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That was Kerry Packer and this was his cricket

Submitted by rickeyre on January 1, 2006 - 2:17pm

"There is a problem with gambling in this country, but the problem doesn’t lie with people who can afford to gamble and afford to lose."

- John Howard, talking to 3AW's Neil Mitchell about Kerry Packer after he reportedly lost $32 million in a night at the casino, 1.9.00

If Kerry Packer had not organised a breakaway cricket tournament, someone else would have. Not as well, and probably not for another ten or twenty years.

World Series Cricket was born in 1977 out of the conjunction of a number of remarkable features - there was the ACBC's snubbing of Packer's commercially-superior bid for the telecast rights, and there was the paltry conditions of employment which came with playing for Australia. (Ian Chappell actually retired from Test cricket to take up a more lucrative offer to play club cricket for North Melbourne.) The concept of a made-for-TV cricket series did not come, indeed, totally out of the blue - Arthur Mailey had predicted it in his 1958 autobiography, "10 for 66 and All That". The subterfuge that went on behind the scenes, and behind the backs of the cricketing establishment, was quite extraordinary.

It is wrong to say that Kerry Packer personally revolutionised cricket - but his business sense, his audacity and his belief in the project gave the support to a bunch of people willing to innovate in an attempt to make the game more marketable. It is a fallacy to say that World Series Cricket brought the crowds back to the game - the attendance figures for Test cricket in Australia in 1976-77 show that they hadn't been away - but now with increased TV rights and increased marketing and merchandising, there was more money flowing into the sport, and more to the players. More than anyone, the impoverished West Indian cricketers appreciated this.

While some of the ideas brought into WSC were intelligent - fielding circles, drop-in pitches and batting helmets, for example - some of the marketing ideas were daft. Sledging was encouraged as part of the "excitement" of the game, we were frequently subjected to the sight in TV ads of West Indian opener Roy Fredericks giving an obscene gesture to Dennis Lillee (or at least trying to, through his batting glove). Kids were encouraged to run onto the field and thump their heroes on the back whenever a batsman reached 50 (and I saw occasions where they were actually being marshalled into position by WSC ground staff, ready to leap the fence.) Press releases claimed that the WSC supertests were more exciting than the official Test matches because more fours were being struck.

Things started to click, however, in WSC's second season, 1978-79. After NSW Government intervention, WSC was permitted to play on the Sydney Cricket Ground instead of the grungier Sydney Showground next door. And to bring the game to more mid-week spectators and to prime-time TV audiences, night cricket was developed. Floodlights strong enough to safely view the ball, which nonetheless had to be painted white; coloured uniforms for the players, even though the West Indians started off in poofy pink; umpires in brown jackets and black shirts; blackened sightscreens. And - so that Channel Nine could fit more ads in - a shortening of the over from eight balls to six.

There are a number of legendary moments of personal intervention by Packer into WSC operations. One was that he personally dictated that Ian Chappell should captain the Australian team, and not the incumbent Test skipper, brother Greg. Another was when David Hookes had his jaw broken by Andy Roberts at the Sydney Showground. Packer personally drove Hookes to St Vincent's Hospital (Packer's favourite, but not too far from the ground), speeding and driving on the wrong side of the road as if he was driving an ambulance himself.

Also coming to mind is the very first day-nighter at the SCG in November 1978. With thousands of people queuing outside an already seemingly-packed ground, Packer ordered the gates to be opened so that they could get in free. Crowd control? What's that?

Another fallacy about World Series Cricket is that Kerry Packer did it just to make money. It ran at a loss, and he knew that it would. That wasn't as important as getting revenge over an antiquated establishment. He was passionate about revolutionising cricket, although if he had won those tennis rights in 1976 he probably wouldn't have cared less about it.

With peace between WSC and the establishment in 1979, Packer's personal influence disappeared from view apart from the fact that the Nine Network (of which he owned TCN9 in Sydney and GTV9 in Melbourne, not the entire network) continued, to this day, to televise all international cricket played in Australia. The channels 9 were out of Packer's ownership between 1987 and 1990 when Alan Bond made his absurdly over-priced purchase.

In recent years Nine's committment to cricket has looked tired and indifferent. Some of the commentators have been around for almost thirty years and it shows. Game shows have taken precedence in the programming when play runs overtime. Match times have been rearranged to accomodate the 6pm news, even when there is broad daylight till 8. Just as cricket was a tiny microcosm of Kerry Packer's business empire, so the telecast's decline is a microcosm of the decline in PBL's fortunes since Kerry slipped further into semi-retirement.

It's all now in the hands of One-Tel Jamie. Oh, and next time you book a ticket to a game at the SCG, don't forget that the profits from the booking fee go towards a Packer company (Ticketek).

If Kerry Packer hadn't been the mogul to come along and shake up cricket, who would it have eventually been? Abdurahman Bukhatir, who created the cricketing oasis at Sharjah? Would it have been the guys at Zee, who had a made-for-TV cricket ground raring to go in Kathmandu for a while? Would it have been Mark Mascarenhas, or perhaps even private businessman Jagmohan Dalmiya? Or would we be waiting till 2006 for a Texan chap by the name of Allen Stanford to mosey along? I think I can say with a fair deal of confidence that it wouldn't have been Rupert Murdoch.

Packer's father, Frank, ordered that the Daily Telegraph use the headline "Stalin Dead Hooray" when the Soviet dictator died. I wouldn't go that far in commenting on Kerry Packer's passing, but I see him as a scoundrel whose boots-and-all business culture has no place in 21st century society, and whose good deeds were only possible because of his success with that business culture. What does that say about his legacy to cricket? Quite a bit, I reckon.......