It was June 1, 1976, the day before the West Indies were to play the first of their five Tests at Trent Bridge. The team was relaxing in the lounge of the team hotel. The television was on, but nobody paid attention. Someone was about to switch it off when Greig’s face flashed on the screen, with a scroll at the bottom that blared, ‘Breaking News’. Suddenly, everyone paused.
Years later, Viv Richards recollects the day vividly. “We were just about to go into our team meeting to discuss our strategies, and then all of a sudden it was, ‘Breaking News’. Because they said there’s something that’s going to be said by Tony Greig, so everyone was basically on their seats, waiting to hear what was said, and there, up on the TV, was Tony Greig.”
The words he uttered were to change the history of the Caribbean and world cricket.
Richards tries his best to parody Greig’s South African accent and the facial contortions as he says: “We’re going to make, with the help of (Brian) Closey and a few of my mates, we’re going to make the Windies grovel. You know? Wow!”
Richards says he didn’t understand the word ‘grovel’ nor its racial undertones. He grabbed a dictionary. There was no entry. But looking at the faces of his senior teammates, he knew it was something serious.
“You could see the look on everyone’s faces… Guys felt very belittled at the time, they felt what was said wasn’t about the sport itself, it was more personal than anything else. We felt it (the word) was derogatory especially since Greig came from South Africa, a country under apartheid. My brothers and sisters and anyone of a darker colour weren’t in the big picture. And to use such words, let them grovel, especially coming with a South African accent (was hurting),” he says.
They muted the television and went to the team meeting. No one uttered a word. “And I’ll tell you, that was the team meeting. So I think someone said to the skipper at the time, Clive, ‘Are we gonna have the meeting?’ He said, ‘No, the meeting’s over’.”
It stoked their political consciousness, especially that of Richards. He wore a wristband in the colours of the Rastafari movement. “Green for the land of Africa. Gold for the wealth that was stripped away. Red for the blood that was shed,” Richards explained in the documentary ‘Fire in Babylon’. He was a friend of Bob Marley and the Wailers and used their protest song ‘Get Up, Stand Up’ as his personal anthem.
From Greig’s verbal taunt arose a cold, hard fury. Like every one of his teammates, Richards took it personally, savaging the English bowlers, plundering 829 runs in seven innings, with two double hundreds including his highest of 291, forewarning bowlers around the world of the brutality he was to subject them in years to come.
Everyone had a personal score to settle with Greig. “The guys responded to it. Every time Tony Greig came in to bat, he got a delivery that was just full of length and knocked his pole over,” Richards remembers.
Greig was neither forgiven nor forgotten, though Richards can understand him now. “I guess it was rather unfortunate, at that time. He was trying to maybe gee up an England team, who at the time lacked self-esteem. He was trying to maybe raise a dead horse, you know,” he says.
Greig was insensitive or ignorant of the background of that West Indies team. The Caribbean region was beginning to find its groove and feet. The major countries had won independence in the 1960s, and a new sense of black pride was pervading the islands. Cricket-wise, they were fed up of being labelled ‘calypso cricketers’, a patronising, subtly racist shorthand that alluded to a bunch of entertainers, playing with submissive smiles on their faces. They would turn up, perform some dazzling individual stunts, and thrill the crowd before going away defeated.
In England, the Caribbean community was now prepared for a politicised “us vs them” cricket showdown. They thronged the stadiums like never before, and whenever the West Indies batsmen hit a four, they would yell ‘grovel, grovel’ at Greig!
Ezeke, a British-based Jamaican musician, released a record called “Who’s Grovelling Now?” The song quickly became the unofficial soundtrack for the series.
In the final Test at the Oval, Greig reacted to taunts from West Indian supporters by “grovelling”. He crawled across the parched Oval outfield in mock humiliation and smiled to the crowd. Tony Cozier, commentating for BBC radio, described Greig’s act as a “good little touch” which was appreciated by the West Indian spectators.
So Greig’s verbal indiscretion galvanised Caribbean pride. And whenever they were on the field, only one word rung in their ears. “Grovel.” “And I did grovel, when Tony got me out finally on 291. Tony behaved like he had got me out for nought? I was gutted not because I missed a triple, but I got out to him, finally.”
Richards ends the conversation with a deeply philosophical thought: “Words sometimes get used in a way where you may have to come and say ‘I’m sorry’. I just wanted to send a message we are all equal.”
Greig is no more, Richards is nudging 70. The world has moved on but as the Sammy Insta-story shows, racism hasn’t.
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