Packer the pioneer with enduring legacy of pyjama game that woke the world
The Australian media mogul who revolutionised cricket died this week. Paul Newman examines his lasting influence
Wednesday 28 December 2005
John Snow remembers one of his early conversations with Kerry Packer. The Australian media and gambling mogul, who died this week at his Sydney home at the age of 68, had shaken cricket's authorities to the core by recruiting the world's best players to play World Series Cricket in 1977.
Snow was enlisted by his England captain, Tony Greig, along with Alan Knott, Derek Underwood and Dennis Amiss to play for a World XI. "KP turned up when we first landed on Australian soil," Snow remembered yesterday. "He said to us: 'You're getting paid well for this and I expect you to take it seriously. If you want to bugger about you can get back on the plane'.
"It was a hard-nosed business from his point of view and his attitude was adopted by the cricketers. We were being paid a fair whack and we were happy to give it everything we could. Everything was very serious, very professional. And as a result there was some fantastic cricket played."
For someone who never played first-class cricket, Packer's influence on the game has been extraordinary. He pioneered night cricket (with a white ball) and coloured clothing. His encouragement of one-day cricket transformed the limited-overs game. Thanks in large part to Packer, who paid handsomely, leading players around the world today are well rewarded for their efforts and central contracts can be seen as a clear consequence of World Series Cricket.
Above all, he brought a businesslike approach to both the playing and the commercial side of the game. Modern-day television contracts, like Sky's new £220m four-year agreement with English cricket, dwarf those that were the subject of Packer's anger when he launched his rival series. In 1976 the Australian Cricket Board signed away its rights at 69,000 Australian dollars a year (about £29,000) to the Australian Broadcasting Commission; in a sign of things to come, Packer had been prepared to pay A$500,000 (£210,000).
World Series Cricket came about because of Packer's business frustrations and the dissatisfaction of players, especially in Australia. Money was a particular source of unhappiness: Dennis Lillee once calculated that he made around A$30 (£12.50) a day, after tax and expenses, for playing Test cricket.
English players felt poorly rewarded and taken for granted. "I could have got more money being a dustman going down the Marylebone Road than I did playing cricket," Snow said. "I remember when we had to play an extra Test match in 1970-71 in Melbourne and we talked about refusing to play. Donald Bradman had come into our dressing-room and thanked us for agreeing to it. We said: 'What extra game?' I think they'd agreed to pay the umpires before anybody mentioned anything to us.
"I'd been fighting the authorities for a long time. I remember being punished for wearing advertising for cricket equipment at a televised county game. I'd been saying for years that cricket should capitalise on advertising opportunities to bring in more money, but the powers-that-be insisted they wouldn't allow it."
Packer was made aware of the Australian players' anger by John Cornell, a former journalist who worked as a producer for Packer's TV station, Channel Nine. Advised by Richie Benaud, Packer set about enlisting, in total secrecy, the world's best players for a Test and one-day series. The first recruits were 28 Australians, led by the Chappell brothers and including all the country's best players, followed by 18 West Indians and 22 players for a Rest of the World team.
Greig signed up, became the recruiting officer for the English contingent and was sacked as national captain. The International Cricket Conference banned the Packer players from appearing in matches under its jurisdiction, but the High Court in London ruled that no single body could have a monopoly on the game.
World Series Cricket was launched in Australia in the winter of 1977-78 and was an instant success, with large crowds watching some thrilling sport. The crowds loved the night matches and the colour of "pyjama cricket". A Test at Perth between WSC Australia and Greig's World XI typified the play: the World XI were 433 for 1 at the end of the first day and made 625, Barry Richards scoring 207, Viv Richards 177 and Gordon Greenidge 140. Greg Chappell hit 174, but the Australians lost by an innings and 73 runs.
Snow recalls the professionalism of the players. "There were greater demands in terms of fitness and preparation," he said. "Practice was always taken very seriously and we had set training patterns. It was the start of much greater physical demands on cricketers. Previously fitness was something that was left to you as an individual."
Packer and the authorities made peace after two years. Most players rejoined their national teams and Packer secured his broadcasting rights. The game, however, had changed for good and, despite the original bitterness, there is now almost universal agreement that Packer was a good influence. Ehsan Mani, president of the ICC, said yesterday: "He possessed a great knowledge, understanding and love of the game. He always watched cricket with a view to taking the sport forward, he was always full of ideas, and his is an incredible legacy to the game."
Greig, hailing Packer's changes, said: "The most important thing was night cricket. That got cricket to a wider audience. The second most important thing is that cricketers are paid what they should be paid. Every cricketer would be grateful, I am sure, for the involvement of World Series Cricket, because it got them a better deal.
"He also improved cricket on television beyond recognition, with the greatest respect to the BBC and others. He just took it to another level."
Snow concluded: "Kerry Packer took a stick of dynamite and threw it in the Long Room. When the pieces came back down everything was in a different shape - but cricket was better for it."
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