"Oh, Kerry wouldn't do that, son."
With these words, the News Limited chairman Sir Kenneth May cooled the jets of his young group cricket writer and fellow South Australian Alan Shiell. It was April 1977 and Shiell had just told May all he knew about a prospective breakaway cricket competition to be helmed for television by the owner of the Nine network, Kerry Packer - a notion so apparently preposterous that May rejected it out of hand.
The two met in Sydney, the afternoon before Shiell was due to fly to England with Australia's Ashes tourists. Forty years after eventually breaking the story of World Series Cricket alongside his fellow correspondent Peter McFarline, Shiell wonders how things might have panned out if he had pushed the issue that day.
"I was surprised that Peter had gone to such lengths to keep me out of the way for the sake of a story - I suppose that's journalism for you"Journalist Brian Mossop on losing out on the big story to McFarline
"I had told Ron Boland, editor of the News in Adelaide, and he told me to tell Sir Kenneth." After at first refusing to believe the story, May said: "Well, see what more you can find out over there and send the story through as soon as possible."
"I could have written something based on what I had at the time, and I wonder what difference that would've made to the trip, and whether some of those players would have toured at all," Shiell says. "I didn't realise it was going to be quite as big as it was, but I guess I was naive."
A similarly bright-eyed exchange had taken place a little less than a week before, at the Newmarket Hotel in Adelaide. Shiell was there for lunch with his friend the recent Test debutant David Hookes, who rather changed the tone of the afternoon when he let slip the biggest secret in the game, partly as a favour to Shiell ahead of his first overseas assignment with News Limited.
"He was worried about his future and whether he'd be able to play Test cricket again," Shiell says. "He didn't think he would, and was quite concerned. He didn't know for sure but he assumed everyone was in on it, but he wasn't completely comfortable. He was pretty happy about the money, A$25,000 a year, but the more it went on and the closer it got, the more he became worried about it and went to see Packer, who told him there was no way out of it.
"They all knew what it involved from the start. Some might not have liked it, but they all knew they wouldn't be playing Test cricket. He would have been speaking to me as a friend too, chatting all about it knowing I wasn't going to write it the next day, but once it all broke he never had a go at me about it in England and was always comfortable about it there."
As a former batsman of some distinction for South Australia, Shiell's contacts among the players were impeccable. But he was also wary of the impressive connections built up by McFarline, the irascible and competitive correspondent for the Age in Melbourne. A few hours after being rebuffed by May, Shiell dined with McFarline at Sydney's Boulevard Hotel. Both were booked on the same Qantas flight that would convey Australia's Ashes tourists to England. Though he had filed a broad story the previous October about televised cricket on Nine, McFarline needed more.
"McFarline didn't know anything, really, until I told him that night at the Boulevard," Shiell recalls. "But there was that fear that because he knew so many officials like [Victoria Cricket Association secretary] David Richards and others, and because he used to get fed a few more stories than me, that he would drop it [into print] before me. So I thought it was better to take him into my confidence and we'll both work together, so I was guaranteed it either way then."
"I wish I'd had a mobile phone or better phone connections then. I should've phoned Sydney, I should've phoned the sports editors to vouch for the story. But in those days you didn't make unnecessary phone calls!"Alan Shiell
Their resources duly pooled, the pair joined the team on the plane to England. In the early days of the trip both missed opportunities to follow up. McFarline, who died in 2002, recalled that several players, including the England fast bowler John Snow, greeted him with the words "See you in Australia next summer", which seemed odd with India slated to tour.
"It was strange in hindsight that I didn't ask much more about it immediately after I got to England," Shiell says, "particularly not talking more about it to Greg [Chappell], who I'd roomed with for South Australia. But I was so bloody busy filing for morning papers, evening papers and Sunday papers. Murdoch's Sydney papers weren't taking AAP then either, so I was having to do the scores as well. I had the Telegraph, the Murdoch Sundays, the News and the Daily Mirror. The Tele and the Mirror drove me mad!"
