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My Friend. Sri Lanka’s Friend. We will all miss TONY GREIG

January 22, 2013

Ranijit Fernando, courtesy of the Sunday Times

52585.2On the 27th if December 2012, I had a mail from Tony Greig and the family which read “Hope you had a great Christmas”, and to it was also attached a video clip of the wonderfully happy family by the Christmas tree and gifts, together sending their Christmas Greetings. The photos that were attached showed Tony with Vivian, his wonderful wife and children Mark, Samantha, Beau and Tom, all around him, looking as happy as they could be, with Tony even playing table tennis with his son Mark. I quickly reciprocated the kind wishes, and told Tony how delighted I was, to see him make such great progress. I had been receiving encouraging updates about his health from his close buddy, Shiran Manasuriya, after he was diagnosed with lung cancer, and what I saw was looking good.

The news of his passing way a few days later was, therefore, a terrible shock, and took time to soak in. It was hard to imagine that such a wonderful human being and a true friend such as he was no more. Moreover, he was a great friend of Sri Lanka, and of all Sri Lankans.

Tony GreigTony and I had played against each other on a few occasions, and it was after the 1976/77 tour of India where under his fearless leadership England thrashed India in the first three tests by a huge margin, that I came to know him better when he and his team visited Sri Lanka. England, not having won in the subcontinent for 15 years, were the clear underdogs against the Indians, who possessed one of the best spin attacks ever. They nevertheless bearded their opponents in their own den. Tony engaged and became the friend of  the Indian crowds wherever he went; and was extremely popular — in a way nullifying any hostility that visitors are usually exposed to when touring. His crowning performance was when he scored 103 on a wicked, dreadful pitch in Calcutta, carrying a stomach bug and running a temperature, throughout the innings. This was Tony at his best.

tony plus sanath GREIG AND MURALI ARM

It was in 1996 at the World Cup in the subcontinent that we became very close friends. Television coverage of cricket attained a new dimension in the hands of Mark Mascarenhas the owner of Worldtel, and television crews and commentators crisscrossed the length and breadth of the subcontinent in Chartered Russian cargo planes, covering the world cup, in a way not done before. It was one hell of an experience, and long term friendships were forged, by the close cricket fraternity, and it was guys like Tony Greig that were the catalyst for the bonding, that made it what it was. To share the commentary box in the final at Lahore with Richie Benaud, Tony Greig, Ian Chappell, Sunil Gavaskar, Imran Khan, Ravi Shashtri, Michael Holding and Geoffrey Boycott, and many other cricketing greats and wonderful broadcasters, in the earlier matches, making long lasting friendships, was something that I never even dreamt of  when I embarked  on a career in cricket commentary. It will always linger in my memory, for the rest of my days.

 Since that time, Tony, Viv and their wonderful family, became a part of our lives and were always a major topic of conversation, whenever we met. Tony was an unbelievably loyal and true friend, and was an absolute model family man, He was a true gentleman, proper in everything he did, and earned the respect of everyone he came in contact. I believe, that was why he was able to win the hearts of even his opponents and detractors, who may have,  at times, disagreed with some of his hard revolutionary views. He was an extremely devoted husband and father, and just loved and adored his family. I have no doubt that the feelings were entirely mutual. Almost every day, you would find him spending time in a corner of the commentary box chatting to his family on his lap top. He just loved Viv and the children by his side, and when the children were smaller and weren’t attending school, they travelled with him whenever possible. He was generous and helpful even to a fault, and there were times when people took advantage of his generosity but that never did deter him, and his kindness continued unabated. I recall the number of times he had gone out of his way to help someone irrespective of whether he knew him well or not. He expected nothing in return. He treated everyone with the same respect, the people in high places and the cricket lovers on the streets.

 Tony, made it a point to visit our home for dinner, every time he visited Sri Lanka and during the evening, you would find him quietly moving away from the thick of the party, to spend time with the children and those who were too shy or lacked confidence to join in. It is amazing how well he interacted and got into their world. What a communicator!

He was a terrific conversationalist and a superb story teller, with some extremely interesting stories to tell on cricket as well as his own life. You could spend hours listening to him, and my family always looked forward to his visits.

Tony Greig, together with Kerry Packer, revolutionized cricket. They were the architects of World Series Cricket, which, according to some, was the most competitive form of  cricket ever played, with the best players in the world at that time, coming together, to play against each other. Tony was considered to be the villain in many quarters, and attracted the wrath of the establishment, and the more conservative cricket lovers, at that time. He paid a heavy price at the prime of his career, but,  in hind sight, the world of cricket  completely embraced the coloured clothing, playing under lights, coloured balls, restricted fields and many other innovations, which were put in place, by his initiative. Above all, World Series Cricket paved the way for bringing unheard of payments for cricketers. Cricketers of today enjoy very attractive remunerations that compare favourably with most of the other popular sports, and have Tony to thank for this.

