Tony Greig puts his pads on
© PA Photos/Getty Images

Essay

Greigy, Robbo, and me

Tall and friendly, Tony Greig was a hero, ready-minted, for Sussex, England and the world in the late '60s and '70s

James Mettyear |

The Central Recreation Ground, Hastings was where I first saw Tony Greig. I'd heard a lot about him. My cricket chum's excited description of his debut innings in county cricket earlier in the 1967 season - 156 with 15 fours and two sixes, including one off Brian Statham, over extra cover - had filled me with wide-eyed awe. But Sussex versus Kent in the County Championship was my first sighting.

I had just turned ten, old enough to take the train by myself. My uncle Robin, known as Robbo, met me at the station. He had three daughters, "the lambs", as he called them, whom he doted on, and they on him, but he had always wanted a son, and I was more than happy to fill the surrogate role occasionally.

Robbo was my favourite uncle. Even though he was a Kent supporter. Five foot four in his socks, bald as a coot, pot-bellied, with eyes ever on the look-out for sources of amusement, he was a red-faced bundle of energy and enthusiasm. He swore like a trooper. "Never in front of the ladies, mind you," he advised, "and certainly not in front of your mother." In truth, his Anglo-Saxon epithets were tame by today's standards, but they were nonetheless thrilling for a boy from an oath-proscribed home.

The ground was in the heart of town. You came straight past Woolworths on the high street and into a green oasis, ringed by the backs of shops and terraced houses, most stained by salt from the English Channel just a couple of long throws to the south.

We took our seats in a rickety old stand - "It's a bloody cowshed." said Robbo - and waited for the toss. We both hoped Sussex would win it and bat, so we'd see Greig at the crease. Me in the hope of a reprise of the debut I'd missed; Robbo to see the "long streak of piss" cut down to size by "his" boys.

Sussex lost the toss - "Bugger" - and would bowl. The weather was muted, a sea fret hovering under a flat grey sky, but when Sussex came onto the pitch, the gangling figure of Greig, with his crown of neatly combed platinum hair seemed to light up all around him.

"Bloody hell, he is tall". He certainly was. Six foot seven, towering over the stumpy Ken Suttle, who struggled to keep pace with him as they made their way to the square. Neither Robbo or I were new to tall players. Sussex's Alan Oakman was only an inch shorter than Greig, and Kent's Norman Graham an inch taller, but both these men were English-tall and carried their height in a slightly embarrassed fashion, as if apologising for the gift nature had given them. Not so Greig. He clearly relished it. Shoulders thrown back, he was sharing a joke with Ken as he took up his position at second slip, and the sound of his laughter carried in the still air across the outfield. No first-season shrinking-violet syndrome, then. He was already at home.

Enthroned on a Jaguar at Hove in 1976

Enthroned on a Jaguar at Hove in 1976 © PA Photos

It didn't take long for him to make an impact. In the third over of the day, Brian Luckhurst edged Don Bates very low down and Greig, diving forward, stuck out a telescopic arm, and as he lay spreadeagled face down on the turf, raised the ball in triumph. Luckhurst hesitated before the man in the long white coat raised the finger. Greig held the pose throughout the umpire's deliberation, milking the moment, before levering himself up slowly to acknowledge the applause of the crowd.

"Bloody show-pony." There was some grumbling among the Kent supporters in the cowshed but after Robbo's emphatic "If it's good enough for Syd Buller, it's good enough for me", all grudgingly agreed it was indeed a hell of a catch.

Greig came on to bowl and Robbo crowed with delight when his favourite, John Shepherd, the West Indian, hit him for four off his second ball.

He looked dead fast, though. Not as quick as my bowling hero, John Snow. Obviously. But fast enough, and after a couple of overs I felt confident enough to share my assessment with Robbo.

Unusually, my uncle didn't respond immediately but continued to watch intently through his binoculars. He eventually lowered them and, his gaze still focused on the play, delivered his judgement: "He's not quick. Fast-medium at best. And he sprays it around too much. And his run-up's too long. And he bends his front leg on delivery and doesn't use his height." Then he added, "But he swings it. And he's always at them." Oh. I stood corrected and silent for a space, before piping up, "Still, hell of a catch." "Yes," said Robbo, smiling, "Helluva catch."

