The end of an innings

IT WOULD be so much simpler to lampoon Tony Greig than to eulogise him. His chief renown in the second half of his life was as cricket commentator who often appeared to be playing up to a caricature of himself. Whether pontificating on the condition of the pitch, key at the ready, or declaring that the ball had sped ''like a tracer bullet'' to the boundary, or especially in casually orchestrated spats with Bill Lawry, he seemed always to be playing himself. His life was a cricket pantomime.

The truth about Greig was much more complex. He was a man of three countries, but something of an outsider in them all. He was born and raised in South Africa, played for and captained England at cricket, then settled in Australia, where at last he found room for his large personality. The coarse edge of his South African accent never did fade, indeed - whether incidental or otherwise - remained until the end part of the act.

He added swagger, even bombast, to English cricket at a time when it was desperately needed, but in a way that you suspect caused authorities there to squirm. His permanent place on the Channel 9 panel was as a counterpoint, the insiders' outsider; Kerry Packer loved him in the role. It is a tangled provenance, and perhaps even for him easier to stylise than to explain.

But there was another, subtler side to him. One night in a bar in Hobart, he dwelt quietly and emotionally on how moved he was as a 20-year-old to bat with former England captain Ted Dexter in an early game for Sussex, and how it consummated his love for the game of cricket. Here was a humble, gentle, earnest and reflective Greig, only ever glimpsed in his public persona, and that is unfortunate.

Immensely tall and luminously blond, he was was a striking figure on the cricket field, an all-rounder brimming with bravado, anxious always to impose himself on the game. When moving to England, he gave himself six years to make the Test team and did it in less than four. Contests with the abrasive Australian team of the age always stimulated him. His first innings as captain was a belligerent 96 against a powerful Australian attack at Lord's. His last was in the Centenary Test in 1977.

Yet now, at least in this country, he is most often recalled for incidentals never quite lived down: the five consecutive fours debutant David Hookes hit against him in the Centenary Test, his self-immolating declaration as captain that he would make the West Indies ''grovel'', the white motorcycle helmet he wore during World Series Cricket. By then, his powers of batsmanship were declining fast, but his central role in the WSC revolution perhaps will be his lasting legacy as a cricketer.

Larger-than-life, and mobbed up with Packer, a career as a commentator followed naturally. He could be insightful, but became best known for his work with special effects. In reporting on the pitch, he did the most famous routine with a key since Benjamin Franklin. He developed a cultish following. His horizons expanded, to the subcontinent particularly.

Then the International Cricket Council took away his key, and Packer died, and Greig the character shrunk a little. Only a few months ago, he was misdiagnosed with bronchitis, then found to have lung cancer. On Saturday, he died, aged 66.

When named as one of Wisden cricketers of the year in 1975, Greig dwelt momentarily on the conundrum of his divided loyalty. ''Just say I feel I have two countries, and regard myself as lucky,'' he said, ''and leave it at that.'' Thirty-seven years later, you imagine that he would change only the two to three.

This story The end of an innings first appeared on WA Today.