x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

A cricket hero passes on, but the memories will always remain

Tony Greig was a great cricketer and his memory will endure.

If, like me, you're 55 and struggling with the vicissitudes of middle age (the spreading waistline, the sagging jaw and the myriad twinges and niggles that might - or might not - prove inconsequential), the New Year is a funny old time. There are inevitably friends and acquaintances who have fallen off the perch in the past 12 months.

But if, like me, you're a cricket fan, the past year has been especially poignant because it saw the death of a towering figure of sport. South African Tony Greig may be remembered for his career as a commentator for Australian television, but when I was a boy he was my one true hero.

Growing up in Brighton, I was 10 when I first caught sight of him at a professional game at nearby Hove. A fresh-faced athlete with flopping blond hair and a dazzling smile, he was a figure snatched straight from the pages of a boy's action comic. Irrepressible, combative, determined and with an unconquerable self-belief and can-do attitude, he played the game in glorious Technicolor rather than the dull monochrome hue of many of his contemporaries.

Over the next 10 years, I worshipped at the shrine of "Greigy" as he captained Sussex and later England, dragging the national game kicking and screaming towards the 21st century. A batsman of withering hooks and flailing drives, he batted as if the game were to be enjoyed rather than endured.

If all else failed, he could be relied on to make a stunning catch or throw down the stumps from cover. He was also remarkably savvy when it came to self-promotion in an age when such things were considered positively distasteful.

His courage when batting, helmetless, against fearsome bowlers was well documented. Yet my abiding memory of him was altogether more personal. One afternoon while playing with my dad on a sleepy village green in the county, I was astonished to see the great man sitting on a nearby bench watching my blundering attempts to hit my dad's benign donkey drops.

The reason for Greig's presence was obvious. His right arm was encased in a sling, courtesy of some mishap at the crease.

The next few minutes were the stuff of childhood dreams. As I batted, I entertained fantasies of Greig wandering over to interrupt our impromptu game; of his taking my dad aside and whispering "Your son is a true prodigy and I'd like your permission to call the selectors tonight to get him included for next week's deciding Test"; of cheering crowds and the two of us holding the Ashes aloft.

No matter that it never happened - it was a delicious delirium, and it was more than enough for my 13-year-old sensibilities that when I eventually hoicked a ball in his direction, he threw it back from his seat with an encouraging smile before wandering off across the common.

Greig will always be remembered as the chief of staff of Kerry Packer, the Australian media tycoon, during the recruitment of international players to World Series Cricket in 1977, a rival commercial set-up that threw the cricketing establishment into turmoil and fractured the game for half a decade.

At the time, I felt grotesquely betrayed that my hero had been plotting the destruction of the game I loved, even as he was pulling on an England sweater.

But the years have lent a softer hue to my judgement. Largely because of Greig's vision, the modern game has adapted to modern tastes. While old duffers like me may wince at the proliferation of Twenty20 and the lack of grace with which the sport is so often played at the international level, I see that without Greig's foresight, it would no longer exist at all.

Apart from collecting his autograph innumerable times, I never met the man, but those who did assured me that he remained uniformly sunny and optimistic, even when battling the lung cancer that eventually took hold of him.

When he returned to Hove last year (his first visit since his abrupt departure 30 years before), he was welcomed with enthusiasm, and his speech on the pavilion was warm, witty and wise. Greig's England blazer now hangs in a glass case over the entrance to the committee room - a small but fitting testimony to his enduring legacy.

It's been unusually warm here this week in the UK, and already thoughts are turning to the summer and the forthcoming Ashes series. While "Greigy" won't be there, we'll remember him all the same.


Michael Simkins is an actor and writer based in London

On Twitter: @michael_simkins