May 7, 1977.
It appeared to be just another early tour match for Australia. Especially with the grey clouds hovering over the seaside town of Hove as Greg Chappell won the spin of the coin against Tony Greig. Australia would bat, Sussex would bowl, and one could spot the tall frame of John Snow limbering up as Craig Serjeant and Ian Davis prepared to go out and open the innings.
No one expected the cricket to go on for long. The clouds that threatened since the morning released the downpour within an hour. Snow just had sufficient time to send the off-stump of Davis cartwheeling. The players dashed off, the score reading 35 for 1.
However, the intense excitement lay elsewhere.
Tony Greig, the charismatic captain of England, had enjoyed incredible hospitality at Melbourne a couple of months earlier when he had taken his side to play the Centenary Test match. In front of a glittering array of Ashes luminaries from eras stretching back to the First World War, the two teams had contested one of the greatest Test matches ever. Australia had won by 45 runs, a curious, irresistibly poetic, recurrence of the margin of victory of the very first Test match a hundred years earlier. The traditional form of the game could not have been celebrated in a better manner. Greig had left the Centenary Test in garlands, lavished with fellowship and all assortments of bonhomie and goodwill. He had even penned a ‘Thank you Melbourne’ letter for the Age.
Now it was his turn to return the favour. In the evening, the Australian cricketers left the premises of their shabby Dudley Hotel and made their way to the party Greig was hosting in his Brighton home. The England captain had not spared any expense. There was a marquee set up, food was plentiful and drinks flowed. Foster’s Lager had been specially imported for the occasion.
And amidst the revelry, two men from the Australian press scourged for information.
Peter McFarline of the Age and Alan Shiell of the Australian had enough to go on. There were whispers, loud ones, about something big that was going to happen in the upcoming Australian summer. The duo had noticed English journalists as well, hovering around the group of cricketers and some select businessmen, trying to piece together the obscure snatches of messages.
As the two Australian pressmen left the party to file their report from the Dudley Hotel, McFarline told John Snow that he was about to break the news.
This kickstarted a series of events. Greig was instantly on his phone. He called his agent Reg Hayter, the man who, a few decades earlier, had introduced Denis Compton to Brylcreem. The England skipper also called a clutch of West Indian and South African cricketers, scattered around the counties for their John Players League game on Sunday. And, of course, he rang long distance, across the world to get hold of an Australian media tycoon, a man called Kerry Packer.
The following day, Greig was leading Sussex against Yorkshire in the John Player League. However, he sought out Hayter and dictated a statement: “There is a massive cricket project involving most of the world’s top players due to commence in Australia this winter. I am part of it along with a number of English players. The full details and implications of the scheme will be officially announced in Australia later this year.”
The story hit the newspapers the following day. May 9, 1977.
McFarline outlined Packer’s plan in the Age, adding that it was to be ‘the biggest explosion in cricket since WG Grace.’ He had correctly identified and named two-thirds of the signatories. However, the timing was askew. In Melbourne, in the middle of the football season, the big news was Colligwood Football Club’s triumph under coach Tom Hafey. McFarline’s 23-paragraph story was buried in the inside back page.
However, in the Australian Sheill’s feature was granted the front page. And in Adelaide, the former Australian captain Ian Chappell took a glance at it, called his friend Graham Ferrett, a car dealer, and drove out of town. “Something big’s about to blow, I’ll explain later,” was all he said.
The true impact was made by Ian Woolridge of the Daily Mail. ‘Cricketers Turn Pirates’ screamed the banner. Wooldridge wrote: “The new Dogs of Cricket include England captain Tony Greig and 13 of the Australian touring party now in England.”
In 1975, the Australian cricketers had stormed through the English summer, retaining the Ashes and finishing runner-up in the inaugural Cricket World Cup. In the subsequent summer Down Under, they had pulverised Clive Lloyd’s World Cup winning West Indians 5-1. With explosive pace, a gamut of talented batsmen, and under the stewardship of the new captain Greg Chappell, they were now the best cricket team of the world.
Yet, they had to play on time borrowed from their employers. This time was sometimes granted with indulgence, sometimes grudgingly, sometimes in exchange of withheld pay.
The best side of the world was a curious lot. There was a teacher, a real estate executive, a cigarette salesman, a publicity front for a radio channel, used car salesmen, several bank tellers, an architect with a degree that had been deferred way too long because of cricket. All of them loved the game, but their day jobs were well removed from the game.
