Kerry Packer — rebel or a messiah?
FOR the present cricket-adoring youth it is imperative to know how the game changed from the first World Cup in 1975 to the second in 1979. Only a couple of years after the first competition a ‘cricket war’ broke out between the establishments and an Australian billionaire and media tycoon named Kerry Francis Bullmore Packer, the owner in Australia of television Channel Nine and PBL Marketing.
Packer wanted to win the broadcasting rights for his channel from the then Australian Cricket Board (ACB) who were well pleased with their arrangements already with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC).
He had said to the ACB officials offering his bid: “There is a little bit of a gambler in all of us, gentlemen. What is your price?”
Failing to break into it he rebelled to form the World Series Cricket (WSC) signing secretly world’s great players and teams.
Unhappy over being underpaid by their own establishments, he signed most of the Australian players including the Chappell brothers Ian and Greg while Rodney Marsh and Dennis Lillee also signed, as did the ten West Indians led by Clive Lloyd the World Cup winning captain. Top Pakistanis were not far behind as Mushtaq Mohammad, Zaheer Abbas, Majid Khan, Imran Khan, Sarfraz Nawaz, Haroon Rashid and Javed Miandad all said yes to the tycoon’s circus.
Even the South Africans, who desperately needed some exposure because of not being allowed to play international cricket since 1970 due to the apartheid, jumped the opportunity of some international cricket action.
Packer’s recruiting agents were no less figures than Ian Chappell, England captain Tony Greig, Pakistan’s Asif Iqbal, not to forget former Aussie skipper Richie Benaud.
Greg Chappell was immediately stripped of Australian captaincy as was England skipper Greig by the then Test and County Cricket Board (TCCB), now called ECB. There was indeed upheaval all round amongst the cricket boards which started to ban their players for joining a private enterprise intruding their affairs.
The ICC stepped in to talk to Benaud and his rebel colleagues at Lord’s but the game’s world governing body was powerless to convince the ACB to concede to Packer’s request to hand over the rights to his TV channel.
Strong and bullish looking Packer stormed out of the meeting declaring ‘War’.
The tycoon then backed the challenge to the TCCB in court by two of his English rebels — Greig and John Snow — a case which Packer won with the help of his lawyer Lord Alexander who argued that professional players cannot be stopped from earning their livelihood.
Justice Sir Christopher Slade’s decision that professional cricketers need to make a living and that the ICC should not stand in their way just because of their own interest may be damaged came as ton of bricks over the establishments.
A victory for Packer opened the way for his private cricket circus which attracted huge crowds in Australia in the two seasons from 1977-78 to 1978-79 it lasted.
Knowing that they have a man with the resources to damage the establishment, the boards had to succumb, eventually ending the dispute between him and the ACB, as he was given the rights for televising cricket for the next ten years.
They are still doing it.
It was during those court proceedings in the London High Court that I was provided with the opportunity of meeting Packer. A gambler by reputation, he was once reported to have won 33 million Australian dollars at the MGM casino in Las Vegas.
During that seven-week court hearing which started on Sept 26, 1977, I was phoned by Mushtaq Mohammad to join him at the court room gallery to watch Asif Iqbal being cross examined.
After we came out of the court, Mushtaq asked me if I could come to the Dorchester Hotel to see Packer who had hired the entire floor where royals and rich stayed.
A fleet of limousines took us there. Tony Greig, Asif Iqbal and Mushtaq were in company. It was an amazing experience as Mushtaq introduced me to the big man, saying that I am a journalist and a friend of his.
Packer reacted immediately: “Oh no, not another journalist.” Quickly then Mushtaq came to my rescue, telling him that I was his friend first and journalist second. Welcome then, Packer said warmly.
Moments after that, raising his arms, he clapped like a Royal or a Nawab would. A swing door opened and two girls pushing a trolley – with a huge cake on top of it – emerged to our surprise.
He then turned towards Tony Greig and said: “Right, you did not tell me but I know it is your birthday today. Happy birthday!” Greig was speechless and appeared shocked by the surprise move from Packer.
But the purists loathed him for taking on the establishments head on, signing their players. Eventually, when the truce came in May 1979 before the second World Cup that he really had come as a blessing in disguise for the players as well as the cricket boards which began to realise the significance of marketing the game and the innovations that would bring in the cash.
Cricket owes to him. Day-night cricket, coloured clothing, white ball, artificial pitches, black sight-screen and protective helmet and drop-in pitches – all were his innovations to lure crowds.
Those who detested Packer stood in one-minute silence during a Test match at the MCG in December 2005 on his sad demise, to confirm the man as one of the most influential figures in the game’s history.
The story of the second World Cup was not much different from the first in 1975. But in between the first and the second a lot had happened. The teams had started to learn tactics and techniques of the limited over matches as it began to gain in popularity.
Teams had also become sharper and smarter and players richer because of increased number of sponsorship filtering into the game, thanks to Packer again who had transformed the game in almost every way by then.
The West Indians most of whom had become part of that rebel cricket circus had now come back even with greater force than ever before to win the 1979 competition beating this time England in the final.
Pakistan also had included their players who had joined Packer but England Australia shunned theirs.
India’s indifference and inexperience to the limited over games were obvious as much in their in their loss to the Windies by nine wickets as that by 47 runs to Sri Lanka.
New Zealand were competitive enough to run England close in the semi-final but lacked the push when it mattered. Quality of cricket was generally disappointing. Only West Indians and Pakistan scored totals over 250 and Viv Richards’ breathtaking century (138) in the final besides Gordon Greenidge’s unbeaten 106 against India were the only hundreds of the Cup.
And then there was Joel Garner, of course, the world’s tallest player who was often unplayable for the opposition. Not many I had seen before could bowl those yorkers with such control as did Garner who picked up five wickets for four runs in 11 balls to make sure that the Cup went to his team again.