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A cricketer who loved duels as much as the spotlight

The Australian media baron, Kerry Packer, changed the face of cricket forever in the 1970s. His man Friday was Tony Greig, the former England captain. Greig was a street-fighter par excellence. He was a man who loved to curse, to combat and to create controversies. He also relished challenges.

Packer, a burly, domineering figure, had sent shivers down the spines of cricket administrators across the world. He beat them hollow on as well as off the field, in the law courts. His television channel in Australia — Channel Nine — promoted cricket and cricketers through World Series Cricket in a manner that had never even been contemplated earlier. Among numerous things, WSC’s innovations included coloured clothing for cricketers, night cricket under lights, white balls, black sight-screens, scantily-clad girls as drinks waitresses et al. Packer and his WSC transformed cricket from a sedate sport to an awesome world of entertainment.

Greig, the blonde, tall and handsome man, was Packer’s ideal ally. Greig was born in South Africa. In his early life, Greig had witnessed the impact of the apartheid policy of the National Party on his native land. He had little or no idea about English cricketing traditions, no qualms about cricketing etiquette, and little respect for cricketing history and its ethos. He was a born exhibitionist who thrived on the present. He adored arguments, duels and gamesmanship. The world of high-volume entertainment beckoned him far more than the laid-back pursuits associated with the noble game of cricket. Greig loved the spotlight. He longed for glamour. He was desperate for publicity. For him, norms and nuances had no value. Almost overnight, as it were, he changed the code of conduct on the cricket field.

December, 1972, Keenan Stadium, Jamshedpur. The Marylebone Cricket Club had come to India under Tony Lewis. The match was against East Zone. Before Derek Underwood began an over, the tall frame of Greig would loom perilously close to the batsman, at silly point. One could hear the clenching of his teeth. The octopus-like arms would flail and intimidate the batter. The Indian umpires would not intervene. Even Greig’s captain did not interfere with the boisterous personality.

From his vantage point, he would curse and abuse at random. In the cricket world of the 1970s, this kind of jeering was unheard of. Initially, from the batting crease, I thought he was cursing Roger Tolchard, the wicket-keeper, who too was responding with similar words. Only when my batting partner, Ramesh Saxena, asked if I was alright did I realize that I was the target of the torrent of abuse. There and then, I lost my concentration. This was quite new to a 22-year- old batsman playing in his first-class debut season.

Earlier in the innings, having played Geoff Arnold and Chris Old — both of them were much quicker than Greig — his pace was not daunting. But the huge frame releasing the ball from a height of about 8 feet had a distinct advantage. His bounce was disconcerting too, as he concentrated on bowling not bumpers but three-quarter length deliveries that rose till the batsman’s head. There were no helmets in those days. Neither were there any restrictions on bumpers. Greig thus bowled three or four head-high deliveries every over. More irritating was his continuous monologue at the end of each delivery. Once he asked me, “Hey Gandhi, will I break your lenses?” To which I replied, “Those are unbreakable.” His response was as follows: “I will break them. Break your head as well.”

Next morning, at the breakfast table, I was with Dennis Amiss and Alan Knott. In walked Greig, plonked himself on the vacant chair and smiled at me. “Batted well yesterday. But today will be my day.” His behaviour was quite different from that of the previous day. He spoke to Knott with a peculiar twangy accent. I could not fathom most of the words. But he did not speak to Amiss, nor did he greet Mike Denness and Tony Lewis who greeted us from the next table.

A former cricketer, then an executive with the Tatas, came to my hotel room with a bag full of autograph books. “Raju, please get me Tony Greig’s autograph in all these. These belong to the daughters of my various bosses and friends!” Having no option, I asked him to come later. The following evening, after he had the books back, he was extremely happy that Greig’s signature appeared very prominently in each of the autograph books. In about a year’s time, the former cricketer got a huge promotion in his company. Thank god for that. Little did anybody realize who had actually signed those autographs. Even now, Prabir Hazarika, that excellent opener from Assam who was my room-mate then, looks at me with a quizzical smile every time he sets his eyes on me.

Five years later, we met again. This time Greig was not an ordinary player. He was the captain and the most colourful all-rounder of his era. The venue was Guwahati. Again it was an MCC-East Zone fixture, a first-class game that was to be played in between the Tests. When Greig saw me on the morning of the match, his first reaction was, “Ah! The Gandhi specs have gone. Are these lenses also unbreakable?” Then he laughed and said, “Haw, haw. This time I will surely break them.”

Standing close at silly point, he went on jabbering constantly. In bowling, he had converted himself from pace to off-spin. But in batting, one could observe a distinct change: he had eschewed his audacious stroke-play and was content to stay at the crease and graft for runs. He did not get many, but spent valuable time that helped him come to terms with Alok Bhattacharya, who had all the English batsmen in utter confusion with his unorthodox leg- and off-spin bowling.

At the end of the game, Greig came to our dressing room with his manager, Ken Barrington. He asked Bhattacharya and me the exact spellings of our names, wrote them down and left. When we enquired the reason for this, Greig winked and said, “Your national selector asked Ken to recommend names of talented Test potentials to him!” We were astounded.

Greig’s volatile spirit and combative instincts made him perform beyond his ability. He was a highly determined opponent, who never gave any quarters and expected none in return. Born and bred in South Africa, Greig was in perpetual conflict with the mores and morals followed by the English cricketing administration. He was certainly more at home in the Australian environment and got along famously with Packer. Both men were willing to take high risks, and both believed implicitly in brinkmanship. Their partnership resulted in the formation of WSC, which brought handsome returns to cricketers from the late 1970s. After retirement, Greig was a natural choice for a commentator for Channel Nine. Although he never acquired the legendary status of Arlott, Benaud or Boycott, he developed his own style of commentating which remained highly critical of cricket administrators. Thankfully, he never lost his sense of humour and was always frank and forthcoming.

Greig also had a way with crowds around the cricketing world. In Australia, he provoked them into hating him as much as they had hated Douglas Jardine in the 1930s. In the West Indies, they could have maimed him for the way he ran out Alvin Kallicharran at the end of a day’s game (the decision was altered the following day). In England, they regarded him as a traitor for poaching English cricketers for the WSC.

But in India, he was extremely popular with the crowds, especially in Calcutta. Bending down on his knees, his hands folded in a namaste, he brought the packed stands under his charismatic spell. He won the 1976-77 series in India in style on grossly under-prepared pitches. But in a few months, he was relieved of captaincy when his Packer leanings were leaked. Greig was a brilliant strategist, on and off the field. Modern cricket administrators are following the path of success shown to them by the Packer-Greig duo.