So it was that the touring team and its attendant press pack reached Hove in Sussex for a tour match starting on Saturday, May 7, with little inkling of the storm about to break. At this point it actually seemed most likely that the WSC story would emerge from either Packer's own magazine the Bulletin, which was quietly preparing an official version about the venture for June, or the respected English correspondent Ian Wooldridge, who was taken into the confidence of Packer's prime consultant, Richie Benaud.
Wooldridge had called Benaud at his home in London and got an evasive response initially. Some hours later Benaud called Wooldridge back with the words, "I think you'd better come round for a chat", leading to a comprehensive story being published in the Daily Mail on the Monday. By that time, Benaud and Packer had expected their formal letter to inform the ACB would have arrived on the desk of the board's chairman Bob Parish. Rain at Hove proved the catalyst for a more hectic turn.
After the Australian batsmen Greg Chappell and Craig Serjeant sought cover with the score 35 for 1, Shiell wandered from the press area to a corporate tent, where he bumped into the business manager of another former South Australia batsman, Barry Richards. That conversation helped Shiell learn far more about the international implications of WSC, fleshing out the one part of the story where he was most sketchy.
Returning to the press corps, Shiell found that other conversations had also taken place. "When I got back, an English journalist came to me and said, 'What do you know about an Australian TV mogul going to start up a rebel series in Australia?'" Shiell says. "I pleaded innocence, that I didn't know, and he replied, 'Wooldridge will have the story in on Monday.' Once I heard that, I said to McFarline, 'We'll have to do it now for the Monday morning papers', so we went to see Greg after play was called off early.
"When I told him, he had a funny look on his face and said, 'It sounds like an interesting proposition. I'd like to know more about it before committing myself.'
"McFarline was a friend of John Snow's, and he'd organised to go off to Tony Greig's place to a party that night. And McFarline went to that and I went to the hotel and wrote what I knew. McFarline came back later that night, told me a bit more of what he'd been able to glean about more players being involved from other countries, and that was it.
"Ian Wooldridge had called Richie Benaud at his home in London and got an evasive response initially. Some hours later Benaud called Wooldridge back with the words, "I think you'd better come round for a chat", leading to a comprehensive story in the Daily Mail"
"I still had time that Saturday night to ring the London bureau, and rang the story through to John Murche, who took it down and then put it on the telex through to Sydney, the Australian and the Daily Telegraph. I wish I'd had a mobile phone or better phone connections then. I should've phoned Sydney, I should've phoned the sports editors to vouch for the story, but without that, they weren't quite sure what to do with it. As it turned out it was on the front page of the Australian, the Age ran McFarline's story inside, and I'm not sure where the Telegraph ran it. It should've had bigger exposure, but in those days you didn't make unnecessary phone calls!"
While Shiell worried over whether the story would get its due, McFarline hatched a plan to ensure an Australian exclusive, inviting fellow reporters Brian Mossop and Norman Tasker to a Sunday morning round of golf that ensured they were out of range for their respective offices.
Mossop offers a wry chuckle when reminded of what had seemed a jovial offer to get away from cricket for a few hours. "So off I went to golf, and it was only when I got back that I discovered there was a flurry of speculation going around. Fortunately I had at least one friend among the cricketers, Ian Davis. I was sitting with Norm Tasker back at the Dudley Hotel when he came over and said, 'Oh, dramatic events eh?', then unveiled what those events were.
"I ran off to find out whatever I could and it snowballed from there. I think I managed to get a stop press or something in the Herald, because by then it was pretty late at night Australian time, by the time I'd finished paddling around on the golf course. I phoned the office and said this was going on and that was about the end of it for that night. Of course all hell broke loose and then it was a case of filing stuff about both tours almost every day.
"I was surprised that Peter had gone to such lengths to keep me out of the way for the sake of a story - I suppose that's journalism for you. I wasn't amused, but there wasn't much I could do about it after the event. It was a big story and a bit of a pain to miss out on it... If I'd had a good day's golf it might have been a bit more acceptable!"
As Mossop, McFarline and Tasker sauntered around the links, Shiell took it upon himself to inform the tour manager, Len Maddocks, and his assistant, Norm McMahon. "They didn't believe it and didn't want to believe it, but they soon had to believe it!" he says. "That was the end of their comfortable trip. Things were never the same, on the tour or after it."