At lunch, Kent were 113 for 1 and Robbo took me to the snack caravan to buy hamburgers (we'd both already demolished our pack-ups). Robbo was what he called a "trencherman" and was keen for me, a "skinny streak of piss", to put some flesh on. "Get that down you" he said, passing me just the second burger of my life.

Burgers were new in those days. My first, from a Wimpy Bar, had disappointed. But this was different. A big, greasy mouthful of flavour. With onions. We then set off for the bar, where my uncle bought me a bottle of Coca-Cola. Another treat. Robbo had a pint of beer and when he'd drained it, he started on another before rummaging in his haversack, finally announcing, "Here, I've got something for you" and handed me a pair of binoculars. He grinned as I looked them over reverently. "You need your own bins if you're going to watch the cricket". My own binoculars. I was still repeating "Thank you, Uncle Robin" as we took our seats to watch Shepherd take fresh guard after the break.

Rather a tall drink of water: bowling in the 1966 County Championship against Middlesex

Rather a tall drink of water: bowling in the 1966 County Championship against Middlesex © PA Photos/Getty Images

The afternoon session passed in a bit of a blur. Literally. It took me until the end of that season to get the hang of the bins. They were heavy things, from an army-surplus store, and as well as making my wrists ache, attempting to track the play resulted in only occasional flashes of magnified clarity. I missed Greig's first wicket altogether. Colin Cowdrey, clean bowled for 118. "That must have swung a bit to get Kipper". But when Euros Lewis came on to bowl his offspin ("He's a pie-man") I managed a steady focus on Greig, crouching what looked like inches from the bat, at silly point. "He's got big balls, I'll give him that."

Greig got two more wickets, and another slip catch, all of which eluded me, though with the catch, I did manage to bring the back of Syd Buller's head and his raised finger close enough to touch. Kent ended the day on 383 for 9. As soon as the players made to leave the field, a group of boys clutching autograph books ran to cut them off before they got to the pavilion. I joined them and stood in the longest queue, for Greig's signature. When it was finally my turn, I summoned up courage and told him, with a slight quaver, that it was a "helluva catch". "Thenks" he said in a South African accent still then exotic and patted me on the head. A new idol minted there and then.

For the next decade, as he went into wider circulation, Greig proved a rewarding but challenging hero - a silver doubloon, never entirely losing its elemental lustre but frequently in need of restorative polishing.

Over the next couple of seasons, I watched him down at Hove in most home games. Save for five wickets and a brisk 93 against Hampshire in July 1969, I don't remember him making any significant contribution. But he always did something. A booming cover drive or a pull shot bouncing off the scoreboard for six. (Sixes were rarer than burgers in those days). Or a bouncer injudiciously aimed at Mike Procter's head, who then hit him for 4, 4, 6, 4 as he was clobbered for over 130 off 20 odd overs. And he always signed autographs. I got him seven times in two seasons. Once, he even said, "Ach, it's you again." But he still grinned at me and he still signed. I never saw him refuse anyone.

Then, on July 8th, 1970, I joined Robbo and his middle lamb for Kent v Sussex in the Gillette Cup at Canterbury. We sat under the spreading boughs of the famous lime tree. Robbo regaled us throughout the day with tales of watching Les Ames, Godfrey Evans and Doug Wright as a boy.

The middle lamb was a brain box who had developed an encyclopaedic knowledge of Kent cricket, and to her father's obvious pleasure, not only admonished him when he nudged me and pointed out an attractive "popsy" in the crowd but corrected him when he got some fact or figure wrong. Which was often. Robbo was never one for statistical detail; it was the story that mattered.

