 4 on the Ashes series, partly because another boy from South Africa has come to bless English cricket with his presence.

The early evidence is that Kevin Pietersen will be as fêted as was Greig throughout much of the Seventies, forcing his way into our affections by dint of huge personality and performance to match. It is almost impossible to overestimate Greig's status that late July summer day in 1975, not least when he led England out of another dreadful hole with a barnstorming 96, accompanied by David Steele, the grey county veteran whom the new captain had insisted on calling up.

Fourteen Tests as captain and fewer than two years later it was virtually all over. He had clandestinely signed a deal with the Australian television mogul Kerry Packer to form an alternative cricketing competition known as World Series Cricket, aka the Packer Circus. He had personally recruited many of the world's leading stars. All hell broke loose. Greig was held to be a traitor, and that was if people were being kind. It was said disgracefully that his epilepsy, caused in a car accident when he was 12, might have affected his decision making. Court cases ensued. WSC, Packer and Greig won hands down.

Paradoxically, he was never the same player. Divine intervention, they muttered at the MCC. Greig does not cut quite so dashing a figure at 57. There is a slight stoop where once he was ramrod straight, though perhaps you can afford it when you are 6ft 7in tall; a bald pate has replaced the golden strands. But he is still tremendously engaging, enthusiastic, open and forgiving.

It is too often forgotten perhaps because of the passage of time, perhaps because another great all-rounder came along, perhaps because people choose to forget, what a great cricketer Greig was: Test batting average 40, bowling average 32, 87 catches from 58 matches. He came to England in 1966 having been brought up in Queenstown in South Africa's Border province. He was a swashbuckling batsman who in the dark English winter of 1974-75 scored a blazing hundred against the force of Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson.

He was a fast medium bowler who also delivered high bouncing off spin, taking 13 for 156 in a match against a hostile West Indies team which England won by 26 runs. He was a slip catcher nonpareil and he possessed abundant charisma. He knew how to play to the crowds. Oh, and he quite clearly loved playing, he embraced the big moment, he won big matches. But the suspicion persists that he is not quite given his due.

"Does it rankle? The truth, yes," he said. "However, I understand it. I think there has been an inclination to gloss over it probably by some of those people who say World Series should never have happened." He has been a commentator these past 20 years, as contentious as he is colourful. During the Australian summers, he works for Channel 9, who caused all the fuss in the first place. The irony should never be lost that Packer's channel, which was so spurned by the Australian Cricket Board for causing so much turmoil, is now a virtual soulmate with Cricket Australia.

This summer he has been shrewdly recruited by Channel 4, who will be seizing the opportunity to let him tell his story on the first day of the Second Test. He mentioned Packer several times during conversation, which is understandable considering both the cataclysm their alliance wrought in the cricket world and the personal influence Packer has had on Greig's life.

"Regrets? None at all." 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 the incumbent captain."

But he was an idol. "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."

And indeed they exist. Greig said then that he was doing it for professional cricketers everywhere. If he was not acting entirely altruistically the distinctly self-serving establishment was swept aside. The fact is that cricket and cricketers are in the 21st century because of the pact between Greig and Packer. One-day cricket, floodlights, players as professionals instead of serfs - all came to fruition. When the establishment had anointed Greig as England captain, they did not have Wat Tyler in mind.

Apart from Packer two other men frequently littered his recollections. He clearly respected and loved his late father Sandy, "DSO, DFC, 54 missions over Germany, geez incredible", and listened to his sound advice. "Just before I got the captaincy he advised me to look at what happened to former England captains. The path he was leading me down was that so many of them thought they were going to be captain for a lot longer than they were."

Greig was also heavily influenced by E W Swanton, cricket correspondent of the Daily Telegraph, pillar of the establishment and quasi-chairman of England's selectors. Swanton wrote up Greig all the way to the stars. Nobody felt more betrayed when Greig went to WSC. Greig still has the letter Swanton sent him. The two barely spoke afterwards, though they met a few times in the Caribbean and Greig speaks of him affectionately.

