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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on January 1, 2013, 7:52 GMT

    Thank you Sir for being embodying the true Sri Lankan spirit more than many who were born and bred on this island. Your fearless stance in standing for what's right regardless of whether those defended were mighty or otherwise, you taking on the mighty mafia at the Cowdrey speech (when most in power run with tails between their legs), are attributes we Sri Lankans aspire to. It's sad to think we won't here about the sweet Sri Lankan pineapples on air anymore.

  • Dummy4 on January 1, 2013, 7:08 GMT

    Tong Grieg will never be forgotten in the history books of Srilankan cricket.. He is the man who made our cricket proud and well heard all around the cricketing world.. He truly loved everything in Srilanka perhaps even more than the Srilankans.. No one has ever spoken so much of our pine-apples, crabs and the pinch hitting batsman as much as Tony did..

  • Dummy4 on January 1, 2013, 6:54 GMT

    May you rest in Peace Tony. True friend of Srilanka.

  • Anver on January 1, 2013, 4:46 GMT

    No doubt great Greg's style of commentaries will be missed by all cricket lovers....... like mentioned here he was a very special person with a very special touch for SL cricket !!!! R.I.P

  • Dimuthu on December 31, 2012, 22:44 GMT

    Thank you Andrew. The same way that until you came along, Crcinfo didn't really have a voice for Sri Lanka, until very recently with Russel Arnold and the hopless Ranjith Fernando, the commentary box didn't really have a voice for Sri Lanka either. TONY gave Sri Lanka a voice in the box when the broadcasters didn't feel an authentic Lankan voice was not worthy. The other commentators didn't even bother learning how to pronounce the Lankan players' names! Tony not told the world about 'the pockeet dynamo, Little Kalu' and the 'master blaster Jayasuriya', but also spoke of Sri Lanka's sweet pineapples, the Galle fortress, the hills of Kandy and described it as a true paradise island. I'm not the only Sri Lankan fan whose facebook status was messages of utter sadness and condolences when the news came out. There is a massive voice even right now, during the Sri Lanka v Australia series. Even when SL lost in 2.5 days, Tony would have given us hope about the next series. #RIP

  • mark on December 31, 2012, 21:52 GMT

    There will be a void in commentary box, specially when it comes to SL criket matches... without his's really sad we all missed him so early...

    As nation known to be its hospitality and greatfulness, it is better to name Pallekelle criket ground for his name as another mate mentioned below. So it will be a good monument to all commentators as well to this great personality.

  • ILANKO on December 31, 2012, 13:11 GMT

    When I started watching cricket in the 80's as a young lad.. I remember first hearing and seeing Tony at the Benson & Hedges World Series in Australia. Since then his voice and stature have become such hallmarks of watching cricket. Words came naturally and with such pleasing language that it will be hard to replace such a great voice. Thanks for the memories Tony!

  • Denham on December 31, 2012, 8:16 GMT

    I fail for words. I was driving that Saturday afternoon when the news were read over the radio. My leg automatically jammed on the breaks and the car came to a roaring stop in the middle of the Colombo/Piliyandala road. I pulled over, waited there for about ten minutes trying to grasp what was heard over the radio, in total disbelief I drove away to my destination, tears, heavy heart and what not. We Loved you Tony and we will still love you and we will miss you so much but your memories wll linger in our hearts forever. rest in peace Mr. Anthony William Greig fondly known as Tony Greig. Boodbye big friend of a little Island.

  • Dummy4 on December 31, 2012, 6:47 GMT

    RIP Tony Greg..... You not great,,,, Word Great is under estimate for you.

  • Kushan on December 31, 2012, 5:01 GMT

    Dear Tony, you was a silver arrow when others criticising SL as country and team, we will always miss you not only as a commentator, as true friend who loved SL