June 28, 2012

Kerry played guitar

Tony Greig has no cause to feel anything but proud about his involvement with World Series Cricket - as seminal a turning point as any the game has seen

Tony Greig, once one of England's dazzling boys, began his MCC Spirit of Cricket / Cowdrey Lecture on Tuesday night with a reluctant paraphrase of his part in World Series Cricket, 35 years after it shook the game to its core. Reluctant because it is a whopping subject to skim across, double reluctant because he lost the coveted England captaincy over it.

WSC was Kerry Packer's astonishing 18-month raid on the game, from late summer 1977 to the spring of 1979, when most of the world's best players deserted the established corridors and signed to play for Packer in the closest thing cricket has ever seen to a rock 'n roll circus. For a cricket-crazed teenager at the time it was a seminal moment, as big in its way as the Beatles, and as much fun as the record that changed the seventies, David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust. We watched open-mouthed as Dennis Lillee and Lenny Pascoe, Imran Khan and Garth Le Roux, Michael Holding and Andy Roberts bowled a white ball the speed of light, under lights, dressed in tight, coloured clothes with bell bottoms and butterfly collars.

Packer wanted cricket's television rights for the Nine Network and the Australian Cricket Board's refusal to let him anywhere near them led to an adventure, and bloodshed, that changed the game irrevocably. Depending on your take, Packer was either the Man Who Sold the World or Starman - "He's told us not to blow it, 'cause he knows it's all worthwhile," said Bowie in the song. Either way, he would have his way, and cricket's commercial transformation had begun.

Greig's one regret is that he never squared it with important old-school figures who had backed him throughout the journey from his native South Africa to the top of the English tree. He had signed a confidentiality clause with Packer and gone underground to recruit players on his behalf. By the time the story broke in the early summer of 1977, many of the best were known to be on board and Greig was stripped of the captaincy for the Ashes series in waiting. His unease at this was clear enough while he spoke at Lord's on Tuesday, but the way in which he revealed a letter he had written to Packer all those years ago must have brought immense relief and the sense of justification.

"Kerry, money is not my major concern. I'm nearly 31 and probably two or three Test failures from being dropped by England. Ian Botham is going to be a great player and there won't be room in the side for both of us. England captains such as Brian Close, Ray Illingworth and Colin Cowdrey lost the captaincy before they expected. I don't want to finish up in a mundane job when they drop me. I'm not trained to do anything. I went straight from school to playing for Sussex. My family's future is more important than anything else. If you guarantee me a job for life working for your organisation, I will sign."

There you have it in a paragraph - a cricketer's insecurity. At the time England were paying £210 per Test match, less than the cost of the tickets he had to buy for his family to attend the 1976-77 Centenary Test.

We watched open-mouthed as Dennis Lillee and Lenny Pascoe, Imran Khan and Garth Le Roux, Michael Holding and Andy Roberts bowled a white ball the speed of light, under lights, dressed in tight, coloured clothes with bell bottoms and butterfly collars

WSC was a conflation of five-day Test cricket, 50-over hoedowns, day time and night time, red balls and white balls, piped clothing, pink clothing, sky blue and canary yellow, bouncers, helmets, drop-in pitches, and two Richards from previously untouchable boundaries, Barry and Viv, batting together in the same team. It was played upcountry and in urban centres, in showgrounds and in parks and even, occasionally, on cricket grounds. Pakistanis, West Indians, South Africans, Kiwis, the Poms and the Aussies, all busting a gut on behalf of the same man. "You gotta make way for the Homo Superior," sang Bowie in "Oh! You Pretty Things". Camera, lights action.

It is often overlooked that Packer loved cricket deeply, and that beneath the bluster was an unseen pastoral care for its roots and its people. He took the history of the game and revamped it for the future. His cricket was played with a shocking, gladiatorial intensity and at an immensely high standard. The only disappointment was that the circus never came to London town. After two memorable, seismic summers in Australia, and brief flings in New Zealand and the Carribean, it was all over - gone as suddenly as Ziggy. The rights were secured and Packer, via a High Court restraint of trade challenge at Lincoln's Inn, was in the winners' enclosure. Greig should be nothing but proud of his part in the most important period the game has seen. Without immediately becoming rich, the players at last earned a decent whack for their ability to fill a stadium, though it was a long time before their income truly reflected their value.

To those of us lucky to have been in Australia for any small part of this show, the memories will never fade. The players were our gods, each glimpse was a moment when the world stood still. Imran was impossibly beautiful and gifted; Le Roux a rock of a man with a blonde mane and body builder's physique. Swathes of women hung around the hotels, and Australia's youth were at one with the chorus of the song that rang out across those two short years - "Come on Aussie, c'mon,c'mon / Come on Aussie, c'mon / You've been training all the winter and there's not a team that's fitter / You gotta beat the best the world has seen."

The Chappells, Lillee, Thommo and Rod Marsh were so damn macho and so bloody good. The South Africans - Richards, Le Roux, Mike Procter, Clive Rice - irresistible, explosive. John Snow, Javed Miandad and Richard Hadlee were stand-ins, for goodness' sake. And there was Viv. Swoon. And Gordon, Clive and Mikey and the colossals, Wayne Daniel and Joel Garner. These were superheroes who formed the dreams of a generation.

Greig himself was no slouch - tall, slim and charismatic, with a shock of peroxide hair that set him apart, he somehow he led the World XI to victory in the defining Supertest finale at the Sydney Cricket Ground - a place of redemption at the end of the road. On Tuesday, he kicked off a fascinating Cowdrey lecture with all that needs to be his final confession on the subject. This was a golden age and the scandal that you can't find a whisper of it in the record books should be addressed by the modern game, which thrives off the fat of the land first sown by Kerry Packer and his extraordinary World Series Band.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK