A dummy's guide to World Series Cricket
World Series Cricket was a rival, private cricket tournament set up by Kerry Packer featuring many of the leading players in the world (in the end 66 signed) playing for one of three sides - Australia, West Indies or a World XI.
Who was Kerry Packer and what was his beef?
Packer was a 39-year-old media magnate who had been trying to secure TV rights for his Channel Nine network in Australia but had in effect been thwarted by a cozy long-standing relationship between the Australian Cricket Board (ACB) and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. In 1976 his offer was turned down even though it was worth more than the ABC's. He then decided to set up a rival product for his channel.
How did he sign so many players?
At the time cricketers were appallingly paid - the Australians were in effect amateurs - and so, in Packer's own words, it was "the easiest sport in the world to take over ... nobody bothered to pay the players what they were worth".
When did the story break?
From late 1976 through to May 1977 Packer set about signing players (at the time of the launch in May he had 35 contracted). Amazingly, news of what was happening was kept so secret that rumours began to circulate less than a month before the launch and even then it was only a couple of days before the announcement that the mainstream media picked up on it.
What was the reaction of the establishment?
Spluttering anger, and to their cost they failed to take Packer seriously. But while they were stuck in an amateur era, Packer was a slick and ruthless operator and he repeatedly outflanked them. Boards, led by Australia and England, tried to ban players, ending in the High Court in London where Packer won a claim for restraint of trade, landing the ICC and England board with massive legal fees.
Who signed up?
More to the point, who didn't? Australia and then West Indies had almost all their major players whisked away from under their noses, and while England lost five Test players, the fact that Tony Greig had been the main recruiter for Packer while acting as England captain was to many unforgivable. Pakistan had a handful of their side signed, and there were also the cream of the South Africans, at the time in sporting isolation. No-one from India was signed and only one - Richard Hadlee - from New Zealand.
What happened to them?
The reaction was confusion all round. The Australians were banned from all official cricket, including state matches, and while initially England wanted to do the same, the hardline approach at county level was unsustainable in view of the High Court ruling. No Packer players were picked for England after 1977. West Indies opted not to pick some players leading to the remainder walking away, while Pakistan were perhaps in the biggest mess with a major split in their ranks over how to treat players.
Was it joke cricket?
Anything but. It was brutal with fast bowlers dominating and no quarter given. Some players said it was the hardest cricket they ever played. The matches were almost constant and there was no time for cricketers to play themselves back into form against lower-class opposition. "How the **** could you get back into form when you were playing Roberts, Holding, Garner day after day," Ian Chappell lamented.
Financially, no. The attendances in the first season were dire although they picked up in the second season when the appeal of day-night cricket was realised and almost all matches were played under lights. And while the 1977-78 series between a new-look Australia side and India was a corker, in 1978-79 Australia, with what amounted to a 3rd XI, were thrashed in the Ashes and the public clamour for a settlement became overwhelming.
So who won?
Packer, pure and simple. He was helped by the fact he had deep pockets and could sustain large losses while being aware that the ACB was not rich and could not. By the second quarter of 1979 the board was willing to negotiate and Packer got what he wanted, and more. Not only did he acquire the TV rights but he also secured am exclusive ten-year promotion and marketing contract that he exploited to the full.
What happened to the players?
Many were absorbed back into the mainstream, some never quite recaptured their form of the pre-WSC era. Greig never played again, taking a media job with Channel Nine. The biggest ramifications were felt in Australia where there was a lingering bitterness between those who had played for WSC and those who had not, and that blighted the national side through to the mid-1980s.
Where are the records?
The one thing the ICC could do was to treat WSC cricket as a pariah, and in 1977 it ruled that no matches would count towards the record books, a ruling that is still in place to this day. The ICC's decision to award their own Super Series and the Afro-Asia Cup full international status in 2005 caused statisticians to start pressing for the matches to at least be given first-class standing.
What is the legacy of WSC
The least tangible one is that players are now paid well for playing, and the superstars of today owe more than a passing nod of thanks to Packer for that. On the field, WSC innovations are commonplace throughout the game. They include floodlit matches, coloured kit, white balls, fielding circles, helmets, drop-in pitches and motorised drinks carts. Channel Nine also revolutionised television coverage of the sport, while Packer's marketing blew through the establishment like a hurricane.
Martin Williamson is executive editor of Cricinfo