Kent's illustrious history - whether fact or myth - didn't help much on that hot July day. Sussex thrashed them, and Greig was Man of the Match: 54 in the first innings, out of 199, and then five wickets. By the end of the day, both middle lamb and Robbo himself were clearly smitten. I knew that to be true because, even with his daughter out of earshot, my uncle no longer talked of the long streak of piss, but of "Greigy".

Greig leads a Sussex practice session at the start of the season in 1974

Greig leads a Sussex practice session at the start of the season in 1974 © PA Photos/Getty Images

And Sussex did it again three years later. Gillette Cup quarter-final, August 1, 1973, at Hove. By this time Greig was a newly established England player and Sussex captain.

Again, I went with Robbo, and we very nearly missed it. My uncle had organised the day but when we pitched up ticketless at the Tate Gates, we were firmly turned away. A sellout. The stewards ("bloody little Hitlers") had no truck with Robbo's "Come on, it's the boy's birthday today." (It wasn't.)

But, he wasn't giving up that easily and when told a little warily about how I got into the ground for free with my mates, the next thing I knew I was giving my portly uncle a leg-up over the garden wall of one of the big houses that backed onto the sea end of the ground. Inside, buoyed by our success, Robbo's charm hit overdrive and he somehow sweet-talked the less draconian in-ground ushers so effectively, that we ended up in the gangway of the members' pavilion, right next to the players' balcony.

During the first innings I watched as Greig worked his way through nearly a whole packet of Benson and Hedges, and Robbo, the only Kent supporter among us, cheered every run as his lads chased 264 in the second. Now a teenager, I was a little embarrassed by this, but fortunately there weren't many of them. Runs, that is. Kent were bowled out for 135.

Greig played only a support role that day; a quick-fire 36 in the Sussex innings and two wickets, including that of Kent's top scorer, Graham Johnson, caught by Tony Buss off a long-hop. But that didn't matter. As the players stood on the outfield and basked in the cheers of the 10,000-strong crowd, Sussex had won.

I watched as the small boys lined up to get the skipper's autograph - I was above all that now - and noted that Robbo had joined them. He and Greig were soon engaged in animated conversation. Both were laughing, heads thrown back, while the queue of small boys lengthened, shifting anxiously from foot to foot. After what seemed an eternity, they shook hands warmly and Robbo patted his new friend familiarly on the back. He came bounding back up the pavilion steps, clutching his signed scorecard - "It's for the middle lamb," he lied - and beaming from ear to ear. "He's a bloody fantastic bloke."

The sense it was Greig's Sussex that won the game was palpable. John Spencer, the Sussex bowler, told me recently that when Greig took over, the whole atmosphere at a club "dogged by backbiting, cynicism and negativity" changed almost overnight. Greig was a breath of bracing sea air.

Nearly run out in Delhi in 1976, on the tour when he captured hearts all over India

Nearly run out in Delhi in 1976, on the tour when he captured hearts all over India © Getty Images

Even if his own performances fell short of his figures with England, and Sussex continued to struggle, it was never for want of trying. Off the field, in quiet moments, he was honest about his limits as a player, particularly his bowling, but once he crossed that boundary rope, he feared nobody. He led from the front. And while he was hyperactive and would sometimes hand out an expletive-laden roasting on the field, he always apologised after the game. No malice. How could there be with a man whose greatest quality, as Alan Knott has written, was his love of people and cricket?

He knew too the limits of his tactical acumen, but he listened to others. As Geoff Boycott has observed, Greig was a man who didn't let his ego get in the way of doing his job properly. Mike Brearley confirmed to me that his views on the captain he succeeded remain unchanged from when he wrote, nearly half a century ago, that much of the credit for the return of the Ashes in 1977 belonged to Tony Greig. "When he was dismissed as captain he might have shown resentment [but] he could not have been more helpful." That's what Spencer remembers most: a man generous to a fault in both word and deed. All the players at Sussex loved him. Without exception. Even the notoriously hard to please opening bowler and later county coach, Buss, can't think of anyone who didn't like him. "Except idiots."

Over the next few years, Robbo and I followed Greig's every move - my uncle, if anything, more assiduously than me. At the end of his monthly phone call with my mother, he'd always ask to be handed to "the boy" and it was always to talk about cricket. and invariably we'd end up on Greigy.

