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The Story of Tony Greig, the Reluctant Rebel

By Andrew Murtagh

Date of publication: 20th July 2020

Pitch Publishing Ltd

In March 1977, the England cricket captain, Tony Greig, was arguably the most famous and popular sportsman in the country and the best all-rounder in world cricket. He had recently led England to a famous series victory in India, the first successful campaign on the subcontinent since the Second World War. Then he had conjured up a doughty performance from his travel-weary troops in the dramatic, one-off Centenary Test in Melbourne, narrowly losing by 45 runs. The margin of defeat improbably mirrored exactly that of the first ever Test match 100 years earlier.

Within weeks though, his reputation was in tatters. He was branded a traitor and a mercenary, stripped of the England captaincy and excluded from the national side at the conclusion of the 1977 Ashes series. (And he wouldn’t have played in that had not his successor, Mike Brearley, insisted.) He was also relieved of the Sussex captaincy and banned from first-class cricket for eight weeks. His involvement in the controversial Packer Revolution had caused his fall from grace. Soon afterwards, he left England for good for a commentary career in Australia.

It was a gloriously sunny day in the Dordogne in late summer 1991. I was sitting poolside with a chilled glass of white wine in my hand, listening to Test Match Special. At the Oval, against all the odds, Phil Tufnell was bowling the West Indians out. He finished with the figures of 6-25, “the best figures by an English spinner against West Indies since the War,” said one of the commentators. Hang on a minute, I thought to myself, what about Greigy in the West Indies in 1974? I had no Wisden to hand and this was in the days before Google, so I had to wait awhile before I could check my facts. When I did, I found that I was indeed correct. Tony Greig had taken 8-86 at Port of Spain, Trinidad, in 1974, bowling his off-spinners. Alan Knott later told me it was the finest exhibition of off-spin bowling he had ever kept to. Possibly people had forgotten that Greig, who usually bowled seam up, for a while – and very successfully – had experimented with a hybrid form of off cutters. All this in addition to his fearless batting and his electrifying fielding. Yes, Tony Greig was in danger of being forgotten as the age of the great all-rounders, Botham, Kapil, Hadlee and Imran, came into full bloom. But look at Greig’s record in Test cricket. It stands comparison with any of those four. High time I thought, that his stature and reputation underwent a reappraisal.

In this country at least, it was probably a case of out of sight, out of mind. He had abandoned these shores to live and work in Australia. What do you expect, said the cynics, he never was really English. This used to upset him. My father, he would say, was a decorated war hero. Which country was he fighting to defend? One of the great pleasures of writing this book was unearthing the career of Squadron Leader Alexander Broom (Sandy) Greig, DSO, DFC, who flew in 54 missions over Germany – and survived. Just to put this into context. The casualty rate of bomber crews was horrific. One out of six crewmen survived a ‘tour’ of 30 missions; one out of forty survived two ‘tours’ of 60 missions. It was from this rock that Tony Greig was hewn.

Of course it was the controversy surrounding the Packer Revolution of the late 1970s for which Greig is most associated. The details of how and why Kerry Packer signed 40 of the world’s leading players to play in the rebel World Series Cricket do not concern us here - though the unravelling of fact from fiction was an intriguing business – but Packer knew instinctively from the outset that Tony Greig was integral to his cause. Greig was a natural leader and communicator, he understood the importance of good PR, he was an assertive and positive captain and at 6 foot 7 inches, with a mop of blond hair and a toothsome smile, he was probably the most instantly recognised cricketer in the world.

So why did Greig sign? He knew what he was giving up. He felt sure he would be relieved of the England captaincy, a job that he cherished and felt he was rather good at, but he was not expecting the public opprobrium that came his way. He thought the British public would understand. “Look,” he said, “I am always only a couple of bad results away from being sacked, as have been my immediate predecessors (Close, Cowdrey, Denness) and there’s a young bloke called Botham who will soon take my place. I’m doing this for the financial security of my family, which I don’t have right now.” But the British public did not understand and it was many years before he felt comfortable returning to this country.

He also said that what he was doing would benefit professional cricketers of the future. Nobody believed him. Once again, some context is required here. In 1977, when he was captain of England, he was paid £210 per Test. Not so long ago, the current England captain, Joe Root, signed a contract in excess of £1 million per annum. I hope when England players sign their contracts, they utter under their breath, “Thanks, Greigy.”

I knew Tony Greig, not well, but I had played against him on occasions. Indeed, I once dismissed him for a first ball duck….and it was on television. He was always a larger-than-life character, who played hard on the field but was the first to buy a round of drinks in the bar afterwards. I was a little in awe of him really, which prevented any attempt on my part to get close to the man to find out what made him tick. “My God, he’s like a Greek god!” shrieked the wife of one of my team-mates at Hampshire when she first set eyes upon him. He was like that, attractive, personable, charismatic, a leader of men and a magnet to women.

It was 28th June 2012 on a hot day in London. The monument to pilots and crewmen of Bomber Command who lost their lives in bombing missions during the Second World War was being unveiled. (Why did it take 67 years to do so? Another controversy I address in the book.) Tony Greig was present, wearing proudly his father’s medals. He did not look well. In fact, he was already suffering from the cancer that would carry him off six months later. He was only 65.

Slowly, over the years his reputation in this country has undergone something of a rehabilitation. I hope this book goes further. He deserves to be remembered, warts and all, as a magnificent cricketer, an inspirational captain and a force for seismic but necessary change in the governance and finances of the game.

One final story to underline his importance as a reluctant rebel….. In 1982, Ian, Tony’s brother, was picked for England, a mere five years after Tony had been cast into the wilderness. Ian rang his brother with the good news. “How much are they paying you?” asked the elder Greig. “£1,200” was the answer. Silence. Then a sad voice came down the line. “If only they’d listened.”

Indeed. Jesus told us, “A prophet is not without honour save in his own country.” At Tony Greig’s death, Mike Atherton wrote that Greig was the only England captain since the War who had not been decorated with a gong. “It’s too late now.”

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