December 30, 2012

Big friend of a little island

Tony Greig shared a special bond with Sri Lanka, dating back to before their World Cup win

Two years ago I was travelling with a cricket-illiterate foreign friend through Colombo when a billboard showing a large man with a wide-brimmed hat caught his attention.

"Who is that? I keep seeing him around," he asked, pointing.

"Tony Greig," I replied. "He is a cricket commentator. He's very popular here."

"Just for being a commentator? What about all the other commentators?"

"Well… no," I stuttered, struggling to find the words that would capture the warmth and history of Greig's relationship with the island. "Tony's different," I finally offered. "We love him and he loves us."

For many people, especially in the provinces of Sri Lanka, it is common practice to have the radio on alongside the cricket on television, providing the Sinhala commentary they understand. Often six or seven neighbours sit cloistered together in a small room, in front of one of the few television sets in the village. When Greig's name appears on the bottom of screen, though, someone calls it out. Nothing more needs to be said. The radio is turned down and the TV volume cranked up. Perhaps no one in the room understands Greig, but they feel like they know him. He is an old friend. He has been part of their lives for so long now, and to leave his commentary unheard is like leaving him on the doorstep to wither in the heat.

Sri Lanka's love affair with Greig began during the 1996 World Cup, though he himself had admired its cricketers and their country for some time by then, even consoling the side after Muttiah Muralitharan had been called for chucking on Boxing Day 1995.

Sri Lanka were barely better than minnows in most estimations then. Talented, perhaps, to a point, but far too young and erratic still to make a genuine play for a title as coveted as this. Greig nailed his colours to the mast early in the tournament. "I just love the way these little Sri Lankans play," he declared during one of Sri Lanka's group matches. "I really think they can win this World Cup if they play well."

"These little Sri Lankans" was to become his catchphrase during the tournament, alongside his nickname for Romesh Kaluwitharana - "little Kalu". Perhaps on the lips of any other, those words may have seemed tinged with condescension, but the affection in Greig's voice was unmistakeable. He is remembered as a combative man and cricketer, but he only ever had love for Sri Lanka.

Both in the cricketing universe and elsewhere, Greig believed in Sri Lanka before she even believed in herself

It was fitting that he was on air as Arjuna Ranatunga and Aravinda de Silva took Sri Lanka close to triumph in the final. "These Sri Lankans are giving the Aussies a real hiding," Greig boomed, after Ranatunga hit a Shane Warne full toss over the square-leg rope - a cricketing moment almost every Sri Lankan remembers.

After the winning runs had been hit, Greig dubbed the victory "a little fairytale". "The thing that I like about these guys is that they not only win, but they win in style. It is only a small place, Sri Lanka, and what a moment this is for Sri Lankan people."

Over the years Greig's love for the island grew irresistible, and the nation embraced him as one of their own. Sri Lanka perhaps suffers from a condition that might be termed small-nation syndrome. Locals feel they are perennially overlooked and constantly lumped with neighbours from the north they have little in common with. Greig was Sri Lanka's relentless champion, proclaiming the wonder of her beaches, the sweetness of her seafood, and the hospitality of her people, even while the country was in the grip of an ugly civil war.

In 2010, Greig was made a brand ambassador for tourism in Sri Lanka, but as many noted, it was strange that he was being paid for a job he had been performing with untamable enthusiasm for years. Both in the cricketing universe and elsewhere, Greig believed in Sri Lanka before she even believed in herself.

When he announced his illness in October, Sri Lankans were sympathetic and sincere. A Buddhist blessing ceremony was organised for Greig in Colombo, with Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara in attendance. Greig was overwhelmed with get-well messages from Sri Lanka and he acknowledged their support with a heartfelt message of his own.

"You've no idea what it means to me," he said, "to have received the support that I have from so many Sri Lankans in so many different ways. It's a very special feeling in the heart of someone that there is a nation of cricket-lovers like the Sri Lankans, who care about an individual like myself."

The news of his death shocked almost everyone, and the outpouring of grief from Sri Lanka has been immense. Greig had many friends in the country, and countless men in high places have had his company, though he had always taken care to remain unbiased and apolitical. In many ways, he chose to see the best of Sri Lanka and to ignore, at least outwardly, her less praiseworthy traits.

Sri Lanka is now a more united country than it was during much of Greig's commentary career, and it will be united now in acknowledging the loss of a favourite adopted son. Farewell, Tony, and may the earth give you peace. Beloved of Sri Lanka, big friend of our little island.

Andrew Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. He tweets here