Circus that deserves to be remembered

Packer's legacy to a game he enriched is appreciated - but the action itself should not be forgotten
Click to follow

When he died last week, the tributes to Australia's richest man, television mogul, passionate polo player, inveterate gambler and only very occasional recreational cricketer were so generous as to border on the fulsome. There was a minute's silence before play began in the Second Test match between Australia and South Africa, when an hour's might not have done justice to the necessary revolution that he wrought.

Yet 28 years earlier the game's establishment would have fallen silent on news of his demise only after dancing to the point of exhaustion on his grave. It was also conspicuous that while the eulogies recalled the innovations for which he was responsible - floodlit cricket, drop-in pitches, coloured clothing, helmets, marketing and above all decent wages for players - nobody bothered to remember the matches where they had taken place.

Packer's name will live for as long as cricket is played. Yet the matches played over the two seasons that his World Series Cricket existed have been airbrushed from history. Having eventually got what he wanted in the first place - exclusive television rights to international cricket played in Australia - Packer and his cohorts never seemed to mind.

It is a pity that this issue has never been properly reconciled because WSC - or the Packer Circus, as it was derisorily dubbed - was immensely competitive and featured some of the best players who ever lived. Men like Barry Richards, who scored WSC's only double century for the World XI and made an unbeaten 101 in the Circus's final match even as the establishment was beating a path to Packer's door seeking a peace treaty.

Men like Dennis Lillee, Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, Joel Garner, great fast bowlers who thrived in WSC. Lillee improved his run-up, it is said, to perfection and never bettered in official Test cricket the 7 for 23 he took for WSC Australia against WSC West Indies in Sydney.

But all this is forgotten as surely as if it never took place. Packer is part of the game's history, his matches are not. For his greatest disciple and recruiting sergeant, this is perhaps as well. Tony Greig, England captain, golden boy, an all-rounder of prodigious talent and flair when he enlisted with WSC, was never the same player again. It was as though the very act of signing weakened his powers, almost as if he was being repaid for supping with the devil.

But Greig only ever had one qualm about his part in the affair. "I would love to have come clean straightaway," he said. "Then nobody could have criticised me. The criticism was that I was recruiting players while still the incumbent captain, but we were sworn to secrecy."

Packer never forgot Greig and always looked after him thereafter. "The whole association was an unbelievable experience," Greig recalled. "To be in that world was something, I used to go in every single night and there would be prime ministers and world bank officials and moguls."

Greig's biggest point was always that he was doing it for the money because cricketers were ill-served by the masters. The politest thing that can be said about the people running the game when Packer came along was that they were nincompoops.

It has never been adequately explained why the Australian Board turned down his offer for rights. Packer's Channel Nine were first denied the right to bid, and a year later offered hundreds of thousands of dollars more than the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and were still rebuffed. That is when he realised cricket was going nowhere; he was famously to say later on that it was the easiest sport in the world to take over because nobody was willing to pay the players what they were worth.

Packer never was in it as a phil-anthropic gesture. He was a tough-as-nails businessman who wanted his own way. His second lieutenant in the whole secretive enterprise was the former Australia captain Ian Chappell, lured out of retirement by the Packer dollar. At their first meeting, called with no notice, Chappell arrived wearing jeans and a country-and-western singer's shirt. The first words Packer ever spoke to him were: "What are you, a fucking cowboy? Well, who do you want in this team of yours?" Chappell pointed out that he was no longer captain of Australia. "What do you think this is, son, a fucking democracy? You're the fucking captain."

And so he was. Packer embodied the irresistible force of money, power and ambition. Considering the type of people in charge then, cricket was probably lucky he was on its side.