What followed was a bizarre few months for players and journalists alike. Initial disquiet at McFarline's tactics faded away, but it was apparent that a cricket rebellion of this size had changed things irrevocably for the players and also the correspondents commissioned to report on them. For one thing, the usually comfortable relationship between the players and the press soon began to be eroded by the desire for further scoops.
"When I got back, an English journalist came to me and said, 'What do you know about an Australian TV mogul going to start up a rebel series in Australia?' I pleaded innocence, that I didn't know"Alan Shiell
One Australian paper sent an investigative reporter to the tour, who soon mucked in with the cricket correspondents. At collegiate dinners or pub meetings he had little to say, but then wrote several lengthy pieces about it all that appeared to be chapter-and-verse renderings of bar talk. The stories resulted in Mossop and others being harangued by their editors along the lines of "why didn't you write that?", when they had reasoned much of this information would have jeopardised an already febrile triangle between the press, the players and the tour management. It seemed, like so much else about WSC, to foreshadow a wilder future.
"Every day they wanted a political story apart from the cricket story," Shiell says. "There was a real undercurrent on the whole tour - you saw someone talking to someone else and you'd wonder what they were talking about. You felt sorry for the four guys who weren't involved, Kim Hughes, Gary Cosier, Geoff Dymock and Craig Serjeant. They felt left out when there were meetings among the players and they weren't involved. It just put pressure on everyone and hung over the entire tour."
Mossop's memories are similar: "The news was out, so one or two players were prepared to say a few things they previously had not admitted to, and as these things happen gradually, bits come out and you get a whiff of something, so you chase that. It was a fascinating time, apart from the fact I missed the first edition. So having missed that, it was a case of chase, chase, chase and make sure you didn't miss anything else!
"We had basically two tours going on from then on. We were writing about the tour we were on and writing about the tour to come - the break-up of cricket. It was pretty split between those who had been approached and those who hadn't, but the atmosphere was different from a normal tour. It wasn't terribly antagonistic but some of the guys felt very left out. There were two camps, and it was a fascinating tour to be on."
Something else Shiell recalls keenly is the savagery of the criticism directed at the players, a trend started by Wooldridge's copy, headlined "Cricketers Turn Pirates". "Back then, when cricketers were so terribly underpaid, it was surely an accident waiting to happen," he says. "And yet they got no sympathy at all in the press, particularly the English press, who were really savage on them, but I'm sorry to say the Australian papers said much the same thing.
"They felt that Packer was a media competitor and treated it as such. I was told certain things about how to tackle it. But when you boiled it down, the players were so terribly underpaid, it's a wonder it didn't happen earlier. So many players had given the game away prematurely because they couldn't afford it, and when you think about how far they've come now, 40 years on, it's terrible to think about how little sympathy the players got from anyone. No surprise from there how many players around the world jumped in on it."
Shiell and McFarline attended Packer's first press conference at Lord's after the venture became public, scene of his infamous declaration: "Now it's every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost." Later Shiell served as wicketkeeper in a press match, where Packer stood beside him at second slip. "McFarline had a freer rein, whereas I couldn't be spared from the tour," Shiell says. "I had to file scores every quarter of an hour at the county games. He stayed on for a little while after the tour and wrote A Game Divided, which was fair play to him because I was stuffed.
"At the end I had an offer to join some of the players and go to Amsterdam for a week to play some social games, all expenses paid, and I knocked it back. All I wanted to do was come home to see my son Brad, who was born in January 1976, so by September 1977 he was only one. Getting on that Qantas flight at Heathrow was one of the greatest feelings of my life, I tell you. That plane was a beautiful sight. There have been a lot happier and smoother trips!"
In recognition of five months' work without a day off and a share in the biggest story cricket had yet seen, Shiell was handed an envelope containing one extra week's pay, and then asked to get back out to cover the SANFL finals in Adelaide. "Difficult days they were," he says. "Difficult days."
So yes, son, Kerry would do that.