Geelong antique dealer Ian Redpath, one of the most talented opening batsmen, had moved away from the game because he needed to make money. Much like Test triple centurion Bob Cowper had done a decade earlier, to devote his time to his stockbroking business. Financial considerations had also made John Benaud, the phenomenally talented brother of Richie Benaud, give up the game.
Men like Rick McCosker and Rod Marsh had young families with two kids each. So had Max Walker and Gary Gilmour. Doug Walters had just become a father. Greg Chappell and Dennis Lillee had one child each, and both their wives were expecting with their second.
Even Jeff Thomson, the most maverick of them all, had announced marriage plans.
Gary Cosier, the centurion on debut, had been unemployed until he found a vague promotional role at the Adelaide 5AA.
Ross Edwards found that being dropped from the national side allowed him to rebuild his life and career as an accountant.
Ian Chappell was the only one who made a living out of cricket. But his earnings from cricket amounted to, in the words of Gideon Haigh, ‘fish and chips money’. His main income came from endorsements for Gillette, Chrysler, TAA, contracts for three books and a syndicated newspaper column. And he had just about called it a day from serious cricket.
In 1974, the country was in economic recession. The Whitlam policies had forced the nation into a credit squeeze. Unemployment was at 5.2 percent. Few companies could afford the luxury of a cricketer on their payroll unless he pulled his weight at his desk job.
In short, the phenomenally talented cricketers needed money.
The crowds at Test matches had never been better. Starting from the dominance against Mike Denness’s Englishmen in 1974-75, cricket had never been more popular in the land. Nor more lucrative for the administrators.
However, the remuneration for the cricketers had stagnated. Less than 2% of the gate takings during the 1974-75 Ashes had reached their pockets.
There were several discussions with the Australian Cricket Board, led by the Chappell brothers, to improve the lot of the cricketers. But the talks failed for a variety of reasons. The Board itself was made out of amateurs, men who could hardly spare time to attend the meetings or Test matches because of their day jobs. Bob Parish, the chairman, was busy with his family timber business.
Besides, there was obstinacy itself in the face of reform. This loomed in the form of the great Sir Don Bradman. Representing the South Australian Cricket Association, Bradman was fixated with the idea that cricket could not really be a source of livelihood. He had performed all his great deeds while working as a stockbroker. He expected the future generations to follow his lead.
What Bradman overlooked was not only that times change and parameters have to be adjusted. He also ignored the fact that as a player he had encountered the same pay and play problems with his management.
In late 1932, The Don had been contracted by the Sun to write a series on the Tests. The Board had challenged his right to combine writing with his cricket commitments. This had led to Bradman missing the first Test of the infamous Bodyline series. Eventually, he had been released from his contract with the Sun and thus had been allowed, to use a cliché, to get on with the game.
Incidentally, the man who had released him from the contractual obligation had been a Robert Clyde Packer of the Associated Newspapers. This gentleman was the founder of the Packer media dynasty.
After Robert Packer passed away in 1934, his media business was taken over by son Frank Packer. With time, Frank established the Consolidated Press Holdings, a mammoth media house that owned twin television stations, TCN-9 Sydney and GTV-9 Melbourne, and their affiliates. They also owned a dozen magazines, varying from Australian Women’s Weekly and The Bulletin.
By the time Frank Packer died in 1974, he had fallen out with his elder son Robert Clyde Packer Jr. Hence, his media empire passed on to the 36-year-old younger son, Kerry Packer.
Towering at over six foot and tilting scales at eighteen stone, Kerry Francis Bullmore Packer wanted to change the face of Consolidated Press Holdings.
He transformed the firm within a year, closing down unproductive publications and investing in new ones. He was a far-sighted innovator in more ways than one.
Yet, he had his eternal problems with the two television channels.
The popularity of the channels was dwindling. The cost of maintaining them was rising. Local interests did not seem to be too attractive anymore, and programs guaranteed to capture eyeballs were expensive.
Colour was one solution. The channels were indeed dipped into the potentials of coloured telecast. And the other alternative he looked towards was sports.
His first target was golf. He bankrolled and televised the Australian Open Golf in late 1975. The prize money was $35,000 and the entire sum came from his pocket. A year later, this amount multiplied fivefold to ensure the participation of Jack Nicklaus.
