Greig waved a big schtick, but he did have something to say
It's a reflection on the sentimental side of human nature that familiarity need not always breed contempt.
There's an oft quoted line from the film Chinatown that covers this phenomenon: "politicians, ugly buildings and whores all get respectable if they last long enough".
A world capable of forgiving Paul Holmes his sins, of rewarding the man who called the secretary-general of the United Nations a "cheeky darky" with a knighthood, is just as able to eulogise Tony Greig as a "great" cricket commentator.
Neither men were politicians exactly, though each was savvy enough to negotiate the media politics of their day. In middle-age at least neither were beauties, Holmes looking like a bespectacled gnome and Greig's youthful Aryan aesthetic giving way to a jowly baldness. Both prostituted their talents. Holmes' televisual reputation rests on a cheap stunt in which Dennis Conner was manipulated into walking out of a live interview. Greig sold out not only the English cricket establishment - which had it coming - but his own capacity for intelligent insight into the game he loved.
For cricket fans the Australian Channel 9 commentary team have been part of the cultural landscape for well over three decades. Richie Benaud's velvety speech impediment, Bill Lawry's big-nosed squawks and pigeon-themed digressions, Ian Chappell's unapologetic nastiness and Tony Greig's guttural Boer accent and often wildly inaccurate pronouncements have lowered the standard of television commentary for so long that it's almost become normalised. If Greig is to be given his due it should be for playing a part in this ongoing redefinition of what sports journalism is, for the abandonment of the pretence of objectivity in favour of jingoistic flag waving. Patriotism might be the last refuge of the scoundrel but it has always been the first port of call for the Channel 9 boys as they prattle on interminably about the supposed virtues of this or that Ocker superstar to the exclusion of everything else. What does the calibre of the opposition matter or even the state of the game being played: the true raison d'etre of Kerry Packer's lads is to talk up Australian masculinity.
Admittedly Greig's role within the Wide World of Sport circus was sometimes that of token devil's advocate. A South African-born former captain of England, he was often cast as an opposing voice in an organisation that had little tolerance for constructive criticism, let alone open dissent. When the occasion warranted it Greig could state the obvious, even going so far as to point out that Australia had actually lost a match. An innocuous, throw-away statement made in 1998 ("they are dancing in the aisles in Sharjah") was so at odds with Channel 9's standard pro-Aussie patter that it continues to be cherished by Asian fans 15 years later.
Like his sparring partner Bill Lawry, the appeal of Greig was always that of the cheer leader, a call-it-as-you-see-it enthusiasm which put emotion before intellect and embraced the same kinds of prejudices as the Australian viewing public. Mistakes and faux pas were not only overlooked, they were almost encouraged. In the days before political correctness took hold Greig's eye for beauty often found full expression whenever the camera alighted on a comely female. If he crossed the line in 1999 with a quip that suggested an Asian bride in a wedding taking place adjacent to the test match venue was of the "mail order" variety the subsequent storm was easily weathered. All in all, Big Tony was just saying what most red-blooded Aussie men were thinking.
To read the transcript of Greig's Spirit of Cricket lecture to the MCC last year is to appreciate just how much of this bravado was an act. Behind the accent, hat and ridiculous schtick - pitch reports with car key props and cheery monologues quoting the "player comfort meter" - Greig did have something to say. It's just a shame his Channel 9 bosses were uninterested in letting him say it.
I am still going to miss him. Perhaps you can put this down to the foul-mouthed 12th Man recordings in which an impersonator ruthlessly parodies Greig's mannerisms. When you have committed a couple of these to memory it's impossible to think too ill of the original.
There's also the issue of Tony's replacement. The nauseating toadying of Mark Nicholas - another token Englishman, albeit one with a negligible international record - takes Channel 9 to a new low. For all his faults Greig was never an out-and-out sycophant.
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