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To current generations, Tony Greig may have symbolised hyperbole behind the mike in modern-day cricket. But, the South African was more than just that. The sport’s first mercenary, he changed the staid face of the flannelled game for good
Three days before Tony Greig passed away from a heart attack, he had retweeted a message I had posted on twitter enquiring about his health. This was enigmatic for it carried no comment from him - and Greig had never been short of words, spoken or written.
Perhaps he was recovering from the operation he had had for lung cancer and was conserving energy for the big battle ahead I thought. When he had made an appearance in the Channel Nine commentary box during Australia's Test series against South Africa earlier this season, he had promised that he wouldn't give up without a fight.
I got to know Greig during the Indian Cricket League in 2008-09 where I was part of the commentary team he headed. Greig was always full of beans, always plugged into developments in the cricket world, always on the ball in every sense of the term.
Apart from his known prowess in front of the mike (his ability to raise the tempo of even a dull passage of play remains perhaps unsurpassed), he was also, of course, a founding father of the ICL, an aspect which intrigued me enough to question him one day about his motivations.
"You led a player's revolt against the establishment in 1977 to start World Series Cricket with Kerry Packer, and now you are leading another one against the BCCI?"
Greig's response was a guffaw followed by a pithy one-liner.
"In 1977, cricketers had to be saved from the clutches of miserly cricket boards;now, Indian cricket needs to be saved from itself. " This sounded utterly pompous. But then Greig could never be accused of modesty or understatement.
The ICL, of course, fizzled out soon after under the onslaught of the Indian Premier League, but the Packer experiment was a game-changer like little else in cricket. The closest parallel one can get is the IPL, but World Series Cricket was perhaps more telling in its impact.
More than 35 years after it hit the sport, the Packer years are still being debated and analysed. Whether they were for the good or bad of the sport is still indeterminate (though I am inclined to believe they did good) but one thing comes through clearly: they transformed the fabric of the sport and changed the fortunes of cricketers.
And at its core stand two men - media mogul Kerry Packer who was, snubbed by Australia's cricket establishment when he was willing to pay top dollar for television rights, and his henchman Tony Greig who was looking for top dollar for himself and other international stars from across the world who were shortselling themselves.
Greig was not only agent provocateur for WSC but also the biggest salesman for the Packer Circus. Once on Packer's pay-roll, he lured players from all over the world, promising them riches that then seemed beyond comprehension.
This cost Grieg the England captaincy and his future in the game was curtailed. He was pilloried by traditionalists for selling out, as it were, but this also made him a very wealthy and influential man in the sport.
For a decade before the Packer Series, Greig had been a known face and voice in cricket, but largely for his performances in the field. His all-round skills marked him out as a player of match-winning ability. He could bat with attitude, bowl medium-pace or off-spin cleverly and field with courage.
In the relatively staid environs of English cricket then, Greig's dash and verve stood out. He was also blonde and stood six-feet seven inches in his shoes, which made him the centre of attraction wherever he played. Love or loathe, you couldn't ignore him.
In India - on two tours, in 1972-73 and 1976 - he won the hearts of the people with his performances as well as his joie de vivre. He was a showman who enjoyed attention, and he got enough of this in the sub-continent where hero worship for foreigners came easily then.
It was not quite the same with the people of the Caribbeans. In 1972-73, he was at the centre of a storm when he ran out local hero Alvin Kallicharan at Guyana when the batsman walked off the field after pushing the last ball of the day to silly mid-off where Greig was fielding.
Following a furore, Kallicharan was reinstated the next morning for play to continue. But infinitely worse was Greig's ill-conceived promise of making the West Indies 'grovel' when they toured England in 1976. There has possibly been no more intemperate statement in the history of the game.
As captain, Greig could never live down the thrashing that ensued from an enraged West Indies side under Clive Lloyd. His eminent position in English cricket suddenly became vulnerable and opponents sprung up from everywhere. The fact that he was essentially South African didn't help any.
Whether the growing hostility to him in England had any bearing on Greig's decision to join hands with Packer is not entirely clear. He had lost the captaincy, and while he still remained among the leading English players, his stock was beginning to run low with the administration.
This was also the period when a whole body of players from across the world disgruntled with their lot - poor wages, lack of respect from authority being the main causes - were seeking to cock a snook at the establishment.
So, when the egotistic Packer sought to teach the Australian cricket establishment a lesson, he found an unusual ally in the ambitious Greig who was looking to secure his future. While Packer had the dosh, Greig had the connections, and between them, they rocked the cricket world.
Several players joined Greig, first from his own country and then from all over the world - the only notable exception being the Indians. It is common knowledge though that Bishen Bedi, Sunil Gavaskar and Syed Kirmani backed off at the last minute from playing for WSC.
The English cricket establishment was obviously aghast at Greig's insolence in 'sleeping with the enemy'. He was labelled a mercenary. Perhaps he was. But maybe he was ahead of his time when you consider the journeymen cricketers who abound in this era of T20.
Though some English cricketers returned to the fold after WSC was dissolved, Greig never played for England again. He settled down in Australia, becoming part of Packer's Channel Nine commentary team which has provided cutting edge stuff since the 1980s.
The alliance between Packer and Greig - at one level that of promoter and hired gun and at another of two strong-willed individuals - was not given much time to last. But it clicked famously, and the world of cricket was never the same again.
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