As the Chaser so controversially lampooned in their ‘Eulogy Song‘, the media tends to deify public figures after they pass away, so the outpouring of grief following Tony Greig’s death to a heart attack yesterday was predictable. But the sadness that greeted Greig’s passing was genuinely sincere. ‘R.I.P Tony Greig’ statuses swamped Facebook and the grief was earnest; remarkable for a man who played his last game of cricket 32 years ago, well before most of the 43,754 who’ve liked the ‘Tony Greig: a true legend of the game‘ would have even been born.
Those people – myself included – knew Tony Greig the commentator: the argumentative foreign voice in a commentary box replete with parochial Australians. But Tony Greig the cricketer should not be overlooked. Over 58 Tests he averaged 40.43 with the bat and 32.20 with the ball – pretty sharp when you consider Shane Watson, oft-dubbed the best all-rounder in the world, sits at 37.02 and 30.06 in comparison. He confidently skippered a difficult England team that included prickly characters like John Snow and Geoffrey Boycott, often managing to draw the best out of them where other captains had failed. Perhaps his greatest achievement came in the First Test of the bloodthirsty 1974-5 Ashes in Brisbane, when he stared down the fearsome Lillee-Thomson pace battery for just shy of five hours, compiling 110 and saluting every boundary with the umpire’s signal for four runs. It so incensed Thomson that he spent the rest of the summer treating Greig’s canvas shoes like Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor treats bull’s-eyes, coining the term ‘sand shoe crusher‘. This bullishness served him well as a chief general in Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket, snubbing the cricket establishment in the fight for decent wages.
As on the field and in the boardroom, Greig the commentator never backed away from a stoush, just ask Bill Lawry; their sparring is the stuff of legend thanks to Billy Birmingham’s 12th Man. So has his broad-brimmed hat, his pitch reports complete with key and WeatherWall, and his propensity for the occasional gaffe. His South African brogue has become one of the most imitated in Australia (again, thanks to Birmingham) – the expressions “hard and fast”, “marvellous” and “right off the meat of the bat” are inextricably bound to Greig. I think the familiarity of his voice underpins the sadness felt towards his death. A voice that has seeped into Australian lounge rooms for more than 30 years, a voice that has accompanied countless Boxing Day Tests when we’re collectively knocking in brand spanking new Gray Nicolls that Santa had left in our stockings, Australia Day games in Adelaide when we’re sitting around a pool with a Carlton Draught, a voice that couched the achievements of some of Australians finest cricketers. The careers of Border, McDermott, Boon, Healy, Taylor, Waugh and Waugh, Ponting, McGrath, Gilchrist and Warne were all showcased by Greig and co., who form (or, rather, ‘formed’) an incredibly warmly regarded commentary box.
Greig’s passing, coupled with the imminent retirement of Bill Lawry and Richie Benaud’s … how to put this politely … ‘advanced years’, means that the face of Nine’s cricket coverage is almost unrecognisable from the heady days of the ’80s and ’90s. Mark Taylor and Ian Healy are both terrific and Michael Slater is polished, if not everyone’s cup of tea. But they’re not Richie, Bill, Ian and Tone.
Their isn’t exactly a pressing field of viable replacements, either. On top of the insult of having a Pom fronting Nine’s fabled coverage, Mark Nicholas’ flowery style of presentation rankles – plus it’s hard to forgive him for pouring cold water all over Taylor’s electric call of Peter Siddle’s Ashes hat trick by gleefully repeating the phrase “not yet he hasn’t!“. Brett Lee and Glenn McGrath have both dipped their toes in the box this summer and were good, not great. Shane Warne is magnetic but I suspect that being married to a Hollywood star and making a crust playing poker in Las Vegas means the Sheik of Tweak has better things to do in summer than discuss whether Mahela Jayawardene should employ two slips or three.
The alternatives? Adam Gilchrist and Matthew Hayden, once their T20 commitments wind up, are examples of charismatic former players who could re-energise Nine’s call; ex-Shield batsman and Nine everywhere-man James Brayshaw – as full as his schedule already is – could be called upon, and the Dots could do worse than poaching some of Fox Sports’ talent, particularly ‘The Bowlologist’ Damien Fleming and suave frontman Brendon Julian. A foreign voice would also be a refreshing addition, especially with England coming Down Under next summer; the visit of Jonathan Agnew to our shores is one of many highlights in the ABC’s superb coverage.
Whoever Nine uses, their format needs a shake-up. In the recent Melbourne Test, only seven commentators (Lawry, Benaud, Chappell, Taylor, Healy, Slater, Nicholas) were used, meaning that in shifts of three, we were stuck with very similar groups throughout a session. Another problem with a three-man box is that there are often too many competing voices; in the course of an over, we might here Lawry discussing tactics, Slater cracking a joke about the nervous 90s or fiddling around with a malfunctioning technological gadget, and Nicholas breathlessly asking a chicken-sponsored trivia question or peddling Toyota Access finance. There is no room to let an anecdote breathe, or to have a serious discussion, or tease out a point of interest, which is a shame considering the calibre of cricket brains behind the microphone. I want to hear Ian Chappell tell me about Doug Walters playing cards in the sheds, a Richie Benaud yarn about the Bond-esque Keith Miller, Ian Healy talk about his battles with Arjuna Ranatunga, and Mark Taylor candidly reveal how the pressures of captaincy affect your batting.
Cricket’s A-List sit in the Channel Nine box but they’re not being utilised effectively. And as the World Series super team fades with age, Nine needs to reinvent their approach.