Way back when January 14, 2013

Greig, Packer, and World Series tea

Back in 1977, this correspondent was at the inception of World Series Cricket. (Sort of)

Even before his untimely death on December 29 I'd been thinking about Tony Greig. Someone had kindly sent me a DVD of Howzat! Kerry Packer's War - the story of the World Series breakaway - for Christmas, and I'd been watching it in fits and starts, stopping the action when the kids appeared, in case Kerry dropped yet another f-bomb.

The actor who played Greig was fairly convincing, although he wasn't quite tall enough. Back in 1970, when he was first selected to play for England against the Rest of the World, a school friend and I made a terribly early start to go and watch Greig play a county match at The Oval. We were rewarded with a seat next to the dressing-room balcony, and a view of our lofty new hero (alongside John Snow, who spent most of the day reading a newspaper, lowering it agonisingly slowly if there was an appeal, which might force him to the inconvenience of putting the pads on). After that we followed Greig's fine international career closely, and I was later delighted to meet him in various press boxes, when he would unhesitatingly answer any manner of question - including a cheeky one about his exact height: "Six foot seven while I was playing. But I seem to have shrunk a bit - only about six-five now!"

On the whole, the programme was very well done. Lachy Hulme as Packer was imposing and menacing in equal measure: it must have been a daunting task to play the legendary ex-boss of Australia's Channel 9 on a show made by Channel 9. The action sequences actually looked as if real cricketers were involved, although "Andy Roberts" did perhaps seem a bit more leisurely than the real thing. They were able to splice in archive footage from the time, and I couldn't help comparing it with the missed opportunities of the Bodyline mini-series, made around 20 years earlier, in which the players wore bizarre home-knit sweaters and most of the "Test action" took place on an outfield covered with more leaves than you'd see at an Under-11 game.

Some of those Bodyline players, too, were pretty unconvincing: "Bill Voce" looked about 50, which is probably why he bowled almost round-arm, while "Gubby Allen" was about a foot taller than the genuine article. The real Gubby was once reduced to apoplectic silence in an MCC committee meeting, when someone mischievously told him he'd been watching Bodyline and didn't think much of his bowling action.

All the matches in Bodyline seemed to be played out in front of exactly the same stands, but Howzat visited a few more places - even though a bit of nifty camerawork must have been necessary when they went to VFL Park on the outskirts of Melbourne, the scene of Packer's first floodlit games, where all bar one of the stands have now been demolished.

I was there on the day in 1977 that Packer swept in through the Grace Gates for his momentous meeting with the ICC. I sneaked out of the office and watched as he and Richie Benaud got out of a big black car

The cricketers of Howzat also looked more like the real thing, especially an eerily feline Greg Chappell, and a doppelganger for Max Walker (he looked like him, anyway; wonder if he could do that famously tangled bowling action). Ian Chappell, speaking on Australian radio, suggested that some of the players had been ringing each other up and asking who was supposed to be who, but the main men were well defined, although a fondness for perms and moustaches understandably made identification a little difficult. Chappelli said he'd met the actor who played him, who admitted he'd had to lose a few pounds: "Mate," replied Ian, "actually I reckon you should have put a few on!" The clothes, too, were spot on for the swinging '70s: ideas man John Cornell sported a series of shirts whose collars would have been a hazard in high winds, and it might be better to say no more about some of the safari suits on show.

I did think the first programme was a bit slow to get going, and that the second one ended rather suddenly - did it really take only a couple of decent gates at Packer matches to make the Australian board cave in? And what did the players think about the sudden outbreak of "peace"?

The part I enjoyed most were the scenes supposedly filmed at Lord's. Because I was there on the momentous day in 1977 that Packer swept in through the Grace Gates for his first meeting with the ICC. I sneaked out of the office and watched as he and Richie Benaud got out of a big black car. I may be wrong, but I think that was the first time that Benaud's involvement with the new venture was made public.

I didn't have much more to do with the visit. As a cellar-dweller then, a terribly junior clerk, I was generally confined to life literally below stairs - the MCC ticket office at the time was in the old boiler room, below ground level in the pavilion. We got used to working out what was happening in matches by the crowd noise reverberating through the Long Room floor, and occasionally invented errands to dart outside and snatch five minutes of actual cricket action. At the opposite end of the age scale to me was Old Jim, who had already been given a gold watch for 50 years' service on the railways, then worked part-time at Lord's for 25 more before finally retiring as he approached 90. Jim was in charge of the filing - and, almost as importantly, the tea, which he made with stately precision at 11am and 3pm each day. It was great tea, too.

Anyway, the day Packer came to Lord's, Jim strolled out to start the brewing process just before three o'clock, and returned with even more of a genial smile than usual: "I've just seen that Terry Packer," he announced - it must have been around the time Packer famously waltzed out of the meeting "for a look around", leaving the Establishment to absorb his radical proposals. "Crikey, Jim, did he sign you up for World Series Tea?" I asked, before nipping out to the wash basins myself for a glimpse of the Distinguished Visitor. But he'd gone by then. A shame: maybe Ask Steven might have got going a bit sooner!

Steven Lynch is the editor of the Wisden Guide to International Cricket 2013