Courtesy of the Island, 7 March 2011
What do Leonard Woolf, Sir Arthur C. Clarke and Tony Greig have in common? All three Englishmen loved Sri Lanka and her people immensely. Therefore, it was very welcome news to learn that Tony Greig has been recently appointed as Sri Lanka’s Tourism Ambassador to promote this Indian Ocean Island as a popular travel destination.
Greig was born in South Africa. During the apartheid times, by virtue of his Scottish father, he was accepted to play cricket in England and later captained the side untill he lost it, owing to his involvement with Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket. Mainly due to his naturally gregarious personality, now he seems to fit better in Australia than his previous chosen home of England.Due to his 6 ft 7 inches height with a mop of blond hair, ebullient gift of the gab and a penchant to court trouble, he was never far from controversy on and off the field. As a player, he got embroiled in the Trinidad incident, when he ran out West Indian batsman Alvin Kallicharan after the day’s play was over and almost created a riot. Later, Kallicharan was reinstated and it is the only known such incident in cricket history.
Then as a captain, his intention to make the West Indians to ‘Grovel’, still haunts cricketing circles in the Caribbean. In the run up to the 1976 series against the West Indies, one reporter questioned Greig whether the dreadful West Indies fast bowlers posed a threat to the English team. Greig pulled out a publicity stunt by replying, “I am not bothered by those pacies and I do not rate them anything more than Thomson and Lillie. Therefore, when we go there, I intend to make them “grovel.” The word GROVEL had sinister connotations for the West Indian public as most of them were of slave ancestry. Furthermore, that was during the hight of apartheid and this word coming from a white South African was treated as a heavily accentuated faux pas. Rarely has a genuine attempt to psyche out an opposition, failed so spectacularly. That is why in subsequent encounters with the West Indies, fast bowlers of the calibre of Andy Roberts, the late Malcolm Marshal, ‘Big Bird’ Joel Garner and Michael Holding took great delight in adding yards to their run up to execute a particularly venomous delivery when he came into bat.
However, in the Indian subcontinent, he was a great crowd pleaser with his flamboyance and off the field antics. We in Sri Lanka remember him for his love of cricket and way of life in this nook and corner of the world. He always had a special love for Sri Lanka and it’s cricket team. His comments about little Kalu and Jayasuriya and smiling from ear to ear like a Cheshire Cat, showing off his ability to correctly pronounce the toungue twisting name of Warnakulasuriya Patabendige Ushantha Joseph Chaminda Vaas, still evokes pleasant memories of our World Cup glory. During his cricket commentaries, he would often veer into discussing Sri Lankan way of life, the fauna and flora and local food. He once said that there was no fruit in the whole world to beat the tangy taste of the Sri Lanka pineapples. Again on another occasion, during commentaries the camera was focussed on to a heavily laden King Coconut tree and he questioned fellow commentator Ranjit Fernando, why the orange colour apparently over ripe nuts were not plucked! Ranjit on his part however did not retort maybe fearing it would precipitate a riot here as well.
I still remember the tour he made to Colombo in 1974 with the English team as a dashing youngster. He was immensely popular with the Lankan spectators. On one occasion, he was fielding close to the boundary line at the Colombo Oval (P. Sara Stadium now) and dancing a little jig to please the crowd. Some of the appreciative female spectators offered him sandwiches and saw the gentle giant virtually eating out of their hands! Then with his mouth full, he did a sprint to take a catch to dismiss one of our lads. Those were the halcyon days when nobody would think of poisoning a stranger to promote any cause. Nowadays, a cricketer maybe taken to task by the controlling board for such behaviour.
After playing in Sri Lanka, he went to Australia with the English team to continue the tour. When he came to the crease to bat, two Aussie bikini clad beauties came up to him and hugged him and presented a bouquet of flowers. Later, they told the media that they brought the flowers in a portable refrigerator and waited patiently for their adored cricketer. That they said was a tribute the Aussies owed their icon.
Again in the ‘70s, he was playing in the subcontinent and there was adverse crowd behaviour due to the English team’s dissension over an umpire’s decision. Some of the ire was directed at Greig himself who was batting. The following day, a large number of spectators turned up carrying mirrors and in unison they flashed the mirrors to reflect sunlight directly into the batsmen’s eyes. No amount of coercion or arrests by the Police could thwart the situation and the match could not be continued. Thereupon, Tony went down on his knees, lowering his massive frame like a giraffe drinking at a water hole, and in true oriental fashion, with his hands together, appealed to the maddening crowd to let cricket prevail. The situation abated, sanity prevailed and England went on to win the match.
Later, a more mature Greig once advised then English captain Kevin Pietersen, who was also born in South Africa and chose to play for England, to be wary of his performance off the field. “There are always people who are not happy with what you are doing and you will always make mistakes with your utterances with the best of intentions in the world. A silly remark can result in a costly mistake.”
So now with his new appointment as Sri Lanka’s Tourism Ambassador, Tony Greig can lure many a western traveller to come and enjoy the Sri Lankan beaches, cuisine and the smiling faces that await them and cricket of course. Greig may not have been Knighted as he appears to love the East more than the West. So, if we do not honour this great human being, who transcends nationality for the sake of the Gentlemen’s game, who else will honour him? This great lover of Sri Lanka deserves honorary citizenship!