Daniel Brettig and Brydon Coverdale/Cricinfo: Having exerted an influence on the game every bit as imposing as his 6 foot 6 inch frame, Tony Greig died too swiftly and too soon.
Battling lung cancer since he was diagnosed in October, Greig’s familiar presence on television screens was missed greatly at the outset of the Australian summer. The heart attack that claimed him, aged 66, about 1.45pm on the day after the Boxing Day Test, arrived as a shock to the cricket world and a source of enormous sadness to those who knew him.
Greig’s first inkling of illness arrived in mid-year as a bout of bronchitis showed unusual stubbornness, and while commentating in the UAE and then the World Twenty20 in Sri Lanka he was moved to undergo tests that uncovered a lesion in his right lung. Subsequent examinations and operations revealed the extent of the cancer, and he was unable to fulfil his usual duties for Channel Nine in the Brisbane Test against South Africa.
It was the harshest of breaks for a man who had been synonymous with the game in so many countries. Born and raised in South Africa, Greig moved to England to pursue an international career. He proved an effective allrounder over 58 Tests and daring captain of his adopted country, before accepting Kerry Packer’s offer to be one of the architects, captains and chief recruiters for the World Series Cricket revolution. That brought his move to Australia and integral place on the Nine commentary team, a role he maintained alongside overseas work for more than three decades, until his diagnosis.
Late on the first day of the Gabba Test match, the broadcast crossed to Greig’s home in the Sydney suburb of Vaucluse, where he expressed typical optimism in his fight with illness but also a rueful reflection on missing his first day on the Nine commentary team in Brisbane for 33 years. “It’s been an incredible, very short journey so far. You guys will all face it one day I’m sure,” Greig told his fellow commentators.
“You’ve no idea how much one misses getting to the cricket on a day like today. When you’ve been doing it for 33 years it’s absolutely unbelievable. Even my little bloke who came home from school today was almost ‘dad what are you doing at home, you shouldn’t be here’, so it takes a little bit of getting used to, and I’m sure it’s going to get worse as this Test match goes on.”
At the time Greig hoped that he would be fit to return to work at the final Test of the summer in Sydney, scheduled to begin on January 3, but this was not a battle he would win. The impact of Greig’s life on the game of cricket, and the suddenness of his death, was summed up by his longtime commentary colleague, friend and fellow former captain Bill Lawry.
“World cricket has lost one of its great ambassadors,” Lawry told ESPNcricinfo. “Not only was Tony Greig captain of England, captain of the World Series world team, but he just loved travelling the world to places like Sri Lanka, India, England, Dubai, wherever it was played, Greigy would be there. He’s well known right throughout the world, well loved and respected and cricket has lost one of its all-time greats.
“I know the Channel Nine commentary team is absolutely shattered. He’s been a great friend of mine for 33 years. We knew he was sick but we didn’t realise it was going to be this sudden. It has shocked us all.”
Cricket Australia’s chairman Wally Edwards spoke of how Greig’s “illness and too-early death comes as a terrible shock – he will be greatly missed”, while perhaps his most famous adversary Dennis Lillee described “a tough opponent who took on all opposition with aggression and a determination to win. He had a take-no-prisoners attitude which helped him lead England with flare and toughness.”
Nine’s tribute, which extended as far as a half-hour television special following the nightly news, was summed up with these words: “Tony Greig is a name synonymous with Australian cricket – from his playing days as the English captain we loved to hate, to his senior role in the revolution of World Series Cricket, his infamous car keys in the pitch reports and more than three decades of colourful and expert commentary.”
Greig’s place in the game had been somewhat sullied by establishment rebukes of his role in support of Packer, but in recent years he had enjoyed a significant revision and rehabilitation as a senior figure, culminating in his invitation to deliver the MCC’s Cowdrey Lecture at Lord’s in June this year. In the lecture, he explained the reasons behind his decision to sign with WSC, before entering into a typically passionate discussion of the game he loved.
The lecture’s insights contrasted somewhat with the nature of his commentary, which carried both the entertainment value of the showman and the agitator’s spice he had employed so often as a medium pace and off spin bowler, aggressive batsman, outspoken captain and pioneering silly point fielder. His description of moments such as Sachin Tendulkar’s twin centuries against Australia in Sharjah in 1998 and Sri Lanka’s World Cup victory in 1996 have stayed with all who heard them.
At the time of his death, Greig was with his family, including his second wife Vivian, his daughter Beau, his son Tom, and two adult children from his previous marriage – daughter Sam and son Mark. Vivian offered thanks for the support and condolences offered by friends and well-wishers around Australia and the world, all of whom had been witness to Greig’s influence as a cricketer, broadcaster and revolutionary.
Daniel Brettig and Brydon Coverdale are assistant editors at ESPNcricinfo.