There was a lot to talk about. Not all of it good. Robbo and I disagreed on the Alvin Kallicharran run-out controversy in the first Test on the 1973-74 Caribbean tour. I was full of pained condemnation but while Robbo agreed it was against the spirit of the game, it was a heat-of-the-moment thing, and besides, "He plays the game hard. That's what England needs. Enough of this gentlemanly bollocks."

We were as one, though, in our celebration of our hero's performance in the final Test of that tour, bowling out West Indies with his offspin to square the series. And as for his fearless century against the terrifying Lilian Thomson in the first Test of the 1974-75 series down under, Robbo loved, with a glee even greater than my own, Greigy's signalling of his own boundaries.

The following summer, even though he'd seen it on the highlights, I had to give my uncle a blow-by-blow telephonic account of the new England captain's 96 I'd witnessed on my first visit to Lord's. "A right bugger I couldn't be there with you."

Greig could be

Greig could be "dead fast", like when he felled Dayle Hadlee at Trent Bridge in 1973 © Getty Images

The following year, though, would bring sterner challenges than the run-out. It was the year that punk rock emerged, and I rather gingerly took on some of the trappings. A Beatles, Stones and Faces fan (in that order), I found the music at first frightening, but unable to grow mine to hippy-length, I liked the hair and I eagerly cut mine - much to Robbo's delighted derision ("You look like a bloody hedgehog").

In late May, I tuned in to Roy Plomley's Desert Island Discs with the England captain as guest. As the familiar theme tune faded out, I knew the Sex Pistols wouldn't feature, but was hopeful of at least the Beatles. Such hopes were quickly dashed. Greig kicked off with Vera Lynn and then compounded matters with Ken Dodd, Peters and Lee, and Kenneth McKellar. I heard recently that when John Snow was once staying with his former captain in Australia and expressed a desire to see Rod Stewart, then probably the biggest rock star on the planet, Greig, with typical generosity, secured tickets, before admitting that he'd never heard of the bloke.

During the interview, Tony told Mr Plomley the thing he'd most like to get away from on his desert island was the taxman. His only real interests were cricket and sleeping, and his luxury would be a big bed with a good mattress. His book of choice was Wisden. Truly then, to part-quote CLR James, "a man who only cricket knew". Cricket and money. At the end of the programme, with the West Indies imminent, Roy asked Greig if he thought England could "see them off". He replied:

"I don't like making big statements about what we're going to do to people, because invariably they backfire."

Ah. Tony. If only you'd listened to your own advice. A week later, I watched as he made his infamous "grovel" prediction from the top of the Sussex Pavilion for BBC Sportsnight.

"Oh, no. That's really asked for it." I knew he wasn't a racist. Robbo, a Daily Mail reader - "for the racing" - had told me some years before of an interview when Greig, unlike most cricketers of the time, had condemned apartheid as "morally wrong" and supported the sporting boycott. But I ask you, a white South African using language in such mindless fashion? And at a time when economic decline in his adopted home was fuelling racial tension and West Indies had just taken a shellacking from Lillee and Thomson? Not just wrong but stupid. Later, contemporaries would observe that Greig seemed to lack a filter between his thoughts and his mouth. But to designate such utterances as the articulation of a thought was perhaps unfair. This was hardly an opinion, I decided; more the inevitable verbal misfire of the preternaturally eloquent, and so, of little consequence. I knew someone like that: Robbo was always telling me not to listen to a word he said when he got excited.

And so the revolution begins: Greig and Kerry Packer at the Dorchester in London in 1977

And so the revolution begins: Greig and Kerry Packer at the Dorchester in London in 1977 © PA Photos

And so, while later that summer at The Oval, I remember thinking he had it coming when I watched a Holding yorker demolish Greig's stumps, I was absolutely made up when he had the good grace to get down on his knees and crawl over the outfield in front of the West Indies fans. In mine and Robbo's books, he'd redeemed himself.

