Tony Greig was among the first millionaire cricketers, amiable, engaging, charismatic, a born leader.
He was also a realist and when Ian Botham started his arresting rise towards England’s Test team, Greig knew that his cherished days as an international cricketer were limited.
The autumn-time Centenary Test in Melbourne was his 50th consecutive Test for his adopted country.
Yet the match payments, even for England’s captain, were just 210 pounds per Test. Kerry Packer was offering him $30,000 a year for three years.
The money was attractive and head turning but with his growing number of endorsements like Kellogg’s, the Hamlyn Group and St Peter, Packer’s offer was ‘not a great deal more than what he could currently earn’.
His latest biographer Andy Murtagh says Greig asked for 48 hours to consider the offer and when he and his agent, ex-Australian opener Bruce Francis, met with Packer again on Tuesday, March 22, 1977, he told the business magnate that he was jeopardising not only the English captaincy but his benefit at Sussex which given his popularity could he expected to gross close to one million pounds.
‘Listen,’ said Packer, ‘I know you are important to the success of the (WSC) project and I know the Germans, South Africans and the Chappell brothers think they are a superior race.
‘But you are not the best player in the world and consequently I can’t pay you a lot more than the rest of your World XI teammates, or the leading Australians.
‘I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I’ll give you an extra $10,000 a season for being captain.’
Greig appreciated the straight-talk but says his issues and dilemma was more to do with long-term security rather than immediate monies.
He told his suitor that a young Botham was on the rise and given he was now in his 30s, he was probably two or three failures away from being back on the county circuit full-time. The English captaincy had never been a secure appointment. He appreciated Packer’s generosity, he liked Australia, had enjoyed his guest spots as a commentator and could easily settle in Sydney. But his family’s future was now paramount.
‘If you guarantee me a job for life working for your organisation,’ Greig said, ‘I’ll sign.’
‘No problem,’ said Packer, who immediately offered him $25,000 a year and a low-interest loan to buy a house.
‘Do you still want more licks of the lolly?’ he asked.
Greig was to have a job with Packer until the day he died.
Murtagh’s biography of Greig is slow to start and meanders early before it lifts several gears and celebrates Greig’s audacity, bravery, skill and spirit, a highlight being his unforgettable century in Brisbane in 1974 against the might of Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson, the fastest of all pairs.
Greig infuriated the duo by signaling his own boundaries. When all-England was collapsing about him, Greig was daring, resolute and breathtakingly successful.
He soon succeeded Mike Denness as England’s captain and ensured a set of front-page headlines with a bold set of comments, rarely heard previously from an English captain.
Murtagh, author of many fine biographies, including one on another South African great Barry Richards, had warmed to ‘Tiny Greig’ on their first meeting. He was then a rising young bowler on the Hampshire staff.
If not me, who? – a line borrowed from John F Kennedy – is no hagiography, Murtagh describing Greig’s 1976 series eve comments that he wanted to make the West Indies grovel as ‘catastrophic and offensive’.
The tall man from Queenstown quickly learnt his lessons. In India in 1976-77 he called Indian umpires the best in the world and in the opening Test, paceman John Lever had three shouts in a row upheld!
England’s highly-successful winter tour which had a finale in Melbourne with the Centenary Test saw the English players away for four months, of which their wives and partners were allowed to be with them for a maximum of just 21 nights.
It highlights how cricket, pre-Packer was in the Dark Ages on and off the field, the players little more than patsies for vision-impaired sets of administrators all over the Empire.
Among those interviewed was famed expressman John Snow who said part of his reason for becoming a World Series rebel was because he didn’t want to become a county-circuit umpire.
The World Series chapters are among the very best in a near 400-page book, Murtagh’s wide researching including chats with Sussex’s John Spencer, who was one of the least surprised when news of a breakaway movement were first splashed on front pages in Australia and England in May 1977.
‘We knew that Greigy was a pioneer for decent pay for cricketers at all levels,’ Spencer told Murtagh. ‘He saw the large amounts of money being accumulated by the TCCB with little being passed on to the people who counted – the players.’
Spencer was alerted to Packer’s intentions as early as February. Wintering in Sydney as a cricket coach at Cranbrook, Spencer had been contacted by Packer to coach his son James.
‘I didn’t have a clue who he was (initially),’ he said.
Later Packer asked him to name his top 14 Australian cricketers and his top 14 from the rest of the world. Packer was planning his own breakaway outfit, but it had to be kept confidential.
The cricket world was about to be hit with a sledgehammer.
- If not me, who? the story of Tony Greig the reluctant rebel by Andrew Murtagh is a $50 four-star hardback from Ken Piesse Cricket Books and cricketbooks.com.au