Arunabha Sengupta looks at some of the most famous feuds of cricket. In this episode, he writes on how the West Indians hounded and humiliated Tony Grieg for his insensitive choice of words.
When they are down, they grovel
Perhaps no single word in cricket has fired up retribution in throbbing veins as much as Tony Greig’s infamous “grovel.”
West Indies had just arrived in England in 1976. The past few series had not been too comfortable for them. Australia had thrashed them 5-1, with Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson blowing them away. Back home, they had just about managed to beat India 2-1 by unleashing a bouncer barrage in the final Test.
Yet, when they landed in England and battered MCC in a three-day game at Lord’s, it was speculated that Greig’s men could expect more along the same lines. That the selectors, on the suggestion of the captain, had recalled 45-year old Brian Close was not really seen as a confidence inspiring move.
On the eve of the first Test at Trent Bridge, Greig sat on the roof of Hove’s pavilion and spoke on Sportsnight, the flagship midweek sports program of BBC. With time, his frustration became more and more palpable with the line of questioning that seemed to indicate that England had absolutely no chance of competing in the series. He finally fixed his gaze at the camera and said the words that would continue to haunt him for years.
“I like to think that people are building these West Indians up, because I am not really sure they’re as good as everyone thinks they are,” he started and touched upon their defeat in Australia and struggle at home against India. “Sure, they’ve got a couple of fast bowlers, but … you must remember that (if) the West Indian get on top they are magnificent cricketers, but if they’re down, they grovel. And I intend, with the help of Closey and a few others, to make them grovel.”
This guy needs to be put in his place
Greig himself says that he used the word as a reaction to the needling journalist who was writing England off, and most of the team mates like Alan Knott and Bob Willis maintain that there were no racial overtones in the choice of the verb. However, the fact remained that a white South African captain of England had used it in relation to a bunch of black West Indian cricketers.
While opposition skipper Clive Lloyd gave him the benefit of the doubt as far as racism is concerned, the other West Indians reacted differently. Gordon Greenidge felt that Greig was much too intelligent and articulate to have been guilty of a slip of tongue. Viv Richards checked the dictionary definition of the offending word and later remarked, “In other words, he was going to have us down on our knees, begging for mercy! This was the greatest motivating speech the England captain could have given to any West Indian team.”
Michael Holding remembered, “Everybody took exception to the comment. We thought, ‘This guy needs to be put in his place.’… He was a white South African. It smacked of racism and apartheid. He got our backs up and made us more determined.”
Even Greig’s father called him up and asked whether he possessed a dictionary.
Lloyd, while not pressing the charges of racism, did mention that he was furious with Greig for stereotyping the West Indian squad as happy-go-lucky Calypso cricketers. Andy Roberts remembers the captain saying, “I need not say anything more, our man on the television has just said it for us.”
Wrong times, bad timing
The timing could not have been more awry. Britain, in 1976, was not really the heaven of racial harmony. From the late ’40s, there was a growing resistance to immigrants from the Caribbean, and according to many of the white population, the black community was the focal problem that led to economic hardships. In 1976, immigration numbers were being discussed in the Parliament. And in Greig’s homeland, black students in the South African township of Soweto were rallying against the mandatory use of Afrikaans for more than half their subjects, leading to a confrontation with the armed police leaving 100 dead, 800 injured and 250 arrested.
The jeers and hate mail Greig received for his choice of words was quite natural in the circumstances.
On the very first day of the series, chants went around the ground – “gro-vel, gro-vel.” The West Indians gave it back in the field as well, with Richards, Greenidge and Fredericks smashing the bowlers throughout the series, and Holding, Roberts and Wayne Daniel terrorising the English batsmen when they batted.
And while the deliveries spat venom and went through like balls of fire, the speedsters always managed to find an extra yard of pace whenever Greig was at the crease. In the first Test, Roberts sent the first ball fizzing past his cap, bowling faster with every passing minute. The seventh ball could hardly be followed by the naked eye as it hurtled across and sent the off stump flying miles.
The first two Tests ended in draws, but the West Indies steamrolled England in the next three.
I can’t handle it anymore
At the Old Trafford, during the third Test, Greenidge and Richards plundered the English attack for second innings centuries, and Lloyd declared on the third afternoon setting an impossible target of 552. The 80 minutes that followed have now gone down in the folklore of cricket as the scariest of sessions. On a steamy day, with heavy atmosphere, storms threatening, crowd chanting – Holding unleashed pace that put the fear of God in the hearts of those who witnessed it. Close and John Edrich, aged 45 and 39 respectively, were pummelled mercilessly, sometimes painfully enough to make the knees buckle. In the pavilion, Derek Underwood refused to pad up as night watchman. At the end of the day, the two veterans were still together, with 21 on the board, Close having one run to show for his efforts and a torso that was a welter of bruises, grazes and blood blisters.
Despite the heroics of the old men, England folded the next day for 126. And while the rest of the batsmen were peppered with short stuff to have them caught fending, the West Indian pace attack relished knocking over the stumps of theEngland captain.
In three Tests till then, he had managed a top score of just 20. According to Holding, “Greig’s bravado and choice of phrase made him a marked man.” Team mates dreaded the moment he joined them at the wicket, fearing a pumped up attack. David Steele in fact walked down and told him, “I wish you hadn’t bothered to come in. It was a good game until you arrived.”
Lloyd reflects, “Every time Greig came to the wicket, our bowler seemed to gain an extra few miles an hour from somewhere.”
While the team collapsed to a 425 run defeat, Greig sat among the ruins of the innings in the dressing room, turned to his old pal Alan Knott and whispered, “I’ve had enough, I can’t handle it anymore.”
However, a resilient man if there ever was any, Greig did score 116 and 76 at Headingley, but could not prevent West Indians from winning a close game by 55 runs.
Who’s grovelling now?
In the final Test at The Oval, Richards hammered the final nail in the coffin with a merciless 291 as the West Indies piled up 687. Dennis Amiss battled bravely for a double century, but his most unsettling period at the crease was when Greig joined him just as the second new ball was being taken.
“We are going to smash these buggers out of sight,” Greig remarked, and Amiss pleaded, “It’s nice out here, don’t upset them.”
When Greig launched into Holding and Roberts, driving them to the cover fence, Amiss nearly paid the price by having his head ripped off by a bouncer from the latter. When Greig was bowled by Holding, the crowd, with a big West Indian population, went ballistic. However, Amiss jokes, “It was the first time I have ever been pleased to see the Englandcaptain get his leg stump knocked out of the ground.”
On the fourth afternoon, Greenidge and Roy Fredericks piled up 182 runs in just 32 overs in the second innings after Lloyd had chosen not to enforce follow on. With the clock approaching six, the declaration was announced more as an act more humane than cricketing. With a target of 435 against a rampaging Holding who had taken eight wickets in the first innings, Greig, according to biographer David Tossell, understood the personal symbolism of the moment. He headed to the Harleyford Road side of the ground, where the open stands were crammed with West Indian fans. Smiling broadly, he dropped to his knees and crawled forward. The crowd erupted and Tony Cozier exclaimed on BBC, “For three or four paces he has, in his own words, grovelled.”
The British tabloid The Sun carried the picture of Greig walking on all fours, with the caption, “Okay, so I’m grovelling now.”
The West Indians, however, did not relent. As Holding picked up six more in the second innings to bring them victory by 231 runs, Greig lost his leg stump to a lightning-fast yorker, the fifth time he had been bowled in the series.