This year will mark the 50th anniversary since cricket caught first sight of a player whose profile and performances would illuminate Sussex for the next decade or more – Tony Greig.
Back in the Sixties lots of county pros went to South Africa during the winter in search of coaching and playing work. Counties only paid their players for six months of the year. From October to March they had to fend for themselves.
Jack Oakes, Alan Oakman, Ian Thomson, Richard Langridge and Mike Buss were among the Sussex players who worked at Queen’s College in Cape Town and Buss returned from there in 1965 raving about a 6ft 8in all-rounder with an unmistakable shock of blond hair that, according to Wisden, “gleamed like a golden helmet in the sun.”
Greig had just made his first class debut aged 19 and although he was born and raised in South Africa he was proud of his British roots.
When the offer of a trial at Sussex came, it was his Scottish father who had to decide whether he stayed at home and studied for a BA or head to Hove. “He used to slam into me for not reading enough, for generally being immature,” remembered Greig. “But in the end he grinned and said ‘go over to England and see what you can do – for a year mind.”
What he did in 1966 was take 55 wickets for Sussex seconds while only one batsman scored more than his 362 runs. A full-time contract soon followed. Captain Jim Parks recalled Greig as a big personality, both in physical appearance and self-confidence. “He had so much natural ability and he knew it, although he wasn’t showy in any way. But he was aware that he had a special talent and the ability to make things happen with the bat or ball.”
But could he make the step up to the first team? The answer was an emphatic yes. When he walked out to bat on debut against Lancashire at Hove in May 1967 Sussex were 34 for 3. Greig proceeded to score 156 in under four hours against an attack comprising of three of the best post-War English seam bowlers: Brian Statham, Ken Higgs and Peter Lever. By the end of the summer Greig had scored more than 1,000 runs and taken more than 60 wickets. Unorthodox and untameable but with a fantastic natural talent, Greig was the real deal. A dynamic and fearless cricketer.
Greig gave himself a target of playing for England in six years and when he achieved it in 1972 he was two years ahead of schedule and also Sussex captain. In a career spanning 13 years, which ended in 1978 when he teamed up with the Australian tycoon Kerry Packer to form World Series Cricket, he had scored over 25,000 runs and taken 1,300 wickets either with medium pace or off spin. He played in 58 Tests for England, 14 of them as captain.
This column is nowhere near long enough to do justice to Greig’s talents on the field or the career in cricket he had after retirement. He became an likeable and knowledgeable TV commentator and his death in 2012 of a heart attack, shortly after he had been diagnosed with lung cancer, cast a shadow over the game, none more so than in Sussex. He was a frequent visitor to Hove when in England on broadcasting duties.