Australian Rules Cricket

CRICKET AUSTRALIA celebrated its 100th anniversary earlier this month by naming media mogul Kerry Francis Bullmore Packer along with Sir Don Bradman as the most influential figures in its history.

N. U. ABILASH

CRICKET AUSTRALIA celebrated its 100th anniversary earlier this month by naming media mogul Kerry Francis Bullmore Packer along with Sir Don Bradman as the most influential figures in its history. A week later, almost as if in protest, Bob Parish, the chairman of the Australian Cricket Board when Packer launched his World Series Cricket (WSC) in 1977, died in his Melbourne home. (Before anybody can put on their syllogistic caps, it must be said the two earlier statements are not within the disciplinary walls of natural science.)

Kerry Packer... giving the establishment a rude jolt.-REUTERS

On May 9, 1977, when Parish picked up his copy of The Age at his Melbourne home and found splashed in its sports pages the startling news that businessman Kerry Packer had signed up all of Australia's and most of the world's hottest cricketers for a parallel cricket venture, the moment of trauma he felt would, if quantified, have far exceeded the moments of relief when he signed the secret compromise with Packer after the Ashes series of 1978-79, the only time in the history of the Urn that a series had lost money due to poor attendance. Parish, who was in the Board till 1991, had a good working relationship with Packer after 1979, but, by his own admission, "That man (Packer) gave me more trouble in those two years than anybody else would ever give any other cricket administrator."

Packer's WSC was not only a blow on the face of Parish and other establishment cricket administrators in Australia and England, but on that of the Victorian values of cricket, which is best illustrated from what Christopher Martin Jenkins, the BBC commentator, writer and columnist, wrote in the summer of 1977: "For those of us who admittedly take the game (which is or was, just a game) too seriously, it was like learning that a wife whom one loved and trusted had been secretly, and for some time, making love to another man." Overnight, cricket grew up from its pretended age of innocence and became an adult, like other major sport such as football, golf and tennis, which already admitted they were in the industrial age.

To end cricket's more-than-a-hundred-year feudal hypocrisy of pretending to be outside the market-place, Packer — the 18-stone and 6-ft-1 self-confessed "sports nut" — used varying combat techniques ranging from subterfuge in the trenches, to firing away plain insults with typical aggression and swagger. The motivation for this came in the wake of the insults he took from the establishment, such as in mid-1976 when the Board replied to a letter written by him six months earlier (yes, six months) expressing his interest to negotiate for TV rights to first-class and international cricket. The Board had politely stated in their reply that exclusive rights had been sold to their traditional TV partners, the public broadcaster Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), and only commercial rights were available. Packer then said he was only interested in exclusive rights and offered the money ACB had never even dreamt of till then — A$ 500,000 a year for five years. The Board then wrote back stating that they could not break off their agreement with ABC, and Packer swore to break "the old boy network" that operated not just in his country but also in the `Mother Country'.

Richie Benaud_ Packer's cricket advisor.-V.V. KRISHNAN

Eight months later, he found two unlikely, but extremely resourceful, allies in his project of promoting international cricket in competition with the Board. John Cornell, a television producer and stand-up comedian, and Austin Robertson, a former Australian Rules Football champion and sports writer. Cornell, who was a partner in comedian Paul Hogan's J. P. Productions set up to manage the business affairs of Australia's leading sportsmen, made Robertson his manager and Packer, who had financed J. P. Productions when it was formed, asked them, "Why not get the world's best players to play against the best Australians?"

The two promoters of Packer's skeletal venture spent the whole of the Australian season of 1976-77 planning their revolution. With Dennis Lillee as their ally, they secretly contacted all top players in Australia and their response was conveyed to Packer. "What are we waiting for? Let's go and sign them up," he said. On January 10, 1977, Lillee became the first Packer rebel signing a contract worth A$105,000 over three years. On the Australian tour of New Zealand in early 1977, they swooped on Greg Chappell for A$175,000 for five years. Both players were earning A$600 a Test match with the ACB at the time when central contracts were unheard of in cricket.

Before the Centenary Test match at the MCG in March 1977, Packer had already snubbed the ACB by buying for his Channel Nine the Australian TV rights for the Ashes in the English summer of 1977 from the Test and County Cricket Board (TCCB) for two times the market price. The ACB retorted by altering the bidding process itself — they announced that they would sell rights for all matches involving Australia. That was the defining moment for Packer. As he said later, "Three times the stiletto went in, and at the end of the third time, I said that's it."