"It was so sad, I played golf with him, he gave me this incredible appetite for the history of the game. He was definitely looking for the public schoolboy who was going to be the next captain of England and there wasn't anybody around. By the way, I'm not so sure he wasn't on the right track, because the English, the way I read it at the time, want to be led by smart people."

He has had an eventful time of it. His personality will have demanded that. He was going through a divorce from his first wife ("the worst period of my life") at the same time as a former school friend was "taking me to the cleaners on the financial front". He began again. He met his wife, Vivian, and they now have two children, aged five and three, after 10 years of IVF, "the next most difficult period". He seems as happy as Larry.

He will always court controversy: the run-out of Alvin Kallicharran in Trinidad in 1973-74 almost caused a diplomatic incident, though he swiftly accepted the consequences. In 1976 he said that he would make that summer's West Indian tourists "grovel". You still cringe. Subsequently, West Indies put the frighteners on England and never really took them off for 25 years.

Greig reflected for a moment and said he had quite a few breaks in his life but two particular ones that he took made a big difference. First there was Packer and then there was Dusty Rhodes.

"It's out of left field but it was the 156 I made on my debut for Sussex. I went out to bat against Lancashire with Brian Statham bowling straight and quick and taking wickets. The umpire is Rhodes and he asks Statham who I am. He hasn't a clue but Jackie Bond, who'd come over in the boat with me, perked up from the field that I was a lad called Greig from South Africa.

"First ball is typically Statham, full, straight, flat out. He hits me on the toe, they're all up. I think I'm out lbw first ball, first match. Rhodes says no. I take a single next ball which is the same but on leg stump, I get up to the other end. Rhodes asks me if I know a Sandy Greig. I told him he was my dad and he said, 'ah, good decision'. Turned out he had been sent out to South Africa years earlier by the oil company he was working for and used to meet my dad most nights in the only pub in town to reminisce.

"If I'd have been out, who knows. As it is, it rained for two days and the press boys all came down to interview me to fill the space." That was the start of it all. He is a god no longer. But he was captain of England and his pride in that is evidently sincere.

"Bloody right. I feel highly privileged. It is the thing wherever I go, whatever I do. It is for that reason that I get an inkling of understanding why people get cheesed off. But you get it into perspective as the years go by. In the end you really are who you are, you just happened to be captain of England."

Old captain on new England: Greig's four areas of national concern

The spinner

Ashley Giles has done something with what he's got, and he's come up with a few things, like bowling his left-arm deliveries over the wicket. But I went off him when he had a go at the commentators. If he has got a problem with Geoff Boycott, then front him up. England can't, of course, call up Shane Warne and he's added something to his repertoire, a halfway house type of ball that looks as if it should be a leg spinner but goes straight on.

The opening bowlers

Harmison is a McGrath type of bowler and he may even be better. But he's got to get closer to the stumps at delivery because he's not putting any pressure on either way and I worry about his ability to maintain the rage. I see Hoggard as the stock bowler and they've got to give him the new ball to see if there's swing early on. At Lord's McGrath, with the slope, was exceptional but that won't happen again and England shouldn't get carried away.

The batting

Obviously, England need Vaughan to fire. He only got a steady place when he was 26 and it would have been handy if he'd had his bad run by then. I'd be seriously thinking of Collingwood because I like fighters. Pietersen's got that something but when he has a bad run, boy it will look awful. Australia were vulnerable, playing like millionaires and they were questioning themselves because they were going to places they hadn't been before. Probably no longer.

The fielding

The biggest worry was with Geraint Jones. I haven't yet seen him enough to go further. He dropped two catches and if you drop Gilchrist like that, it's trouble. The diving one to his right, his left hand didn't move when a keeper's gloves should work as a unit, you go with two gloves together. I know that Duncan Fletcher has fallen out with Rod Marsh over it. So much can come from the wicketkeeping. In the West Indies last year, Chris Read was doing all right.

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