During the Boxing Day Test match our millionaire players should reflect about the man whose vision gave world cricket (and them) veritable truckloads of gold. On the first day of the 2005 Melbourne Test match between Australian and South Africa came the news that Kerry Packer was dead.
Through his extraordinary life (1937-2005), Packer was a paradoxical mix of hard-headedness and compassion. On the one hand he could be ruthless, on the other he often displayed a bedside manner that seemed incongruous in the extreme.
In Las Vegas one day a croupier kept Packer in a good mood during a game of Texas Hold 'Em. As Packer raked in a mountain of chips, the pretty young card dealer unloaded her tale of woe. A single mother of three, she had a huge mortgage. It was enough to make the tears well in the multi-billionaire's eyes.
"How much have we got here?" he asked the girl.
"Oh about $80,000," she replied.
"How much is your mortgage?"
"It is almost exactly $80,000."
"Right," Packer said almost inaudibly, in a tone of preoccupation. He signalled for the manager and whispered in the man's ear.
"But Mr Packer, an employee of the casino cannot accept tips of any sort."
"Okay," Packer said, pointing to the croupier. "Sack that woman."
Not daring to argue the point with such a high roller, the manager sacked the croupier.
Immediately Packer told the girl to cash in her chips, and as she walked off, he said to the manager, "Now re-employ that young woman."
In 1977 I was working for News Ltd and had retired from cricket. News of Packer's World Series Cricket had no sooner hit than I rang Ian Chappell, who would captain the Australians. Actually getting paid to play the game resonated with me. Chappelli sounded a little lukewarm about the prospect of me playing. He said, "I'll have to talk to Kerry." At that point I had no idea that Packer didn't think much of my bowling, and it was probably a blessing that I didn't hear him say to my old Test captain: "I'm not hiring that f****** straight breaker!"
About a day later I almost fell off my chair in the newsroom when I received a phone call from the greatest batsman who ever lived.
"Don Bradman here, Ashley. We want you to come back to play for Australia."
For two days I sweated it out, then Chappelli got back to me: "Kerry's willing to give you a contract, but only if you agree to fly to Sydney and bowl against him for one over. If you get him out twice in the six balls, he will make an offer for your services." I did not hesitate: "Chappelli, tell Mr Packer to get f*****!"
It was a miracle that the call got past my "chief of staff", Doug "Stainless" Steele, who might well have told the caller, "Oh yeah, if you're Don Bradman, I'm Lord Mountbatten!"
"Thank you, Sir Donald, for the offer," I said. "Does that mean I will be picked for every Test match?"
"Oh, no," he replied. "You'd have to make yourself available and take your chances like everyone else."
I knew the newly appointed Bob Simpson would play all the matches, so I queried the Don on this point.
"Bob's different. He's the captain."
Mind you, Simpson was one of Australia's cricket greats. I was a good Test bowler, but not a great one.
I informed Sir Donald that I was a chance to play WSC and that I would need to seriously consider an offer that would guarantee me a lumpsum for the entire summer. For two days I sweated it out, then Chappelli got back to me with an offer… of sorts.
"Kerry's willing to give you a contract, but only if you agree to fly to Sydney and bowl against him for one over. If you get him out twice in the six balls, he will make an offer for your services."
I did not hesitate: "Chappelli, tell Mr Packer to get f*****!"
I got a contract.
Some 30 years later I asked Chappelli if he had relayed our conversation verbatim to KP. He said, "No, Rowd. I didn't think it would be in your best interests."
Playing WSC was a financial boon for me, for I had come from a background of struggling to make ends meet to play big cricket.
During my first summer for South Australia I recall bowling late on the third day against Queensland. A tailender hit the ball high in the air and John Causby got under it. Neil Hawke yelled from short leg, "Drop it, drop it, Caus." Hawkey was jokingly referring to the way we were paid in those days. We got A$30 all up for the four days (with $7.50 deducted for taxation), and if you won in three days, you were docked a day's pay.
I went on a number of Test tours where we were treated badly by the Australian cricket board in terms of pay and accommodation. During a seven-month tour of Sri Lanka, India and South Africa, we were paid peanuts (and although we batted and bowled out of our skins to beat a very good Indian outfit 3-1 in India, we played like monkeys and lost 0-4 to the Springboks). In India there were some good hotels, but we stayed in many that could only be described as hovels. That tour was the catalyst for World Series Cricket getting off the ground.
WSC happened some eight years down the track, but being paid good money to play top cricket was a revelation. I just wanted to be part of it. It was Kerry Packer who provided that opportunity, and his televising Test and one-day cricket was the start of big money for top cricketers the world over. These days television is the financial life blood of the game, and the players get huge money for their efforts. In my time the boards ran the game and were veritable landlords, lauding it over the players, the serfs. There has been a big turnaround, for today it is the players who call the tune. They dictate what form of the game they play: some decide to opt out of Test cricket and play just one form of cricket - T20 or the 50-overs format.
Be that as it may, it is thanks to Kerry Packer that the money is there for the players. Speaking of which, another incident from the time of WSC comes to mind.
In the second year of the league, Australia were about to leave for a tour of the Caribbean. All the players were on $16,000 for an eight-week stint against Clive Lloyd's terrific side. Chappell, Australia's captain, was called in to Packer's Park Street headquarters in Sydney, where Packer asked if he was happy with his team, and it emerged that the sum of $16,000 was less than the daily rate stipulated under the WSC contract.
Packer turned to Lynton Taylor, his executive, and said, "Aren't we paying according to the contract?"
Taylor replied: "No, Kerry, but Ian's sorted it out with the players. It's all fixed."
Packer asked again: "Aren't we paying according to the contract?"
Packer bellowed: "Then f****** pay 'em according to the contract!"
Chappelli interjected: "This is ridiculous, Kerry. You're not going to make any money out of this tour to the Caribbean. Our blokes are going to make more money on this tour than they'd earn at home."
But Packer was determined. He turned to Taylor. "How much more would it cost if we pay according to the contract?"
Taylor did his sums quickly and replied: "About $340,000."
Packer hardly drew a breath before he said, "Well, pay 'em according to the contract."
"Son, I'll tell you something," he said to Chappelli. "$340,000 is about the price of a B grade movie for my TV station. That's not going to break me. What will f****** well break me is not sticking to to the word of my contracts. Lynton, pay 'em."
If he wasn't born with a silver spoon in his mouth, Packer may well have been a leading union boss, for he had a feel for the mood of the people. He knew what stories the people wanted, as evidenced by the amazing success of his flagship magazine, the Women's Weekly, and he knew what sort of television programmes won the heart of the common man.
Kerry Bullmore Packer was born on December 17, 1937 and died on December 26, 2005. The day after his death, the Australian and South African teams wore black armbands as they lined up in respect for the astute businessman and cricket lover. I shall never forget the image of Shane Warne and Co. standing in the MCG sunshine for a minute's silence, remembering a good mate and perhaps contemplating what might have been had Packer not taken the Establishment to task. As Michael Clarke's young Australians take the field, they might also look skyward and thank their lucky stars that Kerry Packer made such a colossal impact on cricket.