None of the establishment figures assembled in Melbourne for the Centenary Test could even imagine that Packer and his men were using an occasion showcasing the tradition of cricket to actually subvert it in the months to come. During the match, they furtively signed seven Australian players, South African star Barry Richards and one Englishman — the most crucial signing of them all, captain Tony Greig, who was made the captain of the World XI, selector, chief recruitment agent and a long-term associate of Channel Nine.

Dennis Lillee... the first to sign up for Packer's World Series Cricket.-V. GANESAN

In early April, even as Greig flew to Trinidad on a secret mission to sign the Pakistani and West Indian superstars for Packer (he had a rich haul — Clive Lloyd, Viv Richards, Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, Asif Iqbal, Imran Khan, Majid Khan and Mushtaq Mohammed), the tycoon was busy in Sydney signing the person who proved to be his trusted lieutenant in years to come, former Australian captain Richie Benaud, who was offered the job as Packer's cricket advisor on a five-year contract. The efficacy of Packer's subterfuge technique is best illustrated by what Benaud said when the media broke news of WSC the very next month. "My first reaction was one of disbelief, not that it was to happen but that it had been kept such a well kept secret for six months," said Benaud, who advised Packer to write to Parish about his plans and to balance the news of his catch of Australia's top players with a promise to support the coaching programme of grassroots establishment cricket. The copy of The Age reached Parish faster than Packer's letter dated May 5. But, by then, the ranks had swelled after Greig and Robertson had signed up the best of players based in England — Derek Underwood, Alan Knott and John Snow and South Africans Eddie Barlow, Graeme Pollock and Mike Proctor — on April 11 just days before the start of the county season. In Australia, a few days later, Robertson added former Australian captain Ian Chappell, Rod Marsh, David Hookes and Jeff Thomson, who though withdrew in June when he sensed that it would jeopardise his chances of playing for Australia.

Between May 1977, when the story broke, and December `77, when the first WSC Super Test was held between the Australians and the West Indians, Packer was seen at his aggressive best. In the ICC meeting at Lord's in June to reach a compromise, when the governing body of cricket refused his two demands — that his players not be victimised and that Channel Nine buys exclusive TV rights to all cricket in Australia — he left the meeting and told waiting reporters, "I will now take no steps to help anyone, every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost."

If that was confidence bordering on arrogance, consider this: "They are a group of crusty old men sitting behind closed doors," was his verdict of Parish and his ACB colleagues, which included a man by the name of Sir Don Bradman. In an earlier brush with Parish and his men, Packer had said, "Come on, we are all harlots. Tell me your price." On top of all this was the celebrated victory in the London High Court case where Tony Greig, backed by Packer, took Doug Insole of the TCCB to court when the governing body of English cricket had banned Packer-signed players from playing county cricket.

This anti-establishment stand, driven by free market monetarism, should be seen as Packer's legacy to world cricket as much as his WSC innovations such as field restrictions, floodlit cricket, coloured clothing, drop-down pitches prepared in hothouses and, of course, the substantial increase in sponsorship of establishment cricket. The tragedy, of course, is that after the compromise between Packer and the establishment, which was brought about by a startling lack of attendance at the WSC matches other than in the floodlit one-dayers and in the establishment Ashes of 1978-79, the little private initiatives which have come up in cricket have sought to work alongside existing structures. The case of Abdul Rahman Bukhatir in Sharjah is a case in point.

Tony Greig... the captain of Packer's World XI.-GETTY IMAGES

Packer ensured that by the turn of the 21st century, cricket transformed itself into a global game with transparent professional structures. Had it not been for him, English cricket would not have had an administrator such as Ian McLaurin, who perhaps instituted as much radical changes in English cricket during his tenure as chairman as there has been in its entire previous history.

As he swore, Packer literally brought an end to the days of cricket administrators who maintain old boy networks if not in the whole of the cricket world at least in most countries affected by his WSC. Perhaps, Cricket Australia — the modern, professional, corporate version of the ACB — by honouring Packer was cutting its own path of atonement. Or, in a secular world, being self-critical.