May 5, 2018

The story behind the story of the Packer affair

Forty years on, a look at how Gideon Haigh's history of the rupture set a benchmark

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'Packer set up a parallel cricket universe' - Haigh

In his acknowledgements for the first edition of The Cricket War, Gideon Haigh admitted that "the person who wrote this book was not easy to like". While he was talking mainly from the point of view of those who would help him put together this landmark chronicle of the World Series Cricket split, its origins and aftermath, there were many in Australian cricket at the time who chose not to like Haigh, or his book idea, in a manner that was both frustrating for the author and telling about the times in which he embarked on the task.

Twenty-five years later, with a new edition on the shelves to mark the 40th anniversary of Kerry Packer's venture spreading its wings and casting a correspondingly long shadow over the cricket establishment, it is not only worth recognising the importance and quality of the work - at once comprehensive and lean, evocative and economical - but also to marvel at the fact it was written at all. At a point when remembrance of WSC and its effects has in many cases become almost cant for fans, writers, filmmakers, administrators and players themselves, it can be easy to forget that the tale contained in Haigh's second book was one that precious few of the incumbents either side of the early 1990s Packer-Australian Cricket Board alliance wanted to be told in anything but the most general and genial terms.

For one thing, there was mistrust of outsiders in Australian cricket - and Haigh undoubtedly was one, having never to that point covered the game more than tangentially, as a business journalist for the Age in Melbourne. This mistrust, in fact, had probably never been more total than in the months before he started to put the pieces together. Publishing down under had been turning out plenty of cricket books throughout the 1980s - none more enthusiastically than Nine and its marketing arm, PBL (Publishing and Broadcasting Ltd) - but none caused more anger or closing of ranks than the release of a tour book, entitled Calypso Cricket, in late 1991.

Australia's tour of the West Indies earlier that year had been a series of high interest, as the world waited to see whether or not Allan Border's team, having won the World Cup in 1987, regained the Ashes in 1989, and then held on to them at home in 1990-91, could unseat an ageing Caribbean collective. Packer sent the full broadcasting weight of Nine to cover the series, and no fewer than three tour books were put together - a typical beat-journalists' effort by Tom Prior and Rod Nicholson, a more pictorial, philosophical and anthropological work by Mike Coward (Caribbean Odyssey), and the aforementioned title, by Roland Fishman.

The portraits Gideon Haigh created of the WSC players were unvarnished and described what they were really like behind the scenes © Getty Images

Before the tour Fishman had been best known in cricket for writing a biography of Greg Matthews at the height of his mid-1980s fame, and it was as Matthews' friend that many on the West Indian tour, from players to commentators to journalists, were introduced to Fishman. So when his book landed some months after Australia's ill-tempered 2-1 defeat, widespread shock accompanied the quoting of unnamed Australian players about their sexual exploits on the tour. None were more incensed by this than the players' wives (13 of the touring party were married), while players and touring journalists alike lined up to express their outrage.

The rage was summed up by Mark Ray for the Sunday Age, who wrote: "Fishman is trying to have it both ways. If he had told the players he would quote anything said to him anywhere, he would not have been into their confidences anywhere near as much as he was. He has betrayed trust, especially that of his now ex-friend Greg Matthews, who helped him get access on the understanding that he would honour accepted custom." For Matthews, the episode was deeply embarrassing and was to prove costly. "I feel as though," he said in an accompanying news piece, "this could affect my chances of playing for Australia again." He was dead right: he was not selected again for the whole home summer that followed, only returning for the 1992 tour of Sri Lanka. The ACB shut up shop: "No comment." 

As Haigh went about his research, it had been more than a decade since the two sides agreed to a compromise after Packer signed up the world's best players to play for the cameras of his Nine Network. Yet the combination of secrecy and bitterness that characterised many elements of the relationship between the ACB and Nine/PBL was still very evident in the present. Certainly Haigh, another outsider trying to tell an unseen tale of the game in Australia, was confronted by plenty of raised drawbridges when it came to cricket's incumbent leadership.

None among Packer, his long-time lieutenant Lynton Taylor, the ACB chief executive David Richards, and the post-WSC chairmen Malcolm Gray, Alan Crompton and Colin Egar agreed to speak for the book. Sir Donald Bradman, too, was conspicuous by his absence. Fortunately, others were more forthcoming to Haigh, who found Ian Chappell's frank and detailed recollections particularly valuable, and his opening doors to fellow participants. Former administrators on both sides also helped Haigh put the picture together, from Bob Parish and Ray Steele on the board side to Vern Stone and Andrew Caro from Packer's organisation. Combined with an enormous trawl through contemporary accounts, these interviews allowed Haigh to set a new standard in long-form cricket reportage, not just in Australia but anywhere.

Readers who had become used to the airbrush applied to most books about Australian cricket at the time - particularly the many put together through PBL - were both surprised and invigorated by a level of candour that pushed journalism on the game in a new direction. Haigh's portrayals of the WSC players and administrators were unvarnished: they swore, they drank and smoked, they got angry with one another, and were fearful for their futures. From the title of the prologue, "Jesus, it's not going to work", there was no doubting this was a piece of history without the cloak of euphemism.

© Sydney Morning Herald

That very honesty was a jolt to those in power. While there were no Fishman-style ramifications, the book was not received with complete warmth. At least one ACB official confronted Haigh in the summer after its publication to call it a "disgrace", and others offered him the cold shoulder. There was criticism in print, too, about how the book's conclusion felt less substantial than the rest of it. For that there was a simple reason: the story Haigh wanted to tell was still unfolding. Away from the public eye, the ACB was working desperately to extricate itself from the deal first struck in 1979 for ten years, then renewed with very little change for a further five years in 1989. By allowing PBL to market the game and negotiate broadcast rights on its behalf, the ACB had granted Packer the right to a monopoly over the game and its commercial value, with the consequence that very little of its actual worth made it back to the ACB or the players.

Via the work of Richards' successor Graham Halbish, and Packer's change of heart about dealing with the ACB - encouraged by the counsel of his son James - the PBL-Nine nexus was broken in 1994, and Lynton Taylor sacked by Packer after the ACB raised the issue of unpaid rights fees for overseas tours.

Haigh did get to sink his journalistic teeth into this episode a little more than a decade later, when alongside David Frith he was commissioned to write a commendably detailed and engaging official history of the ACB, by now known as Cricket Australia. Inside Story provided an account that the late CA director John Bannon described as nothing less than "compulsory" reading for anyone wishing to join the board. That book, published in late 2007, represented something of an apogee for Haigh as a figure who had not just told Australian cricket's story but well and truly earned the respect of the governing body and its chief executive, James Sutherland.

Perhaps not surprisingly, given many of the dramas in Australian cricket since that year effectively marked the end of 12 years of the national team's global supremacy, things have not remained as smooth. Haigh has continued to write fearlessly on the game and its discontents, most recently on the fractious MoU dispute between CA and the Australian Cricketers' Association in 2017, and the fiasco of Cape Town 2018, and now finds himself once again the outsider to an administration increasingly committed to uninterrupted message control. This is suitably ironic for the time of The Cricket War's re-release, though it also causes curiosity about whether the transparency that allowed Sutherland and the board to sign off on Inside Story will ever be possible again.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig

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