He stood by Kerry Packer with unstinted loyalty, throughout those turbulent times and was closely by his side during the legal battles, which shook the cricket world. Tony moved to Australia and joined Kerry’s media empire Channel 9. The Packers were passionately loyal to him in return, and there association had stood firm to date. The story goes that Kerry Packer had once hired one of the best Management Consultants in the world, to reorganize his company, and had given him a totally free hand to do what he considered fit, but there was just only one exception, Tony Greig could not be touched. That’s how his loyalty was viewed, and Tony never let them down.  

He was always thinking of new revolutionary ideas to bring more charm and interest into cricket, and on most occasions ahead of his time, but he always believed in the values that cricket stood for, and never was prepared to compromise on that. Managing and maneuvering the two, was the challenge which Tony was brave enough to attempt, when making  changes. Some of the changes that have now been put in place by those in charge, were on his mind a few years before.

He was a fervent lover of Sri Lanka and SriLankans, and would make any excuse to visit our country. The Sri Lankans to a person reciprocated, and he was very proud to be referred to as a supporter of Sri Lanka. This attachment to the island was holistic and not confined to cricket alone. At the time his daughter Samantha was graduating as a teacher for children with learning disabilities, he told me that he would love to see her spending some time in Sri Lanka making a contribution. I arranged for a meeting for him with the Moir School, and soon afterwards, to his great delight, Samantha was here, teaching children.

His small son Tom was getting very keen on his cricket, and showing keen interest in it, and before long, Tom and a team of his friends accompanied by Tony, were traveling around Sri Lanka a few months ago, playing cricket. He was thrilled no end at the reception and hospitality they got, and the fact that Tom and his friends were able to interact with Sri Lankan boys of their age.

He was officially recognized as an Ambassador for Sri Lanka tourism recently. Way before this however, for years he was speaking to the world on television, about the beauty of Sri Lanka, and the friendliness of its people, without any reward or persuasion from anyone. Tony let himself go with the Sri Lankan food, and never had the heart to turn down an invitation. He loved the people and the people adored him.

tony-greig-andrew-strauss-mahela-jaywardene-javagal-srinath-1340758I used to always wonder how Tony had the energy to accept some of the social engagements after a day’s work.  In the commentary box, he worked very hard, but Tony found it difficult to say NO, and was ever ready to oblige. He had some wonderful friends in Sri Lanka, like hotelier Hiran Cooray of Jetwing, who was a wild life buff and used to fill Tony in on some of the most unusual information on Sri Lankan birds, flowers, animals etc. The evening before, and we in the commentary box were at the receiving end fielding quiz questions and looking for the answers, sometimes without a clue. Tony enjoyed it, and it was all in great fun.

In 1998, when Murali was called for chucking by Umpire Ross Emerson  in Adelaide, and skipper Arjuna Ranatunga stood up for him, almost taking his team away,  the whole cricketing world stood still, for thirteen minutes. Cat calls, hoots, jeers greeted the Sri Lankans. I as Manager, immediately walked to the middle, to try to diffuse the situation, amidst this strong hostility.

It would have taken someone really brave and courageous to stand up and be counted in the midst of this barrage. This man was Tony Greig, he was on air at the time, and the instant it happened, there was Tony, who straight away condemned the umpires action, and pointed out that the umpire was looking for glory. This sparked off a reaction of more strong words from Ian Botham and Mark Nicholas, who were also very supportive, and suddenly there was divided opinion. Tony Greig was on our side, and in a situation such as that, there was no man better than him. The support we got, to give our side of the story from the electronic media, was overwhelming, thanks to people like Tony, being in the forefront. His contribution to Sri Lanka Cricket has been enormous, the players trusted him and he was always ready to proffer advice.

When SriLanka was once looking for a Coach for the National team, Tony was asked to recommend a name. He diligently looked around, considered all the strengths and weaknesses of Sri Lanka Cricket and recommended John Dyson, who he felt, had all the merits and the right attributes for the job. John was hired. To my mind he did a fine job and perfectly suited Sri Lanka Cricket’s culture. He had experience as a school teacher, and had complete control of the players, treating the seniors and the juniors with fairness, maintaining a tight rein. John Dyson was mature and had a fatherly approach too, with outstanding organizational skill, knowledge of the game and strategy.