Golf was good for TV. Unlike football or soccer, it went on for a long, long time. It allowed advertising breaks.
But cricket was even better. It had naturally built in advertising spots at the end of each over and went on for five days. That meant nearly 350 to 450 natural breaks for advertisers to shower money.
Packer wanted the telecast rights of cricket. He wanted to convince the chairman of the Australian Cricket Board, Bob Parish, that this was a deal he could not refuse.
But ACB was not a professional organisation. They had not yet signed the deal to renew the contract for Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), but Parish had all but finalised talks for a $21,000 three-year deal.
Packer offered $1.5 million for three years. His famous offer statement reverberates around the cricket world even today, “Gentlemen, there is a whore in each one of us. Name your price.”
Parish did not play ball. More than misplaced integrity and near-sightedness, he was plain confused by the whopping amount. He promised that he would see what he could do … in three years.
Packer had heard enough. To him, ABC and ACB were not just anagrams in the abbreviations. They were club-mates. Frank Packer had advised, “Join any club you want by the time you are 35. After that, too many people won’t like you.” He was 38 now. Hence, he sought to open his own club.
Cricket tailored for telecast
Cricket would not merely be televised. Now it would be tailored for telecasts.
The idea was borrowed from the initially-successful all-star wandering Cavalier’s XI managed by Bagenal Harvey in the mid-1960s. Sponsored by Rothman’s and followed by BBC, the Sunday afternoon matches had been rather successful. But, their idea had been hijacked by the TCCB with their John Player’s League. Away from officialdom, the Cavalier’s had withered out.
Curiously, the man who initially worked with Packer to build on to the Cavalier theme was former Australian opening batsman Bobby Simpson. ‘Curiously’ because when the top two layers of the cream of Australian talent signed with Packer, it was the 42-year-old Simpson came back to lead the traditional Test side against India.
The Simpson association did not go far. But the veteran left with the suggestion that Packer should sound out Ian Chappell.
Packer would have done so anyway. Contact was made through Bob Cowper, the triple-centurion stockbroker. The initial discussion between Cowper and Chappell hinted at a cricket festival with the best talent around the world, with twelve-week contracts between $20,000 and $30,000. The elder Chappell brother had made $5000 from his last season of cricket. He did not have to think too hard.
In the initial meeting between the cricketer and the media Moghul was an interesting exchange. Packer asked who Chappell wanted in his team. When Ian Chappell pointed out that Greg was the captain of Australia and should be the captain, Packer responded, “You think this is a fucking democracy, do you?”
Chappell rattled off his team, including the best of Australia. The only person about whom Packer balked was off-spinner Ashley Mallett. The suggested solution was that the tweaker would bowl at Packer at Barry Knight’s Sydney cricket school. If he succeeded in dismissing the tycoon, he would be selected.
Agents were soon scouring the land, recruiting the names. Chappell, intensely aware of the plight of the South Africans in isolation, plumped for the likes of Barry Richards, Greame Pollock and Mike Procter as well.
As for the leader of the World team, the names discussed were Tony Greig and Geoff Boycott. Ultimately, after contact and meetings, Boycott’s peculiar personality stood against him.
The recruiting officer
Tony Greig enjoyed leading England. He had outdone himself in India, winning the series in alien conditions against a group of talented cricketers, even managing to turn the historically parochial crowd in his favour. He was popular, charming, idealised by the media.
Curiously, Jim Swanton, the influential veteran journalist who would call Kerry Packer ‘anti-christ’, was one of his foremost champions. Even the normally sedate Wisden praised many of his outstanding cricketing and leadership qualities.
But Greig had his feet firmly on the ground. He was a top-class all-rounder, under-rated even after so many years in spite of a splendid record. However, he knew that his success as a player would perhaps last for another five years. And as a captain, he had no illusions about the permanence of the job. He had seen Colin Cowdrey, Ray Illingworth, Mike Denness … all of them … replaced at the helm. “I knew a tenure could be ended by one bad report, one incident, one bit of foul language,” he recalled.
And he wanted to make money from the game. So, he endorsed for Kelloggs, for Waltons, for products as varying as cricket pads to undergarments, he wrote a newspaper column and a book and went on wandering cricket tours with Waverley to enhance their star appeal.
