The start of saturation cricket
The Australian tri-series was for almost three decades as much a part of the cricket calendar as World Cups and the Ashes, but it had a less than auspicious start 35 years ago.
In the late 1970s one-day cricket was still the inferior format to Tests, despite two World Cups, both won by West Indies. By the time the 1979 World Cup came round, India, as an example, had only played 10 ODIs, all of them away from home. In the eight and a half years since the first one-day international there had been 60 matches. But Kerry Packer's World Series Cricket (WSC) turned the game on its head and showed that there was a public appetite for ODIs, especially when played under lights.
The Australian board, the ACB, belatedly recognised that and in its preliminary calendar for the 1979-80 season announced only three Tests against India alongside a nine-ODI triangular series against India and England.
By the start of 1979 both Packer and the ACB were haemorrhaging cash but the belief was that Packer had deeper pockets, and the ACB did not have the resources to keep fighting, especially as the previous season's six-Test Ashes series had lost money and the board had recorded a A$1 million loss since WSC had launched. In February 1979 the two sides started private talks, culminating in the announcement of a settlement in late May.
Packer got what he had wanted from the start - TV rights - while the board got their "rebel" players back and a clear run at recouping their losses. Packer wanted as much cricket as he could get to fill his channel and in a format that would appeal to a wide demographic, both fans and casual viewers, young and old. And as part of the deal was to, in effect, give WSC's marketing men control over that aspect of the new deal, it was apparent how things would work.
Packer had dictated almost all the terms over what was to be played, when and how. The ACB won a few small victories - Packer wanted four international sides competing in 40 ODIs each year, eventually settling for three teams and half the games - but it was clear who was dominant. Gideon Haigh, in The Cricket War, wrote that WSC had " effectively lease[d] the Australian cricketers back to their board".
Overseas boards, which had backed the ACB to the hilt during the row with Packer, felt they had been sold out. India had every reason to be aggrieved, backed into a corner and persuaded to cancel their 1979-80 tour for what ACB chairman Bob Parish told them was "global cricket harmony". The ICC, keen to ensure a peaceful World Cup, rubber-stamped the settlement at its AGM in June.
The ACB had a considerable amount to learn from WSC. When India had toured Australia in 1977-78 they had played five Tests and no ODIs. The following season the board had realised one-day games drew crowds and so staged five against England, although there were still six Tests and the one-dayers were regarded by most as an afterthought. That was all to change in 1979-80.
Australia needed the best teams if they were to refill their coffers, and that meant West Indies, the world champions, and England, the old enemy. The West Indies board, itself hardly cash-rich, readily agreed, but the Test & County Cricket Board, the forerunner of the ECB, proved less flexible.
The ACB wanted to incorporate a number of innovations introduced by WSC, such as coloured clothing and fielding restrictions - but the TCCB was having none of it, arguing its players were completely unfamiliar with such things.
Its main concern was the schedule and the amount of one-day cricket. It took several months of often bitter negotiations before agreement between the two boards was reached, and at times relations were as frosty as they had been at any time since Bodyline. Making the announcement to the media, Peter Lush, the TCCB press officer, said England were "strongly of the opinion there were too many [ODIs] than is desirable" adding they had "agreed to this programme purely on an experimental basis".
Australia and West Indies, largely through their returning WSC players, had experience of playing under lights. Only Derek Underwood from the England squad did, so special net sessions under floodlights had to be arranged for them in the days before the opening match. The TCCB had agreed to using a white ball, however, meaning while players took to the field in traditional white kit, they had to wear coloured pads to assist umpires in making lbw decisions.
Mike Brearley, the England captain, believed his side had been set up as the fall guys. "There were those on the board who hoped privately we would be stubborn, but not so stubborn that the series would be scrapped. They would get their revenues… and we would get the blame. And that's exactly what happened."
ACB treasurer Ray Steele had a different take: "All they [the English] succeeded in doing is giving the public the impression they're chicken."
Even then there was a final twist. Three weeks after the announcement, the TCCB told the Australians that it would not agree to the the hastily arranged three-Test series against Australia being for the Ashes.
The first game of the brave new Benson & Hedges-sponsored world, which was also the first official floodlit ODI, took place at the SCG on November 27, 1979, and Australia upset the odds by beating West Indies by five wickets, thanks mainly to a hundred from Greg Chappell.
There followed an often bewildering two months where Tests intermingled with ODIs. Australia had the most punishing schedule, playing six Tests to their opponents' three each. On December 26 they played an ODI against England at the SCG. On December 29 they started a Test against West Indies at the MCG - perhaps they were fortunate to lose inside four days as it gave them a second rest day before they headed back to the SCG for another Test on January 4, this time against England. And so it went on.
The saturation marketing for the series owed everything to WSC and little to tradition. The familiar "C'mon Aussie, C'mon" jingle was imported from WSC, and sponsors McDonalds flogged the games with posters advertising the three countries. This caused unease among many England players, who objected to their images being used to endorse a product that had nothing to do with them or English cricket.
Wisden was also unimpressed. "Such was the confusion of fixtures that attendances and authenticity both suffered," wrote the editor. "The public seemed not to know what to expect next, or indeed for what trophy any given match was being played. As for the players, they were given little chance to settle down to any one type of cricket, whether one-day, four-day or five-day, all of which call for different tactics and not necessarily the same skills."
Despite that, the series was a financial success, even though Australia failed to make the finals, and that was what mattered to the ACB. Australia beat West Indies in three of their four meetings but lost to England, who topped the group table, in all four matches. West Indies beat England 2-0 in the finals, which the TCCB had insisted be played on a best-of-three format and not best-of-five as the ACB wanted.
In an interview with Christopher Martin-Jenkins, Parish dismissed criticism of many aspects of the new deal. "'We must give the public what they want,' he kept saying, like a man trying to convince himself." Like it or loathe it, the cricket world would never be the same again.
What happened next
- Australia won the three-Test series against England, after which Greg Chappell, their captain, told the media that his side had regained the Ashes. It was not the case, and statistically the matches are not considered Ashes Tests
- Australia have only failed to reach the finals on two other occasions - in 1996-97 and 2001-02
- The series ran every season until 2007-08 since when it has only been staged once, in 2011-12
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Cricket War Gideon Haigh (Melbourne University Press, 1993)