And that winter, his reputation was burnished to a dazzling sheen. The 1976-77 tour of India was the high point of Greig's career. It wasn't just his performances - his century at Eden Gardens, over seven hours, with a raging temperature; still the greatest rearguard innings Mike Selvey has seen - but the way he took the Indian public to his heart and won theirs. From the moment he sweet-talked the home umpires at the start of the tour with the charm of Robbo schmoozing the pavilion ushers at Hove, to when England left Bombay with their first series win in India since 1934, the tour was a personal and collective triumph.

Then the following summer, he did it again. When the Packer affair broke, not only my sense of the world but my sense of self was questioned in a way nothing else had done up to that point in my life. Here was I, the lefty student with the quasi-punk haircut, now suddenly firmly on the side of tradition: outraged and devastated as my hero and this mercenary Aussie depth-charged the very foundations of the game. Not only was he sacrificing the England captaincy on mammon's altar, he was taking my favourite players, Snow, Knott and Underwood, with him. No more the laughing cavalier, now the money-grabbing pirate. It shook me to the core. I remember wandering agitatedly around my university halls of residence looking for someone to speak to about it. A few new acquaintances showed a mild interest, but most knew nothing of cricket. There was only one person I wanted to talk to.

I called Robbo from a phone box. If I'd been expecting soothing affirmation, I was quickly disabused. He was having none of my talk of betrayal. "The committee men were asking for it. They've filled their coffers for over a century while the players get peanuts. Hats off to Greigy for having the balls to take them on." And when, swayed by the prevailing revisionism of the day, I ventured that Greig wasn't that good a player after all, I got a earful. "Bollocks. You don't get over 3000 Test runs at 40 against the likes of Lillee and Thomson, Roberts and Holding and Bedi and Chandrasekhar without being a helluva player. And all his big runs were made with England in trouble. And what about his wickets? What about Port-of-Spain? What about the catches?"

I felt a little ashamed when I finally put the phone down and reflected that both men - my squat, "pen pushing" Mail-reading uncle and the impossibly tall former England captain and Seekers fan - were more punk than I'd ever be.

Vale, Tony: a tribute at the SCG in 2012

Vale, Tony: a tribute at the SCG in 2012 © Getty Images

After he went to Australia, I lost touch with Greigy, lacking a satellite dish. I caught occasional snatches of his super-charged commentary but confess, though they were hugely popular with Robbo, that I didn't much like them. I'd always been in the John Arlott rather than the Brian Johnston camp, and the snippets I did catch - the Good Night Charlies, the over-enthusiasm for the Carib Girls, the mail-order brides and the bickering Pakistanis - all confirmed his alarming propensity for putting his foot in his mouth.

I lost touch with Robbo too. Raising my own family, paying the mortgage - "Never forget the mortgage," as Richie Benaud would remind us when talking of the genesis of World Series Cricket - all got in the way. I'd get bulletins from my mother about the hip operation, the loss of sight. And the Alzheimer's. But I did nothing with them, save hold for a minute a momentary sadness and make a mental note to this year, send a Christmas card.

Play stopped forever at the Central Recreation Ground, Hastings, in 1996. It was replaced by a multi-storey car-park and a now rather dispirited shopping centre, its small square flanked by two pound shops, a Superdrug, a vape shop and not much else. At one end there is a bronze statue of a cricketer. Not, as it should be, of AW Greig but of a generic batsman playing an "artist's impression" of a hook shot. As Joni Mitchell sang:

They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot

Robbo died in January 2012, Greigy at the end of the same year. Robbo's funeral was in a small church on Romney Marsh; Greig's in Westminster Abbey. Both venues were packed with mourners and all the talk was of the two men's big-heartedness, and above all, of their love of life and people. At the Abbey, Dennis Amiss spoke of Greig's friendship and loyalty. At St Thomas', Fairfield, the middle lamb talked of her memories of childhood, and how her father had "made each day seem like an adventure".

Don't it always seem to go
That you don't know what you've got
Till it's gone.

Joni was right.

 

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