The Cricket War July 12, 2008

The first rebels

Haigh's book is the definitive last word on the Packer affair

Given that the BCCI leapt so wantonly into bed with the IPL while plotting so shamelessly to detonate the ICL, cricket's current establishment has clearly learnt some valuable lessons from the way their late 20th century predecessors handled the game's first rebellious acronym. Compared, however, with the emotions roused by WSC, aka World Series Cricket, the latest attempts to tailor the planet's most time-consuming ball game to modern attention-spans have been rather dull, as this invaluable chronicle emphasises.

In May 1977, days after media magnate and milkshake-lover Kerry Packer announced his plans to launch a rival product, that respected if staunchly maverick cricket correspondent Robin Marlar provided readers of the Sunday Times his considered prognostications. "Packer thinks he will win, and that eventually world cricket will have to treat with him. 'The fact of giving it up is not a possibility,' he told me. But in the end he will lose." All of which confirms both the limitations of weekly and daily journalism when dealing with matters of weighty long-term import, and Haigh's wisdom in waiting a decade and a half to deliver what must be considered the final verdict.

Not that this tome is purely an exercise in declamatory opinionating. Anything but. As ever with Haigh, the novelistic skills are all present and correct, while the soul lies in the research. The bibliography lists no fewer than 48 interviewees, including central figures such as Andrew Caro, Ian Chappell, Tony Greig, Bob Parish and Ray Steele, not to mention the likes of Michael Holding, Barry Richards and dozens of leading Australian players from both camps.

As a South African émigré who had risen to be captain of England only to become Packer's chief recruiting officer, Greig's recollections capture the way in which WSC divided the game and fractured friendships. "How do you sit these guys [administrators, selectors and coaches] down, as a South African with a Scottish father, and say: 'This is the real world. This is something you've got to adapt to. There is competition and it won't go away'?"

So polarised do views remain, don't expect to find yourself nodding in agreement with every assertion or interpretation. Packer, Haigh concludes, "proved less a cricket revolutionary than a remarkable resurfacer". I would contest that. Unlike the case of Elvis Presley, without whom there would still almost certainly have been a Jerry Lee Lewis or a Little Richard, it is eminently possible that, but for Frank Packer's progeny - whose preference for profiteering over propheteering was unabashed - cricketers might have had to wait until the IPL/ICL to get their just financial deserts.

Several others have committed this turbulent, catalytic saga to hard and soft covers, the vast majority contemporary and pro-establishment; the most detailed and valuable, The Cricket Revolution by the Sydney journalist Eric Beecher, carried readers only as far as May 1978, the end of the first of WSC's two seasons.

Required reading for anyone wondering how the game reached its latest crossroads.

From the book:
"What stirred this book's writer was simply that for two seasons, the best players in the world played some remarkable, path-breaking cricket whose 56,126 runs and 2364 wickets, for reasons best known to the International Cricket Council, are not first-class. A skeleton of scores are to be found in the relevant Wisdens between pages 1001 and 1008 (1979) and pages 1095 and 1107 (1980) in less space than is devoted to county second XI averages. The business name World Series Cricket Pty Ltd, similarly, was struck off in November 1992, but it would be folly to consider its remains being so conveniently interred. Cricket faces a multitude of challenges as the next century approaches, and to treat WSC as though it never happened seems a wanton waste of its lessons."

The Cricket War
by Gideon Haigh

Text Publishing Co Pty, 1993

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton