Obituary, 2006

Kerry Packer

ESPNcricinfo staff



Packer's Father, Sir Frank, called him Boofhead © The Cricketer International
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PACKER, KERRY FRANCIS BULLMORE, AC, who died on December 26, 2005, aged 68, was the media tycoon whose intervention in cricket created the finances, shape and tone of the modern game. In 1977, Packer bought up more than three dozen of the world's best players after Australian administrators refused to countenance the idea of his Channel 9 network televising the game. Within two years, after the game's bloodiest civil war, he emerged triumphant.

Before his victory, the game's authorities, and most of cricket's loyal followers, regarded Packer as the devil incarnate. When he died, there were black armbands and a minute's silence at the Melbourne Test, and the tributes - from the Australian prime minister and the president of the ICC downwards - verged on the unctuous. There were good reasons for this: Channel 9, now under the aegis of Packer's son James, remained an exceptionally potent force in both cricket and Australian society. And after nearly 30 years, the bitterness engendered by Packer had long dissipated, and there was almost universal acceptance that the changes he wrought were, if not wholly beneficial, then at the very least inevitable. Affection, however, was generally confined to his associates and the players, whose lives he transformed.

Packer was the younger son of the rumbustious, right-wing, Sydney newspaper owner, Sir Frank Packer. He was a sickly, unhappy, dyslexic and - on the face of it - stupid child; his father called him Boofhead. Kerry's most obvious childhood achievement was to overcome polio and become school heavyweight boxing champion. When he joined the family business, he was regarded as a joke: "a gangling dill", as one journalist put it. Everyone, including Sir Frank, assumed the elder son, Clyde, would succeed. But Clyde fell out with his father, emigrated to California and, in 1974, Kerry inherited.

He was big, ugly ("the man in the stocking mask"), crude and unintellectual. But everyone soon learned that he was sharp as a tack. He was not interested in the day-to-day influence that comes from owning newspapers, and - even before his father's death - had engineered the sale of the Sydney Daily Telegraph to Rupert Murdoch, who shared Sir Frank's taste for shaping public policy. Kerry still had Australia's biggest collection of magazines, and above all the marketleading Channel 9 stations in Sydney and Melbourne. His interest in power was at once narrower and broader; he judged politicians mainly on their attitude to him, and saw television as the medium of the future. Colour TV was only just about to hit Australia; there was pressure to produce home-grown programmes to leaven the network's Hollywood pap. What better than sport?

Packer had already shown his commitment by sponsoring, revamping and televising the Australian Open golf championship, which had been close to collapse; he did it by putting cameras on every hole, previously considered unthinkable. Unlike his commercial rivals, he saw Australian cricket as ripe for the same kind of makeover. But cricket was not collapsing, and its officials were perfectly happy with its comfy if not lucrative long-standing partnership with the government-owned ABC channel, which offered national reach, showed domestic matches as well, and made no waves. In 1976, they had an agreed but, as yet, unsigned deal for the next three years. Board officials airily offered Channel 9 the possibility of some kind of shared arrangement in three years' time. Packer wanted an exclusive deal, he wanted it now, and he was willing to offer $A500,000 a year, seven times the ABC figure. He was rebuffed. The exact wording of what he said next is in dispute; their import is not. According to Packer, he told the gentlemanly pair, Ray Steele and Bob Parish: "There's a little bit of the whore in all of us. Gentlemen, name your price." According to Steele, he said: "We're all harlots. Name your price."

But they wouldn't. Packer took a while to react, and did so only after a chance conversation with his associate John Cornell, who suggested Packer should sign up the world's best players for his own competition. This proved astonishingly easy. The administrators - and the game's regular followers - may have been happy with the status quo: indeed, perhaps the best-ever cricket match, the Centenary Test, was about to take place, in March 1977, at the MCG. But the players, eking out their uncertain careers on little more than a working man's wage, emphatically were not happy. Packer flattered them by approaching them as the world's best, cowed them by swearing them to secrecy and bowled them over by offering $A25,000 for 12 weeks' work. There were hardly any refusals. The true story of the Centenary Test was the unseen one: the collusion involving nearly all the Australian team signing secretly for Packer. After the great game, Packer's lieutenant Austin Robertson moved under the noses of officials, handing brown envelopes ("here are your theatre tickets") round the victorious Aussies in their dressing-room. Then the England captain Tony Greig was approached, and the brown envelopes spread round the cricketing world.

The news broke in May like a thunderclap, and would dominate the newspapers for the next two years. The reaction was strongest in Britain, where it was coloured by sentimentality, indignation, anti-colonial arrogance and a not unjustified feeling that the team had been betrayed by the South African-born Greig. But the original Australian miscalculation was now compounded. The various governing bodies misjudged both Packer's strengths and his weakness. They misread his intentions - he was not interested in running cricket - and above all his readiness to give up everything else, if only he could have had the exclusive rights he craved. They also underestimated his implacability. If it was to be war, he would fight it with far more resources and resourcefulness than his opponents.



