May 4, 2011

Why does Greig get a raw deal?

The former England captain is still not fully accepted by the English cricket establishment - supposedly for his role in the Packer affair. Why is this?

Unreliable, selective, subjective and highly susceptible to the passing of time and fancy, memories can be savage. Lionised today, overlooked tomorrow: such is the fate of those who fail to cement their brick in the wall of fame. And the more our internal hard drives groan under the weight of accumulated information, the more prone we are to losing perspective and proportion. True, distance can exaggerate worth; more often than not, and more than ever in this age of overkill and overload, it diminishes. Neglect and injustice are inevitable consequences.

He may have ranked second only to Richie Benaud among Australia's Test wicket-takers at the time of his retirement, but when was the last time you saw Graham "Garth" McKenzie's name invoked in discussions of fast-bowling excellence? He may have averaged more than exalted contemporaries such as Conrad Hunte, Rohan Kanhai and Clive Lloyd, but how often does Seymour Nurse crop up these days in debates about Caribbean batsmanship? Among Test players who coupled 1000 runs with 75 wickets, subtract bowling average from batting average and Mushtaq Mohammad ranks eighth, higher than Warwick Armstrong, Ian Botham, Alan Davidson and Wilfred Rhodes; he also amassed more first-class hundreds than his more celebrated brother Hanif, and blazed a trail with his nifty reverse-sweep; yet history has treated him shabbily. Call them The Dissed, or The Forgotten.

No member of that airbrushed brigade, though, has been denied redemption quite so efficiently or unjustly as Tony Greig, as Dave Tossell's supremely judicious and superbly contextualised new book about the former England allrounder, subtitled A Reappraisal of English Cricket's Most Controversial Captain, does such an exemplary, if belated, job in reminding us. The mere fact that this is the first full-scale biography of one of the game's most fascinating exponents and ablest publicists is an indication of the extent to which memories have been sullied, even deleted; millions know him merely as an over-excitable commentator with a penchant for the thoughtless and ludicrous. All you really need to know about the way he is perceived on these shores is that there is a chapter devoted to him in the 2009 book by the Daily Mail parliamentary reporter Quentin Letts, 50 People Who Buggered Up Britain.

NOT THAT HIS PEERS were unappreciative. Ray Illingworth, from whom praise has always had to be prised, called Greig "one of the most imposing and influential captains in the history of English cricket". To Mike Brearley, he had an "inspirational quality". To Pat Pocock he was "a brilliant leader by example". Mike Selvey, now Guardian cricket correspondent, says he would have "done anything for Greigy". The triumphant 1976-77 tour of India, where he commanded an affection and reverence no England captain could ever hope to match, remains Greig's calling card.

"He was such a phenomenal player, you'd think he'd be mentioned all the time," a dumbfounded Alan Knott tells Tossell. "When he batted he was flexible and quick, and he stood up to the fast bowlers. He must have been the best slip fielder there has ever been, and for one match he was the most dangerous offspinner I ever kept wicket to." The accolade about his catching might fairly be interpreted as a corrective exaggeration on behalf of a fellow Packer rebel, but the point remains valid.

When Trevor Bailey died earlier this year, Robin Marlar declared the Essex giant to have been rivalled only by Botham and Andrew Flintoff among post-war England allrounders. The omission of Greig was anything but accidental. In 1977, after all, Marlar, in the midst of a lengthy and mostly distinguished tenure as the Sunday Times cricket correspondent, had predicted, snootily and confidently, a swift and painful end to the Packer Revolution, to which Greig's name will be forever entwined. Greig, though, averaged comfortably more with the bat than any of Marlar's triumvirate, and scored more centuries than Freddie and The Barnacle mustered between them (eight, six coming after taking guard with four wickets down and the total still in double figures); he also collected more five-fors and ten-fors than either. At 1.50 catches per Test, moreover, no ungloved England fielder has ever been such a prolific gobbler of mishits. As for that traditional all-round barometer - batting average minus bowling average - he ranks seventh among the 53 who have completed the 1000-100 double, two rungs above Botham and loftiest among Poms. Of the eight instances where players have twinned 400 runs with 20 wickets in a series (Garry Sobers did so twice), only Greig, against West Indies in 1974, chalked up two centuries and three five-fors (never mind an eight-for and a 13-for).

