Barely a sporting contest passes without someone making a cocky boast in the build-up. People are used to it - almost expect it - but in 1976 England captain Tony Greig overstepped the line on the eve of England's series against West Indies. He made a comment that galivanised not only the opposition but also the tens of thousands of their supporters who flocked to grounds to see his words rammed back down his throat.
West Indies arrived in May 1976 after a humiliating 5-1 drubbing in Australia the previous winter. They had beaten India in between, but that had been a struggle, and Clive Lloyd, their captain, hatched a plan based on all-out pace. He possessed a crop of outstanding - and fast - bowlers, and in the early tour matches they destroyed everything put in front of them
As the first Test loomed, Greig was interviewed for the BBC's Sportsnight programme. Irked by a stream of newspaper articles highlighting the strength of West Indies, Greig let rip. "I'm not really sure they're as good as everyone thinks," he said. "These guys, if they get on top they are magnificent cricketers. But if they're down, they grovel, and I intend, with the help of Closey [Brian Close] and a few others, to make them grovel."
The remark was highly inflammatory for a number of reasons, the main one being that Greig's words, coming from a white South African, were seized on for racist overtones. "The word 'grovel' is one guaranteed to raise the blood pressure of any black man," Lloyd said. "The fact they were used by a white South African made it even worse. We were angry and West Indians everywhere were angry. We resolved to show him and everyone else that the days for grovelling were over."
Most of the West Indies team felt Greig's words were deliberate and not an off-the-cuff quip. "Everyone was stunned," recalled Viv Richards, on his first tour of England. "This was the greatest motivating speech the England captain could have given to any West Indian team."
Behind the scenes, the England players were equally livid. Pat Pocock, the Surrey spinner who played twice in the series, said his immediate reaction was: "You prat ...what have you done? You don't do that sort of thing, winding them up for no reason." Mike Brearley, who made his debut in the first Test, said that the words "carried an especially tasteless and derogatory overtone".
|'If you talk to me long enough I will say something controversial. I am bound to offend someone and get myself into deep water' Tony Greig|
Close - aged 45 but recalled for the series - said that what irked some of the England side was not the remark, but that having made it Greig didn't back his words with actions. "Everyone knew what he meant," Close reflected. "If you get on top of West Indies the odds are that you stay on top. But the astonishing thing was that Tony, having made his point, made no attempt to drive it home once he got on the field."
After draws at Trent Bridge and Lord's, West Indies took control of the series as England wilted in the heat - 1976 was one of the hottest and driest summers of the century - and were blown away by West Indies' battery of fast bowlers. At Old Trafford and Headingley, England lost heavily, and Greig was subjected to increasing barracking, mostly good-humoured, from the large Caribbean contingents in the crowds.
At that time The Oval, the scene of the final Test, was more Kensington than Kennington for West Indies matches, with the large Caribbean population of south London making the game a virtual home-from-home for the tourists. To the accompaniment of bugles, horns, cans and calypso singing, the crowd partied as West Indies flayed England for two days.
By the time Greig came out to bat on Saturday evening England had mounted a recovery, but after cracking two stinging cover-drives off Michael Holding, he was bowled off his pads. As he left the field several hundred spectators, mainly young and West Indian, ran onto to the pitch and headed for the departing Greig, jostling and mocking him, and play was suspended in what Wisden described as a "disgraceful scene".
On the Monday, West Indies, who led on the first innings by 252 runs, did not enforce the follow-on, preferring to let Roy Fredericks and Gordon Greenidge cut loose in an unbeaten first-wicket stand of 182 in 32 overs. As the noise from the spectators increased in the afternoon heat, Greig slowly walked towards the open stands on the Harleyford Road side of the ground and sunk to his knees, grovelling to the crowd. They roared their delight. Greig, always the showman, had made his peace. "I realise that I made a mistake in using that word at the start of the series and they haven't let me forget it," he told the press that night.
But it was too late for England, who were blown away by Holding the following morning, his 6 for 57 in the second innings giving him 14 wickets in the match.
Within nine months Greig had thrown in his lot with Kerry Packer and had been stripped of the England captaincy - his international career ended at the end of the following summer. He went on to become a leading commentator, although he continued to court controversy. In 1990-91, while covering the England tour of the Caribbean, he was criticised for blurting out "Goodnight Charlie" when West Indian batsmen were dismissed.
"Anyone who wants to suggest it was my South African background that was behind my comment and put any racist tone to this thing just doesn't know me," Greig said three decades later. "None of the West Indies players ever confronted me about my comments at the start of the series - they were just faster and nastier whenever I came to the crease."
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Grovel David Tossell (Know The Score, 2007)
I Don't Bruise Easily Brian Close (MacDonald & Jane's, 1978)
My Story Tony Greig and Alan Lee (Stanley Paul, 1980)