When cricketers saw the light
Light-bulb moment: Night cricket at the SCG helped turn the tide in favour of World Series Cricket. Photo: Getty Images
AT A TIME where the trickle of players eschewing international cricket for more lucrative Twenty20 competitions is considered the major spectre on the horizon for cricket administrators, the period where the game’s elite defected en masse is about to surge back into prominence.
The bitter World Series Cricket split has been depicted in a mini-series about to screen, fittingly, on Channel Nine, the television network that funded — at great risk — the split devised by businessmen John Cornell and Austin Robertson and implemented by Nine’s chairman, the late Kerry Packer.
Howzat!: Kerry Packer’s War draws on the direct experience of many of the protagonists, such as Australia WSC captain Ian Chappell and World XI captain Tony Greig, to retell the tale that many born in the past 40 years, even cricket devotees, would have only superficial knowledge of, despite the seismic consequences.
While most of the bridges broken during that upheaval in the late 1970s have been healed, it is clear that while most participants have forgiven those on the other side of the divide — establishment cricket boards versus Packer’s WSC — they have not forgotten the barbs that came their way, from adversaries or even the public.
"We were called ‘The dogs of cricket’, that we’d prostituted the game," retired paceman Max Walker recalled this week. "There was an enormous amount of emotion involved in that period."
The ground that allowed Packer to covertly recruit players midway through the Centenary Test in March 1977 at the MCG was made fertile by cricketing authorities’ refusal to give ground on players’ pay, or any say on issues such as scheduling at home or abroad.
At the time it was seen as almost inevitable that once players reached their 30s and started expanding their families they would have to give up playing to properly provide for them. Walker had to take unpaid leave from his role as a public-service architect to go on his two tours of England, in 1975 and 1977, but was strictly forbidden from seeking any endorsements to help lessen the impact of forgoing a full-time wage. He said his fee for two-and-a-half-month tour of 1975 was just $2700 plus meal allowances.
Kerry O’Keeffe, whose recent popularity as a radio commentator has overshadowed his solid international career as a leg-spinner, agreed the inequity between how much money players were making for cricket boards and how much they received from them was crucial.
"I don’t want to bang on about ‘We played for nothing’, but it was born out of that," he said. "I think it (WSC) traded on the insecurity of cricketers at the time, given that we’d never signed contracts and lot of us lived (financially) game to game. There was a vulnerability there."
Packer’s interest stemmed from his belief, which is still valid now, that sport is a major driver of television ratings. It was also, as Chappell observed, a potentially cheaper way for Nine to comply with local content thresholds compared to other programming.
Packer’s overly generous offer to acquire the rights to international cricket in Australia, to capitalise on surging interest in colour television broadcasts, was rebuffed by the Australian Cricket Board because of its long-term relationship with the national broadcaster.
"We’re sorry," is the ACB’s response to Packer in the opening scene of the mini-series. The actor portraying Packer, Lachy Hulme, then replies menacingly: "You will be."
Packer’s realisation his plan had to be developed in secret to avoid being scuttled created a situation where players’ lucrative contract offers were given on the strict condition their alignment to WSC, or even any reference to WSC, was not disclosed to anybody, including teammates.
Greg Chappell recalled telling only his wife of Packer’s plan and his commitment to go along with it.
The recruitment of the Australian Test captain seemingly would have been a significant recruitment lure for undecided players to WSC. Chappell, however, would not countenance that.
"Whilst I was of the belief that things had to change, I didn’t feel comfortable allowing anyone to use the position of Australian captain to influence others to make a decision," Chappell explained.
"It wasn’t just about money, it was about respect. There was an attitude from the administration that players were vessels that they could do whatever they like with. We didn’t appreciate that and thought we had more to offer. We’d been on a tour of England in ’72 where we crisscrossed the country, back and forth, over a six-month period ... with no regard to player fitness or wellbeing.
"The fact that 54, or thereabouts, players were approached and 53 of them signed — in fact, I think 54 signed and then one pulled out — was an indication that players around the world were unhappy. It was known then (by the players), and it came out in the (resulting) court case, that it was a cartel between the board (in which they agreed) ‘You don’t play your players any more, we won’t be under any pressure to pay our players any more’.
"It was a break-out from the workers, basically. We’d been treated like second-class citizens and we thought we deserved more than that."
At the time, Chappell hoped the mass signing of players could be used as leverage to force the Australian and corresponding international cricket boards to give some ground. That was thwarted when news of Packer’s WSC plans reached the press two months later in May 1977, while the Australians were in England about to begin an Ashes tour. Walker said it was mid-way through the fifth and final Test, at The Oval in London, they learnt he and the rest of his WSC-aligned teammates were to be "banned for life".
