December 30, 2012

Cricket's greatest salesman

Tony Greig had unlimited enthusiasm for the game, and he took it global, working from Brisbane to Bridgetown and everywhere in between

So Greigy has died. He didn't seem the sort. That huge heart, the heart that brought an uncompromising and triumphant life, finally said enough now, enough. He was born in 1946, and you kind of expected him to say good morning to all his viewers in 2046. Unbreakable Greigy; spirited, talented, courageous, opinionated, passionate, compassionate Greigy. Hard nut one minute, soft as the sands of Bondi the next. Goodbye, mate.

Anthony William Greig was out of South Africa's Eastern Cape, to Sussex in England, then Sydney, where he settled with a beautiful family of young and old, from marriages old and new. He first met his second wife, Vivian, soon after the World Series Cricket days and they became an irresistible partnership - breathtakingly good-looking, stylish and fun. Eventually their joint legacy was to be two children: Beau who is tall, gifted and 12, and Tom, two years her junior and a complete natural with bat and ball. Today their confusion and grief will be overwhelming. Though time will never fully heal, it will allow space for their father's strong leadership to make its impact.

Greig was a dynamic and fearless leader. He brought confidence and bravado to English cricket and unwavering commitment and showmanship to World Series Cricket. That move away from England was the seismic shift in his life. He stood at Kerry Packer's side and from an unlikely friendship came the seismic shifts of modern cricket. More money, more colour, more drama, more commerce. He was the face of the game's popular culture, full of mischief but still grounded, rooted even, by cricket's inherent and traditional values. This was a contradiction that England could not understand. The old school patronised his belief in a better world for all and vilified his desertion. He was sacked as captain - of course he was, like a dozen strokes from the headmaster solves anything - and left to rot as the adopted son who betrayed a nation.

Greig did anything but rot. This was a man who conquered epilepsy, the English establishment was but a bauble of intrusion. He convinced the greatest players in the world to come to Australia and play for Packer. He made the World XI a team that took on and beat the Aussies and by galvanising this so-called circus - probably the best cricket ever played, incidentally - he gave credibility to the show that ultimately brought Packer the television rights he so desired. This was, by any standard, a phenomenal achievement. In less than two years the game had changed forever.

The Eastern Suburbs of Sydney became his home, the Packer compendium his playground and the beaches his relaxation. But most of all, the television screen gave him a new identity. He became cricket's greatest salesman, taking it global, working from Brisbane to Bombay, from Birmingham to Bridgetown. He understood television's unique access and its value to the broadcaster, the advertiser and audience. "This is the time, boy" he once said to me, rubbing his hands with glee as we took our commentary seats at 4 o'clock in the afternoon, "that we get the housewives and the children: get them now and they are ours forever."

He stood at Kerry Packer's side and from an unlikely friendship came the seismic shifts of modern cricket. More money, more colour, more drama, more commerce. He was the face of the game's popular culture, full of mischief but still grounded

He loved it - absolutely, unconditionally loved that microphone. Yes, he could raise the hairs on the back of any neck and just occasionally he pushed his luck but mainly, day in and out, he educated and entertained in a way like no other. Bill Lawry and Geoffrey Boycott loved to work with him; Ian Healy, Ravi Shastri and Ian Botham loved to work with him too. There you have it, a common appeal. Sure, he could shoot you a look or fire a barb; intimidation was often the name of his fame. Surprisingly, when it came to work he was as insecure as the next man - "The jury's still out on you blokes" he said to Ian Healy, Mark Taylor, Michael Slater and me three or four years back, with tongue only marginally in cheek - but he cared deeply about the product and was terrified that one day he may not be a part of it. He need not have worried. The key with Greigy was to divide most things he said by half; that way you got a better feel for their real meaning.

For example, he was not remotely racist in his threat to make the West Indians "grovel". Rather he thought that if you got on top of them, you had better stay there or they would bounce back and bite your balls off. And he was right, they bit and they bit, until he screamed. When he arrived in India as captain of England, he emerged from the plane into the subcontinental clamour and pronounced Indian umpires to be comfortably the best in the world. This got him favourable decisions previous touring teams could not have dreamed of. Against all odds England won the first three Tests and secured the series before anyone worked it out. Sort of a heist, or better explained as the power of personality.

It is worth noting that Tony was an exceptional cricketer, without ever quite looking like one. Platinum blond, gangly tall, long arms loping, big hands flapping, bigger smile disarming, and a huge, almighty, competitor. He scored his runs at more than 40 per innings and took his wickets, as both swing bowler and offspinner, at better than 33 per innings. Only two other men have ever done that. And he took a heap of catches, mainly at slip. The runs came against Lillee and Thomson; Roberts and Holding; Bedi, Prasanna and Chandrasekhar. Hardly muggins. The wickets included names such as Richards and Chappell - in other words, the best.

So what is left? The memory of a wonderful life, for sure. A strong family, with Viv at the helm and his older children, Mark and Samantha - who have children of their own - close by in spirit and place. A legacy of unbridled passion for cricket and everlasting enthusiasm for life. A gift of energy, of a determination to move things on, to not look back. Sure he liked a bit of hype; frankly, he couldn't see the downside. And yes, he liked to be No. 1 but he is not the lone ranger there.

There are myriad friends of course, and warm audiences that miss him already. And there is a sense of romance left behind, in the sense that cricket and family are as one in their ability to unite and broaden. In the redemptive MCC Spirit of Cricket Cowdrey Lecture that he gave at Lord's earlier this year, he said: "Give your hand to cricket and it will take you on the most fantastic journey." You, Tony, have been the best evidence of that.

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