Cricket: Packer's circus came to town - and altered game forever

By David Leggat

Australian fast bowler, Dennis Lillie in a Kerry Packer Cricket match held at Nelson Park in 1978. Photo / Hawke's Bay Today
Australian fast bowler, Dennis Lillie in a Kerry Packer Cricket match held at Nelson Park in 1978. Photo / Hawke's Bay Today

At some time this month, professional cricketers all over the globe should take a moment and offer a silent salute to Kerry Packer.

It was in May 40 years ago that his plans for revolutionising cricket became public, and the old game was never the same.

Media magnate Packer was miffed that the Australian Cricket Board wouldn't give over TV rights to his progressive Channel Nine network, preferring to stay in what was seen as a cosy relationship with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the longstanding producers of international cricket.

Packer wanted the television rights; the players wanted more pay. It was two parts of a puzzle fitting perfectly together.

It was during an Ashes tour in England in 1977 that news broke of the launch of a circus (as the establishment viewed it) involving a truckload of the game's best players.

Thirteen of the 17 Australian players on that trip had signed on. How would the other four feel? Imagine the mistrust on that tour. Unhappy Australia lost the series 3-0.

Packer's chief henchmen were England captain Tony Greig and his Australian counterpart, Ian Chappell. His best signing may have been the highly respected former Australian captain and commentator Richie Benaud, who became his adviser.

Players were divided into three teams, Australia, the West Indies - in those days coming to the height of their powers - and Rest of the World.

It wouldn't work, spluttered the traditionalists. After all, coloured clothing, TV cameras behind the bowlers' arm at both ends, for heaven's sake, matches under lights, white balls (in day games too, by the way). What was Packer thinking?

Primarily money. The players had been underpaid for ever. Packer promised them a decent wage. They had to perform as he bluntly reminded them more than once.

But the game changed forever and for that the players have had occasion to be supremely grateful down the years.

Thinking back, much of it was so blindingly obvious in terms of enhancing the game, both for spectator and viewer. Try and remember the game on TV in black and white. We didn't know it at the time - because we'd known nothing else - but it was a tough watch.

Then throw in a splash of colour for a start. The cameras at each end, as an example. Things changed when a producer announced that he was sick of "looking at a batsman's arse" every second over.

You forget how much easier the white ball was to see than the red.

It wasn't a success initially. World Series Cricket was barred from traditional cricket grounds in Australia. Just a handful of spectators turned up.

But talk to the players involved in those two years - 1977-78 and 1978-79 - and they'll swear WSC was the toughest, most competitive cricket they played.

The establishment were slow to react to the threat to the game as they knew it, and anyway figured it would be seen off. In the end, much good came out of it, in time.

A court case in London found for the players, costing the establishment about 250,000.

The truce came in May 1979. Channel Nine had their rights and Packer had a 10-year deal to promote and market the game. Now you can't imagine cricket from Australia on any other network, at least until the commentary cheerleaders kick into gear.

But for those with long memories, it doesn't seem 40 years ago.

- NZ Herald

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