Yet what is most frequently forgotten about Greig is how his buccaneering approach changed the image of English cricket. Barging into a dressing room of dour professionalism and prim pragmatism, he put a grin on its face, a snarl on its lips and enterprise in its heart.

Despite all these inarguable qualifications, however, Greig is yet to be inducted into the ICC Hall of Fame. All of his successors as full-time England skipper, meanwhile, have received a gong of one sort or another from Buckingham Palace. Even Kevin Pietersen.

THE REASONS, OF COURSE, are far from unfathomable. Over and above his confrontational and provocative on-field persona, part of the trouble with Greig is that he committed a pair of cardinal cricketing sins: he courted controversy and is seen as a mercenary. I did some googling, as you do: "Holding Greig grovel" yielded about 60,000 results, "Greig and Packer" 240,000, "Tony Greig all-rounder" just under 67,000, and "Tony Greig England captain" a comparatively miserly 30,000 or so.

Despite having orchestrated unsanctioned tours of apartheid South Africa and gleefully pocketing oodles of what many would describe as blood money, acts that did considerably more to blacken their country's name, Mike Gatting, Graham Gooch and David Graveney were all re-clutched to the establishment bosom and appointed to high-ranking posts

As Steavan Riley rams home in his acclaimed documentary Fire in Babylon, for an England captain to state his intention to make the West Indies "grovel", as Greig did to his near-immediate regret and lasting chagrin, was foolhardy at best. For a white South African émigré to do so in 1976, when one of the country's leading sitcom characters could generate laughs aplenty by calling his neighbour a "nig-nog", was the handiwork of a first-class prat. "It smacked of racism and apartheid," charged Michael Holding. "Even if it was taken in the wrong context," conceded Alvin Kallicharran, "it created this positive, aggressive feeling." No wonder Pocock called Greig a prat to his face. No member of Clive Lloyd's touring party, nonetheless, has ever directly accused Greig of racism. As Bob Willis put it, "It was just Greig being Greig, and overdoing the relish." He wasn't the Messiah after all, just an exceedingly silly boy.

It can therefore be said with some certainty that it is that pact with Packer that did the most to sink Greig's reputation. Letts' justification for including him in his hall of infamy is nothing if not typical in its flagrant snobbishness and sepia-tinted blinkers. In helping Packer assemble the game's original breakaway league, "Moneybags" Greig "turned a game of manly sportsmanship into a circus of bragging money-grubbers", a fate from which the game "has never really recovered".

For all that, the slight that the thick-skinned Greig has found hardest to forgive was the assertion by John Woodcock, then chief cricket correspondent for the London Times, that trading the national captaincy for Packer's dollars came somewhat easier to someone who wasn't "an Englishman through and through".

The more you dwell on all this, the more it strikes you as arrant nonsense, and not simply because of the unquestioned benefits the Packer revolt conferred on all professional cricketers, and hence the game. Benaud was another of Packer's most valued aides, but that never persuaded the BBC to withdraw its microphones in protest. Despite having orchestrated unsanctioned tours of apartheid South Africa and gleefully pocketing oodles of what many would describe as blood money, acts that did considerably more to blacken their country's name, Mike Gatting, Graham Gooch and David Graveney were all re-clutched to the establishment bosom and appointed to high-ranking posts. Geoff Boycott hasn't fared too badly either. Knott, John Snow, Derek Underwood, Dennis Amiss and Bob Woolmer also signed up for World Series Cricket, but none incurred a fraction of the invective hurled at Greig. Hell, Underwood, a rebel on both counts, was even elected MCC President.

The most significant factor in this shameless victimisation remains clear as ever. Greig has a stronger claim to Britishness than Andrew Strauss - his Scottish father, Sandy, flew way more missions than the purported limit during World War Two - yet he has never been considered what Margaret Thatcher would call "one of us" (the prospect of similar treatment should certainly give Pietersen all the motivation he needs to revive his waning career). And there, one cannot but believe, lies the rub.

Official forgiveness is scandalously overdue. A word with Her Majesty might not go amiss.

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton

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