'The various governing bodies misjudged both Packer's strengths and his weakness. They misread his intentions - he was not interested in running cricket' © The Cricketer International
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They also misunderstood the solidity of his position. Packer players were now barred from Test cricket and, in England, from domestic cricket, although they had broken no contracts. The ban was, however, an attempt to get them to break their contract with Packer, which left the authorities disastrously exposed legally. When Packer and some players sued in the High Court in London, even those who loathed him thought he made a more impressive witness than the Lord's officials ranged against him. "Is it right that you went into the Supertest business to make money?" asked Michael Kempster QC, cross-examining. "Of course," said Packer suavely. "I have never said anything else." The bans were struck out. The cricket itself was not at first a success. The rebels were banned from Australia's main grounds and the first season of World Series Cricket flopped miserably, with small audiences in the grounds, and on the box. From inside the Packer empire came reports that money was haemorrhaging to the point of jeopardising the business, and that the boss was privately ranting and raging. The one tiny glimmer of success came at VFL Park, Melbourne. Packer had seen floodlit Australian Rules football there, and he could see no reason why cricket shouldn't be floodlit too. The first attempt (played in whites) drew a reasonably encouraging 7,000.

Yet the venture was saved, arguably more than anything, by that last resort of a beleaguered media tycoon: a political fix. Neville Wran ("Nifty Nev"), the premier of New South Wales, decided a good turn for Packer was in his interests. He forced out the Establishment-minded trustees of the Sydney Cricket Ground and brought in replacements willing to let in both Packer and floodlights. Capturing the temple was the key to victory. The first day/night match there was packed (except in the members' enclosure) to overflowing, and Packer's success was assured, a triumph sealed as the weakened official Australian team collapsed in the 1978-79 Ashes in front of dwindling crowds. Meantime, Packer promoted his own Australians as "the real thing" with the slogan "C'mon, Aussie, c'mon." Traditional cricket had never seduced the masses so effectively. In May 1979, the Australian Cricket Board capitulated and gave Packer an infinitely better deal than he would have accepted a year earlier. As in all the great victories, there had been a substantial element of fluke; Packer did not dream up one-day internationals - the first was in 1971 - and floodlit cricket was a chance byproduct of the schism.

The pattern of Australian cricket was now set, though, and has remained essentially unchanged to this day when the formula seems tired: relentless oneday cricket, mostly under lights, brought to the nation by Channel 9 with a mixture of innovative technical wizardry and shameless, sometimes nauseating, hype. Packer personally held an effective veto over Australian cricket for more than a quarter of a century until his death, with a brief interregnum between 1987, when he sold his TV interests to his less smart rival Alan Bond for $A1 billion, and 1990, when he bought them back for a song after Bond over-reached himself. But Packer displayed little interest in the world he conquered. His admirers have relayed accounts of him joining in slip practice in the early days, and talking knowledgably and lovingly about the game. He certainly had a red-blooded Australian's interest in the national sport. Sceptics say he enjoyed the company of cricketers because he found them unthreatening. But he was never seen on the grounds he tacitly controlled. He was livid in the mid-1980s when the South Africans copied his tactics, and bought up many top Australian players, which threatened his investment; but there was no public sign of enthusiasm for the game itself.

His business deals grew shrewder and shrewder and soon he could buy almost everything and everyone in Australia. But personal popularity he could never buy. His reputation among the sniggering classes never wholly recovered from unconvincing allegations that he was a major figure (codenamed "Goanna") in organised crime. He was, in many ways, a monster: a mix of Citizen Kane and Henry VIII, and he tyrannised his employees with his mood swings. But he could inspire unbelievable loyalty in some of them, like his helicopter pilot Nick Ross, who in 2000 donated a kidney so Packer could have a transplant.

Ten years earlier, Packer lay clinically dead for eight minutes after having a heart attack playing polo. The fact that he came back, authoritatively announcing that there was "fucking nothing" on the other side, only added to his aura. But illness took its toll. He became more like Howard Hughes than Henry VIII. He was a restless, seemingly lonely and often sickly figure, watching TV endlessly, and so rich that he could only get kicks by gambling on a scale that made him the highest of high rollers. He reputedly won $US24m in Las Vegas in 1995; one night at the Ritz in London, he dropped £2m, ate a boiled egg and raw onion, then won £3m. Australian casinos could not face such opposition, so he turned to owning them instead; under the next generation, these look like becoming the new centrepiece of the Packer empire.

It is intriguing to speculate what might have happened had 1970s administrators been less boof-headed and given Packer what he wanted in the first place. Somehow, somewhere, the game would have changed, possibly in a way that better preserved its most endearing qualities. His motives were positively not altruistic. As the former ACB secretary Graham Halbish pointed out, Packer did far better out of cricket than cricket did out of him: he got hours of high-rating TV incredibly cheap. And his stations have not always been loyal to the game itself, refusing to show the 2005 Ashes because they stretched across Australia's evening primetime. But the consequences of his involvement were immediately beneficial for the long-downtrodden professional cricketer. England players' fees (£210 per Test in 1976) rapidly quintupled because the split galvanised the official game enough to bring about Test match sponsorship. Professional cricketers across the globe might wish to pay Kerry Packer homage; but if cricket ever erects a statue, there will be plenty of passers-by who will have an irresistible urge to spit on it.

© John Wisden & Co.