I know that Tony was very disappointed when Sri Lanka Cricket did not hire him for a second term, as some of the players did not fancy his approach, and John did not swim with the tide. Tony always believed that the culture of our cricket would have been different, if John was around for longer.There was a time, when Sri Lanka Cricket was in turmoil, not so long ago, with factions lobbying and fighting for power, to take control of the administration. Although Tony knew all sides very well, and had their fullest trust and respect, he stayed away from the tussle and said little. I however know, that he, at every possible opportunity advised the parties to make compromises and work together, in the greater interests of Sri Lanka Cricket, in which he completely believed. 
In the commentary box he was in total control of himself. There was no doubt that Benaud, Greig and Ian Chappell were the most respected television cricket commentators in the business, and believe me that you cannot get three better friends than them.They are all utterly uncomplicated, makes you feel totally at home , have no inhibitions and always prepared to help. I considered it a privilege to work with Tony. He never ever made you feel that he was superior to you. He was your friend and colleague, and made sure that you knew this, by his attitude towards you. New comers to cricket commentary in those early days, had to learn on the job, as there were no courses or any formal training for them. Most fellow commentators, prefer not to say much to each other about commentary itself, as it may be construed to be interfering, unless asked. Tony was different, he had the self confidence and would tactfully guide you through.The microphone was like a toy in Greigy’s  hands, and he was like a child with it. He loved talking to the people in the drawing rooms and he gave the impression that he really imagined being seated with them.Despite the thousands of hours he would have put in behind the mike, he was never bored with it, and every time he approached the commentators desk, it seemed like a new experience to him, filled with enthusiasm. When he took over, he was anxious to lift the tempo, and would say things like “come on, let’s Rev this up” or “Let’s have some fun”.
With his powerful voice, lucid articulation and aura about him, Greigy had the knack of lifting the tempo by many a pedestal in an instant. He had the special ability to build heroes into  super heroes or even mere mortals into super heroes by his powerful commentary. “Little Kalu” and Sanath Jayasuriya became super heroes overnight in Australia in 1995 and in the 1996 World Cup. The build-up is now folklore, and is still spoken about. His descriptions of Sachin Tendulkar are well known. It only required Tony Greig to believe in you. His quotes or descriptions on commentary, such as “Jumping on the chairs and Dancing in the aisles,” referring to the frenzied crowds, is now legendary. Even those Sri Lankans who did not know much English, in a strange way just understood Tony Greig. To them, he could say nothing wrong.

Tony was outspoken and there were times, he got on the wrong side of some stations, for saying the wrong thing, but one thing was certain, that he never ever abused the power of the rare privilege he possessed. There was no malice in him and he bore no grudges. Greigy  was a true professional and meticulously prepared and worked on his commentary or describing the more complicated nuances of the game. He was able to explain things in the simplest form, making himself understood to even novices.

I recall, the early days of my commentary work in Sharjah, I used to follow Tony very closely. One day after the luncheon session, he was preparing for a stand up with the mike, in front of the camera, and turned to me and said “Every time I do this, it takes a few years of my life” quite surprised, I turned to him and replied that, I thought that I was the only one that got butterflies in my stomach, to which his reply was “You must be joking, this happens to me all the time”. He straightaway put me at ease, and also displayed his great modesty by showing that he was just like everyone else.

At the 2003 World Cup, in the SriLanka – Bangladesh match at Pietermaritzburg, I was on air in the first session of the game, when Chaminda Vass picked up four wickets in five balls, including a hat trick, in the first three deliveries of the match. At the end of my stint, I received a call from Tony “Mate, that was some of the best commentary, I have heard, it was outstanding” he said. I always valued those comments, coming from a true friend, who new what he was talking about, and never minced his words, good or bad.

Tony was last in Sri Lanka commentating on the T20 World Cup last year. As he was spending time in Pallekelle and Hambantota, and also visiting places in the North and East, which he just loved doing, we could not get together for a meal, for the first time. Since, I was doing some work for World Radio, on the final, I walked into the TV box, which was next door, to meet him. He was running a temperature and had a persistent cough. Although he was not his usual self, he told me of a massive investment that was in the pipe line, with some very influential friends, he was associated with, and that they had already visited Sri Lanka a number of times to finalize the arrangement. He was beaming with enthusiasm at the huge benefits Sri Lanka too would gain out of this project, and was looking forward to his return. His parting words were “I will tell you more, very soon”. It is really sad that Tony wouldn’t be there to see this venture take root, and be a part of it, because he was always very interested about our country’s development and growth, and without doubt would have continued to wear Sri Lanka on his sleeve, and the project would have been a great success.

 The passing away of Tony, will be a loss difficult for his wonderful family to overcome, and my prayers are that god will give Viv and the children all the courage and strength necessary to get through this tough time.

 Australia v Sri Lanka - Third Test: Day 1Sri Lanka Cricket and the Sri Lankans have lost one of their closest and dearest friends, and the void left by him would be, if not impossible, very very hard to fill. The best our cricketers and administrators could do is to come together and put the game on the right path, in a way which Tony Greig would have been really proud to be associated with, and ensure success.

Dear friend Tony, May your soul Rest in Peace.

Web Editors note:  When Murali was no-balled by Emerson at Adelaide it so happened that the SL squad was scheduled to attend a dinner dance organised by the Adelaide Wellwishers for SL Cricket on the day after that match. Both Ranjit and Arjuna sat at my table because I was President of that little organisation. The team was staying at the Hilton just round the corner from our Chinese restaurant. Both left early to particpate in a serious consultation with Thilanga Sumathipala (President, BCCSL) who had just flown in to  help cope with the serious charges faced by skipper Ranatunga. Tony Greig was also part of these discussions –joining meetings at Tilak Chandratilleke’s house –.and continued to advise them at Perth where the court of inquiry was held a few days later.

It was through Ranjit that I met Tony accidentally on two different occasions in the TV media centre at the SSC grounds on rain-spoilt days when few were around. So, I knew enough about Tony Greig for Ranjit’s APPRECIATION to bring tears into my eyes. Indeed, I shook with tears during the SCG memorial. What better ‘force’ can a man leave behind.

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