O’Keeffe’s fellow spinner on that 1977 tour, Ray Bright, then 22, had not even made his Test debut when he signed for WSC. He said the security inherent in Packer’s three-year contract was very appealing, even though by signing those deals he and others were "fully aware it could mean the end of Test careers before they even really got off the ground".
"I thought I’d potentially never play Test cricket again. I held no illusion that the cricket authorities would be happy with this. But it was probably something that needed to be done," said Bright, who acted as as consultant for the mini-series.
Packer’s fierce temper is regularly — and reportedly accurately — depicted throughout the mini-series, although it seemingly peaks when the world’s cricket boards unite to impose blanket life bans on all WSC players.
"That was one thing about Kerry Packer, he supported people who supported him," said Bright, who cited the continuing employment at Nine, 35 years later, of WSC captains Ian Chappell and Greig as evidence of that.
"Everything he promised he delivered — plus some," said Greg Chappell. "He was very strong, he was very determined, very smart."
In return, the players collectively vowed to deliver an incomparable standard of cricket, irrespective of the crowds they played in front of remaining sparse until the second season.
"One of the reasons we took a stand (was) because we felt the game was slowly, slowly sliding backwards. The interest in the game was only being held up by a small percentage of the population. The game needed to drag itself into the 20th century," Chappell said. "The teams mixed well off the field but once we walked out on the ground it was as tough competition as I’ve ever been involved in."
O’Keeffe concurred. "It was tough cricket ... multiple first-class century makers were coming in at nine and 10 (in the batting order)," he said.
After more than a year of struggling in comparison to Australia’s official, albeit severely depleted, Test team, the breakthrough moment for WSC depicted in the mini-series — and verified by Chappell — was the maiden day-night match held at the SCG in November 1978. Demand to get in was so great that the gates were ordered open after capacity had been reached. It was an occasion Chappell described as "the most exciting sporting moment of my life".
"It was the turning point. Crowds streamed in. Sydney embraced it first and then the rest of the country followed," he said.
Despite the belated fervour for WSC among cricket fans, O’Keeffe said it was not all rosy for the players. While he and other little-used players were made to play in secondary WSC matches in regional locations — "my numbers suggested that’s where I should have been" — he said his bigger disappointment was that so many elite players were lost to Test cricket as a result of their involvement.
"Somebody like Doug Walters particularly missed the big time. He was a Test player, an occasion player. Playing in a one-dayer against the West Indies in Toowoomba didn’t quite excite him that much," he said.
That 1978-79 season was the last to feature concurrent competitions. By mid-1979 Packer had received the exclusive TV rights deal he craved, as well as a commitment that many of WSC’s popular innovations, such as day-night cricket with a white ball and coloured uniforms, be retained for limited-overs matches.
While WSC was undoubtedly a key milestone in the dramatic improvement in player conditions between pre-WSC days and now, O’Keeffe insisted reunification did not trigger that instantly.
"It’s one of the myths of Australian cricket that the Packer revolution basically ignited player payments. It’s not true, it happened about a decade later," he said, citing the successful 1989 Ashes tour as a more significant juncture.
Chappell is in Queensland for the under-19 World Cup, in his capacity as Cricket Australia’s national talent manager. While the lack of awareness among those teenaged players of WSC is unsurprising, Chappell reckoned even first-class players a decade or so older had little understanding of why WSC occurred and what it achieved.
"I don’t think the modern player really has much understanding of what happens, or much interest in it. This (television) program might change that for some, but I think generally players don’t know what a changing moment that was for the game, and in some ways sport generally in Australia. All of a sudden players were in a much stronger position than they’d ever been in before," he said.
"It succeeded not just because of Kerry Packer. It was also because of the strength and the conviction of cricketers around the world to say that ‘Things have got to change’."
Bright similarly argued that "the modern-day cricketer should be very thankful to [West Indies captain] Clive Lloyd, Tony Greig and Ian Chappell for getting together with Packer and Cornell and ‘Hoges’ [comedian Paul Hogan, Cornell’s business partner] to get it up and running".
O’Keeffe agreed there are traces of WSC-type discontent in the gradually increasing instances of players seeking to tailor their international commitments to maximise their availability for private T20 competitions such as the Indian Premier League, which could lead to international retirements in the most extreme cases.
But he insisted WSC players had not been content just because of their significant pay increases.
"We all still yearned to play Test cricket. That was still our overriding aim at the time, to be back in the fold," he said. "Now, I think a few will make a decision as to what type of cricket they want to play — and it’s not necessarily Test cricket."
Howzat!: Kerry Packer’s War. Channel Nine, 8.30pm tomorrow and next Sunday.