Tony Greig: Larger than life

2013-01-05 00:00

THE last days of the old year brought the sad news of the death of one of South Africa’s best-known cricket sons, Tony Greig. Unafraid and unapologetic, Greig was one of life’s buccaneers.

His talent for the game was the sword he used to carve different careers in different parts of the world at a time when he saw no future for himself in the land of his birth.

Greig was born in the Eastern Cape in 1946 and enjoyed the upbringing that in those days was the sheltered privilege of a child of middle-class white parents.

Endless games of cricket with his father and brother, Ian, in the family’s back garden saw the boys grow into fierce competitors, with talent that was further cultivated at Queens College, Queenstown, under the keen eye of Michael Buss, the former Sussex player.

Although Greig’s gift for the game was recognised by those in the Border, he realised that his ambitions were not going to be fulfilled in a country where cricket was almost certain to be stifled by a long period of isolation. There was also the small matter that Greig could see no way to get into the gifted Springbok team of the 1960s.

Buss persuaded Greig to attend a trial at Sussex. Within two weeks of the trial, Greig had scored 156 against a good Lancashire attack in his debut innings for the county and was on the road to playing for the country of his father’s birth.

He was a useful though somewhat ungainly and inaccurate medium-fast bowler and a fearless batsman who liked nothing more than confrontation with the best bowlers in the world. He possessed a fiercely competitive spirit that enabled him to make the very most of his abilities.

By the time he was finished with Test cricket, he stood in the top half-dozen of those all-rounders who had scored more than 3 000 runs and taken more than 100 wickets.

Above all, he was a larger than life character for whom life was an adventure to be savoured to the full.

Standing over two metres tall, he was physically imposing. His stature and his competitive nature enabled him to stand out in any crowd, but off the field he was unfailingly friendly and good humoured.

All those who knew him well have a fund of stories about his zest for life and his determination to live it in a style that was well above either his income or the expense account he enjoyed during his tenure with the Packer organisation.

He regarded it as an affront to his dignity if he failed to get an upgrade to the front of an aircraft. He made it his purpose to know all the important airline officials who could assist him with his quest for upgrades, and his persistence in the face of refusal was remarkable. On his first tour as captain of England, he managed to arrange upgrades for the entire team on the flight to India.

This was fully in line with his attitude that cricketers deserved to be treated and paid as top-class entertainers. He earned the gratitude of his team on that occasion, but it would not be long before all cricketers of the modern generation would also have cause to thank him.

Wherever he stayed on his travels he rarely made do with run-of-the-mill hotel rooms. He was on friendly terms with hotel managers all over the world. Well before his arrival he would arrange accommodation for himself in the best that the hotel had to offer. Those who treated him in accordance with his own high standards were often rewarded with a positive mention during one of his broadcasts on television.

He was not above using a carrot and stick in his relationships with restaurant owners. Those who gave him and his guests a free meal became firm friends, whereas those who declined to do so often found their establishments on the wrong end of his television tongue the next day as he struck them off his list of preferred eating houses.

As good as a cricketer as he was, Greig will be remembered most for his part in the Packer revolution, which paved the way for cricketers everywhere to be handsomely rewarded. At the time he was captain of England, which he regarded as “the best job in the world”. Packer wanted to obtain the television rights for cricket in Australia where the Australian Broadcasting Company had a cosy relationship with the board of control for cricket.

Packer recognised that Greig had the force of personality and drive that could enable his organisation to mount a successful rival cricket circus during the Australian summer.

To the astonishment of the cricket establishment, Greig was able to recruit enough top-class players from around the world and within Australia itself to pose a significant threat to world cricket as it existed then.

Packer eventually won his battle with the cricket board and rewarded Greig with lifelong employment.

Although he was fired from the England captaincy, Greig knew that Packer’s bargain was in the interest of his long-term security. It was a deal that he could not ignore. He duly moved to Sydney where he became one of the voices of Channel Nine and possibly the best-known television commentator in the world of cricket.

Although Greig had achieved great things in both his adopted countries, he never forgot his roots.

Whenever the Proteas were Down Under he loved to wind up the Australians by supporting South Africa.

It was always done in good spirit, however, and never diminished his popularity within Australia. He was thoroughly professional in all he did and always gave the impression that he was having the time of his life.

He would have loved to broadcast the recent series in Australia, but cancer had struck.

He was ready for the fight of his life, but his heart succumbed to the pressures of the disease.

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