It is ironic that in March 1977, while Test cricket was witnessing its biggest celebration in the form of the Centenary Test, the most important deal was being brokered for the biggest anti-establishment drive the game had ever witnessed.
Two days after Dennis Lillee had trapped Alan Knott leg before to clinch the Test in favour of Australia, Packer entertained Greig in his Bellevue mansion in Sydney. In another thread of irony, after waving goodbye to his Australian fans and sending off his thank you letter to the Age for hospitality, Greig had boarded a Sydney-bound flight for this meeting, his first-class ticket paid for by Packer.
The offer was $90,000 over three years. Greig could be as involved as he wished to.
Tony Greig became Packer’s recruiting officer.
The West Indians were in the middle of a most enthralling Test series against Pakistan when the England captain landed in Trinidad for a ‘holiday’.
He wooed the best of them. With Ian Chappell’s recorded voice as evidence of intent.
As Haigh puts it, “Sir Frank Worrell might have been featured on the Barbadian dollar, but no West Indian had grown rich through cricket.”
Clive Lloyd at 33 knew no other trade than his cricket for West Indies and Lancashire. He had seen too many old West Indian cricketers fall on hard days. He signed. Viv Richards and Andy Roberts followed suit. And then came the others.
The same Test series was an opportunity to recruit the talented Pakistanis. Imran Khan, Zaheer Abbas, Mushtaq Mohammad, Asif Iqbal and others.
On his return to England, Greig met the South Africans in London on Easter Monday. Graeme Pollock, Barry Richards, Eddie Barlow, Mike Procter and Denys Hobson were all there at the Churchill in Portman Square. “Where do I sign?” asked Barlow famously.
Hence, when a month later Ian Woolridge’s piece shook the world, the foundation of the Packer Circus was already strong enough to withstand the aftershock.
How does it measure up?
Subsequently, the players were branded as pariahs, they faced bans and official disgrace. The grounds on offer were makeshift, and the stands, to start with, were empty. The official Test cricket went on simultaneously, with a third-grade side receiving the blessings of the establishment.
But, Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket rolled on, with two seasons of splendid cricket between the greatest performers of their day. There were SuperTests and One Day contests that saw some of most engrossing best cricketing fare.
Cricket telecast was revolutionised with every angle captured with high-quality cameras.
Cricket finances were rendered unrecognisable.
Let us ignore the pompous dismissal of Jim Swanton. In his eyes, Packer might have been the ‘anti-Christ’. But to the cricketers, fighting to make their ends meet while serving their countries with their dedication and talent, he was nothing short of a messiah.
The results of the Packer revolution are there for all to see. The truth has been paved in the last 40 years of cricket history.
The ‘Packer circus’, as his matches in the alternative set-up were called, witnessed some of the greatest players assembling to take on each other — using white balls, donning coloured clothing and playing under lights. Cricketers who jumped through the hoops in this carnival were some of the most magnetic personalities ever to grace the game. 56,126 runs were scored and 2364 wickets fell, and none of that have made it to the First-Class score books.
Yet, cricket exists in the current form because of the Packer revolution.
According to Greg Chappell, the ambition and antics of Kerry Packer — with his parallel circuit, television revolution, and bringing serious money to the professional cricketers — “carried cricket screaming and kicking into the 21st century.”
To use somewhat less reverent words of Jeremy Coney, “(Cricket) was no longer an arcane pursuit enjoyed by a few, both participants and non-participants. It emerged from its former hibernation after the modern era’s innovator, Kerry Packer, found peace with the men who control the real game. The ‘new’ cricket was a revelation. We were for the first time, in the words of PT Barnum or someone as astute as him, putting bums on seats. It was significant that the bums were going on seats not just in the cricket grounds but on seats in front of television sets.”
Cricket became a professional sport, with professional management, coaching, telecast and, most importantly, adequate payment. It became the foremost television sport, and the enormous potential in this department was discovered in exponential waves in the subsequent years. It was no longer something to be done on the side, with time squeezed out of gainful employment. It became the most rewarding of professions.
In early 1977, Clive Lloyd had signed on the dotted line because he had seen too many great cricketers struggle in poverty after their playing days were over.
And today we have Chris Gayle and his mansion in St Andrew, Jamaica.
Cricket has come a long, long way. And the seeds were planted 40 years ago — by a group of disgruntled cricketers with palpable talent, backed by the finance and foresight of a media tycoon.