October 1, 2014

Remembering Tony Greig, the allrounder

It's easy to forget that some popular commentators of our time were excellent cricketers before they took up the mike

Tony Greig: one of England's greatest allrounders © PA Photos

A recent cohort* of students realised they could distract me from attempting to teach them the basic principles of public health by subtly turning the discussion to cricket. One thing I have gained from these conversations is that many younger cricket fans have little knowledge of the often considerable on-field contributions made by current cricket commentators.

Richie Benaud, Bill Lawry and others are now cult figures more famous - admittedly in part due to the efforts of Billy Birmingham - for their role in talking about cricket than for what they did while actively playing. So my next few articles will be focusing on commentators who should be remembered for their cricketing skills as much as for their ability to talk about the game.

My first subject is Tony Greig, who died far too young on December 29, 2012, succumbing to a heart attack a few months after being diagnosed with cancer. He is correctly remembered as an entertaining and often thought-provoking commentator. However, to only remember him in this capacity is to do him a major disservice. He was one of England's greatest ever allrounders.

Anthony William Greig was born on October 6, 1946 in Queenstown, South Africa. His love of cricket probably didn't originate so much from his Scottish father as from his South African mother's side. Her brother, Daniel Taylor, was a first-class cricketer for Border province in the late 1940s. As he grew up, Greig had further inspiration from within his close family network - his slightly older cousin Roy Taylor also proved a talented cricketer who would go on to play first-class cricket for Border between 1969 and 1976.

Greig was fortunate in that his high school years were spent at Queen's College, an all-boys school that featured both extensive sporting facilities and excellent coaching support from a number of English county players, including internationals Alan Oakman and Ian Thomson.

An obvious talent was recognised with selection in the South African Schools team, and Greig debuted in first-class cricket as a 19-year-old for Border in 1966. He was quickly developing into an attacking middle-order batsman and clever medium-pace bowler, learning to effectively utilise his immense height of 198cms. The relationship he had established with the English cricket coaches at school resulted in him being offered a trial with Sussex. His father supported Greig's decision to move to England to pursue a cricketing career, and after twin centuries in a match for the invitational LC Stevens' XI against Cambridge University, he was subsequently chosen to play his first match for Sussex against the same opposition just few days later on July 6, 1966. His performances in this match were solid without being outstanding, but it was enough to see him start a career with Sussex that would last the next 12 years or so.

Greig made his debut for England against the visiting Australians in 1972. He top-scored for England in both innings of his first Test, making 57 and 62, took three catches and five wickets. He finished the series with 288 runs at 36, ten wickets at 39.8 and eight catches. After the conclusion of the Ashes, England toured India and Pakistan. Tony played all eight Tests, with highlights including his first Test century of 148 and his first five-wicket haul of 5 for 24, both against India.

A home summer of five Tests against New Zealand was followed by perhaps Greig's best international performance. He dominated the tour of West Indies, scoring 430 runs at 47.77 with two centuries and taking 24 wickets at 22.62, which included 8 for 86 and 5 for 70 in the fifth Test, at Queen's Park Oval. Tony showed his versatility with the ball throughout the series, switching between medium pace and offspin. The opposition batting line-up featured Garry Sobers, Clive Lloyd, Rohan Kanhai, AIvin Kallicharran and Lawrence Rowe. Tony's achievements across these five Tests are rightly recognised as one of the greatest all-round performances in a Test series.

In the 1974 summer England played three Tests against India and three against Pakistan. Across the six Tests, Greig averaged 41.5 with the bat and took 14 wickets. However, most of the attention of English players and fans was on the 1974-75 Ashes tour to Australia. England were probably considered favourites to retain the Ashes, but they ran into the rampant pace of Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson. The touring batsmen were shell-shocked by the sheer speed and ferocity of the Australian quicks. Greig was one of the few English players who could still hold his head up at the conclusion of the tour, scoring 446 runs at 40.54 and taking 17 wickets.

Following another loss against Australia in a home series in 1975, English captain Mike Denness was replaced by Greig. Before he took over from Denness, Greig had played 44 Tests, in which he averaged 41.32 with the bat and 30.11 with the ball. In his 14 Tests as captain, his batting average dropped to 38.04, but his bowling average ballooned over 42. His period of captaincy is probably best remembered now for his unfortunate "grovel" comment before the 1976 West Indies tour of England. However, he also led England to a 3-1 Test series victory in India in 1976-77, and went on to play an important role in the 1977 Centenary Test.

The revolution that was Packer cricket, and Greig's role in its development, resulted in his termination as England captain. It was also the beginning of the end of his official first-class career. It has been noted by playing peers such as Derek Underwood that the rapid and stunning emergence of Ian Botham in the late 1970s has tended to overshadow Greig's on-field achievements. As such it is worth recognising now that he finished his Test career with a substantially higher batting average (40.43 versus 33.54) and only a slightly higher bowling average (32.20 versus 28.40) than Botham. This comparison rightly shows what talent he possessed.

* A quick shout-out to the UNE med students: Don't think I didn't know what you were doing.

Stuart Wark works at the University of New England as a research fellow

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