November 1, 2012

A battle of allrounders, captains, coaches and quick men

The Australia-South Africa series is one to make cricket lovers everywhere sit up. One man in particular

For the first time in more than 30 years, the Australian summer of cricket will begin without Tony Greig at the microphone. His illness is well enough documented, though no less shocking for it. He hopes to work again during the summer but right now the big fella has his nose to the grindstone that is the dreaded C word.

It is especially poignant that the South Africans are in Australia. Greig will have the television on when the first ball is delivered at the Gabba, and his heart will be with the land of his birth. You can take the man out of Africa but there is no taking Africa out of the man. Immigrant Southern Africans have strongholds in Perth, Sydney, and much of Queensland, where a community of Zimbabweans has settled of late. Support from them and others has given him strength. Calls and mail from myriad Australians - Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson among them - have lifted his spirit. Battles of bat and ball leave respect as their legacy. From this can come surprising friendship.

Australians do not give easy ground. Greig has played devil's advocate in the Channel 9 commentary box for as long as anyone cares to remember, taunting his great friend Bill Lawry, in particular, to a catalogue of memorable exchanges that have built the folklore of Channel 9's coverage of the game. It is a part he relishes. But Australia is home. He neither forgets this nor is anything but grateful for it. Indeed, he would not swap the Eastern Suburbs of Sydney for the world. There may be an element of love/hate to his on-screen relationship with Australian audiences but, in truth, the suggestion of hate is more vaudeville than fact. Greigy is a much-loved part of the landscape.

Only two cricketers to have played a significant number of Tests have averaged better than 40 with the bat and 33 with the ball. It's a good trivia question, and no, neither Sir Garfield nor Sir Ian is the right answer. And not Imran Khan, Kapil Dev or Keith Miller either. Jacques Kallis is one - which, given his weight of runs, wickets and catches, rather supports the case that he is among the two or three finest cricketers to have played the game. AW Greig is the other.

Greig went to England in the late 1960s, playing first for Sussex and soon for England. The qualification came from his Scottish father and it worked well enough for both parties, to the point to which he became a charismatic and forthright captain of his first adopted country. After Kerry Packer's lightning hijack of the game, very much with Greig at his side, these attributes were brought to the commentary box and have not wavered since. It will irk him that a South African series may be missed. Particularly one featuring such a good side as this and, more particularly still, one in which he can lick his lips at the fast bowlers on view. Greigy sure likes seeing it whistling past a few ears.

Certainly South Africa come well equipped for an opening Test match in Brisbane. The Gabba is the fastest and bounciest pitch in the world, but - a but that matters - if the weather is good, it becomes a lovely, even surface for batsmen. So now may be the moment for Imran Tahir to repay the investment. Pretty much the minute he qualified, the South African selectors ticked a few boxes and welcomed him aboard. Now, after 28 wickets in ten Tests at 40 apiece, he can begin to say thank you. As everyone will tell you, Shane Warne loved to bowl at the Gabba, but few other spinners have found such peace with a ground that exposes the ordinary for what it is.

Kallis is cold, clinical, unemotional. Watson is tough enough, intelligent, but yet to finish the job in the way his talent demands

More likely, the series will be driven by the impression of the two allrounders. Kallis brings a full hand to every match he plays. His standards and performance remain as relevant to the present team as they were when he first toured Australia 15 years ago. During the recent English summer he was still the cog around which Graeme Smith turned the wheel of his team, claiming wickets when others could find nothing, holding wonderful catches, and making runs if they mattered.

Ergo Shane Watson. Similar cricketers but different characters. Kallis is cold, clinical, unemotional. Watson is tough enough, intelligent, but yet to finish the job in the way his talent demands. This may simply be about concentration or it may be insecurity. If the Australian camp can make Watson believe he is the cricketer he truly is - a mindset given to few, incidentally - and if they encourage him towards something of Greig's chutzpah, the contest between the best two all-round cricketers of the moment may define the series.

Greig's other interest will be in the captains. Fanciful as it may seem, the celebrated 9 commentary team of Richie Benaud, Ian Chappell, Lawry and Greig has helped shape Australian cricket. Generous enthusiasm and a deep knowledge of the game have combined with an inherent instinct to play brightly and without fear. If this was not Lawry's way on the field, it has certainly become his mantra off it. By the drip drip of their attitude and direction over the 35 years that 9 has had the television rights, these four formidable former captains have offered Australian cricketers at all levels a way forward.

Michael Clarke would endorse this idea. His cricket is very much from the school of Channel 9. He has a close relationship with Warne and friendships with Mark Taylor, Michael Slater, Ian Chappell and Greig. Attacking instincts have served him well thus far and could give him an edge over the more naturally conservative Graeme Smith. Not that Smith has stood still. In England he threw away caution more often than previously. Gary Kirsten, the coach, may be behind this.

And therein lies the final match-up that will catch Greig's attention - Kirsten v Mickey Arthur. Thoughtful fellows of comparative upbringing who let the captain take the box seat. Kirsten is working with his own people, Arthur with another's. Advantage Kirsten perhaps. They are good men and worth watching closely.

Two coaches, two captains, two allrounders, a rich bag of fast bowlers and a leggie - these are the cricket people that Tony Greig will first cast an eye over next Thursday morning. He will miss not being in situ; the commentary box is a second home. For now, though, he must attend to other business. The cricketers should, at the very least, least bring a smile to his face.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK