Willis hails gritty Greig

India England

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When it was revealed Tony Greig had been diagnosed with lung cancer, it was little surprise that he immediately vowed to fight hard against the illness - for it was in the face of a battle that the former England skipper thrived during his playing days.

An all-rounder in every sense of the word, Greig was a fine batsman, impressive seamer, occasional off-spinner and pioneer of both the upper-cut and the fielding position silly point.

His talent carried him a long way, yet an effervescent, gritty personality was perhaps his greatest strength; he possessed all the innovation of a Kevin Pietersen and the mental fortitude of a Paul Collingwood.

Like Collingwood, Greig extracted every ounce of success possible from his talent despite technical shortcomings. Like Pietersen, his legacy will stand the test of time. Will batsman still be playing the switch-hit and upper-cut in 50 years? I think so.

Yet it is the former trait that Greig will call upon in his latest fight - his toughest. It is a trait that has been built in to his psyche from a young age.

It carried him eventually to the England captaincy, from the most unlikely of beginnings. He did, after all, tread a path only Basil D’Oliveira had previously to earn international honours.

The son of a demanding Scottish father, Greig headed to these shores from South Africa in 1965 hoping to emulate D’Oliveira by representing England.

Sussex quickly snapped him up following a trial and the ultimate ambition of donning the Three Lions became a reality in 1972. By 1975, he was leading the side.

Despite putting in some fine individual performances, Greig’s tenure did not start too well - with pressure mounting following home series losses to Australia and West Indies.

Those results left few in any doubt over how his first tour as skipper would end; England had not won in India since the Second World War and there was little reason to believe a change in that trend was coming in the 1976-77 series.

Tony Greig

Tony Greig's famous battling spirit helped him steer England to victory in the 1976-77 Test series versus India, but he faces a bigger fight against cancer

However, in a swing akin to Rocky Balboa eventually being cheered to victory against Ivan Drago by Russian fans in the fictitious movie Rocky 4, England enjoyed unlikely support of their own.

Indeed, Greig’s masterstroke in deploying Derek Randall to entertain the supporters by imitating armed guards left many of the Indians in attendance with a soft spot for their tourists.

A la Rocky, England were at times cheered on as they won the opening Tests of five - leaving Bishan Bedi’s hosts shellshocked.

With the third Test taking place in Madras - now Chennai - on a fast-paced wicket that would undoubtedly favour England, the second at Kolkata took on even more importance.

Perhaps predictably, those circumstances brought the best out of the touring skipper, for Greig - shaking off a virus - delivered a 347-ball 103, the memories of which still leave Bob Willis in awe.

Speaking exclusively to ecb.co.uk, Willis said: “That really was Tony Greig’s Test match. A lot of the players had illness and viral problems. We were staying in some pretty grotty places in the country.

“In the cities, it was fine with lovely hotels, but up country it was pretty grim in those days and quite a lot of people got sick.

“Both Greigy and (Derek) Underwood were not well in that Kolkata Test match, but they gritted their teeth and got on with it. I cannot remember how long Greigy batted, but it was sensational.

“The atmosphere lifted everybody. The ground was packed to the rafters with 100,000 people in Calcutta. Greigy always liked an audience and he responded with a magnificent hundred there.”

That century carried England to a 10-wicket success, which - as expected - was followed by a series-sealing triumph at Madras - an achievement for which Greig deserves much of the credit.

Willis added: “England were used to perhaps getting one win in five Test matches in India so it was really special and a real testimony to Greig’s captaincy and Ken Barrington’s management.

“Greigy had had some tough times against Australia in ‘75 when he took over from Mike Denness and in the infamous ‘76 series against West Indies - when England were beaten 3-0 at home.

“But his resolve never faded and he got the Indian crowds on his side. Randall messed around in the field to entertain them and Greigy did as well.”

Since his playing days, Greig - like Willis - continues to excel as a broadcaster and the latter revealed the two remain good friends.

He admitted: “He comes over to the UK quite a bit. We are good mates and we’re all wishing him the best with his current health problems.”

Like Willis, we can all just wait and hope Greig makes a full recovery, while taking solace in the knowledge he will be up for the fight - as he says himself.

“I have had a few scrapes in my life and this is another one. Vivian (his wife) and I are going to put the boxing gloves on and fight this like we've never fought anything before.”

Anybody expecting any different was foolish.

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