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The last days of Kerry Packer

Even towards the end of his life Packer was influencing selectors and chiding commentators, and would not give in to the T20 revolution

Daniel Brettig
Daniel Brettig
Kerry Packer speaks at a parliamentary print media enquiry, Canberra, Australia, 4 November 1991.

Packer's World Series Cricket changed the one-day game forever, but he had little love for the T20 format  •  Getty Images

The tale of Kerry Packer, Sir Donald Bradman, their secret understanding at the end of the World Series Cricket split, and how it shaped the next 40 years of cricket and television is one of the great untold stories of the game's history. This extract from Bradman & Packer: The Deal That Changed Cricket, explores Packer's final years around the game, and how his influence could be seen in terms as contrasting as an attempt to directly influence the selection of the Australian Test team and a distaste for T20 that ultimately shaped the Australian cricket broadcasting landscape in 2019.
In the days before the final Test of the 2005 Ashes series in England, Bob Merriman was driving home from Melbourne to his Point Lonsdale home when the phone rang. Having served in all manner of roles in Australian cricket since the late 1970s, he had, since 2001, been the chairman of what was now known as Cricket Australia. Not many phone calls surprised him, but this one did: Kerry Packer was on the line.
"Get that f***** Hussey in the side, quick," Packer insisted.
"Kerry," Merriman retorted, "the selectors will pick the side."
"They can't pick a bloody club team, Martyn hasn't made a run!"
Startled by Packer's adamant approach, Merriman called his chief executive, James Sutherland.
"Please remind Trevor Hohns that he can pick any Australian, he doesn't have to pick from the 17."
"What do you mean?" Sutherland asked. "Just let him know that."
Minutes pass, and Sutherland calls back with a response about the obvious player: "Bob, Mike Hussey's on a plane now, we can't get him in."
Hussey was in fact on his way from England to Pakistan for an Australia A tour, alongside the touring party's reserve wicketkeeper, Brad Haddin. But the fact that his unavailability was dictated less by opposition to Packer's request than by a previous engagement is as great a reminder as any of Packer's ability to influence events.
At that point Packer was only a few months away from his death on the first day of the 2005 Boxing Day Test, but his final year was among his most eventful so far as Australian cricket was concerned. Packer, alongside Nine's chief executive David Gyngell and opposite Merriman and Sutherland, had taken on one last television deal for cricket. It took place amid the emergence of Twenty20, and was underpinned by other market factors on which Packer had made his strong sentiments known to the game's Australian custodians.
One such factor was an increasingly motley international schedule, as the bilateral commitments of full ICC nations (such as Australia) were opened up to the likes of Zimbabwe and Bangladesh. These nations toured Australia for Tests in 2003 and 2004 respectively. Packer aired his views to Merriman, calling such series "wallpaper", and making a particular point about Matthew Hayden's world record score against Zimbabwe in October 2003, at the WACA Ground. "It was the Matthew Hayden 380 that he claimed had cost him $4 million," Merriman says. "The match was in the last week of the ratings period and all his good programs weren't on because of the three-hour time difference. And that week he went down the gurgler on ratings like you wouldn't believe, and he's out there trying to sell for the next year. I don't know how he made up the $4 million, but his ratings figures disappeared, because nobody was watching Australia versus Zimbabwe, even though Hayden was making 380."
"This T20 cricket is no f****** good. When do I make a dollar? The batsmen change on the ground; there's no time; there's a small lunch break; there's no tea break; there's no drinks break"
Packer wanted to see more of England, India, South Africa and the West Indies, and he was also skeptical of Twenty20 (T20), the "next generation" form of the game that had been unveiled in England during the northern summer of 2003. T20's arrival has passed into history as a game-changing moment for cricket, but in its earliest days, there was as much doubt among broadcasters as existed among players. For just as Queensland's then captain Jimmy Maher stated the need to ensure everyone was aware that it wasn't "real cricket", in the first season of the Big Bash, so too had media buyers and sellers seen plenty of short-form ventures come and go.
Super 8s and Martin Crowe's Cricket Max (10 8-ball overs per team of 13 players) were two, while the Hong Kong Sixes had not expanded beyond the location from which they took their name. And at a time when rivers of gold were still flowing into pay-TV networks for the game's conventional forms, many simply did not see the need, Jim Fitzmaurice among them. "T20 crept up on a lot of people, there was a certain amount of cynicism about it from the beginning, and no-one really expected that it would pull the sorts of audiences it did," he says. "Short-form sport has been around for quite a while, and it wasn't unusual every few months to have someone coming through the door telling you this was the new format which someone had invented for cricket, golf, rugby. Someone was always coming up with a pattern where they wanted to shorten the game and make it more exciting. And a lot of it didn't even get tried because you looked at the formula and said, 'That ain't going to work'."
When comparing it to the number of hours of programming - and advertising breaks - provided by Test matches and ODIs, Packer soon made clear his attitude: T20 played by Australia was of some interest, but domestic tournaments were of little use to him. By now established as a commentator and having recently joined the Board of what was now Cricket Australia, Mark Taylor discussed the format with Packer after Nine hosted the first broadcast of a T20 game in Australia, between the touring Pakistanis and Australia A in Adelaide, in January 2005. "I had a chat with Kerry not long after and asked him what he thought of T20. He wasn't a big fan because he considered the game too short and that there was not enough time to make money out of it. He said, 'Yes, there's probably a place for it, but it's not in the place of one-day cricket', and that was Kerry saying it's not a bad product, but I don't want it taking over my one-day cricket. That's the way I read it."
One-day cricket had not quite lost its lustre, certainly not in the form it took when CA and the Australian Cricketers Association rapidly organised a fundraising match in the wake of the Boxing Day Tsunami, to be held at the MCG in January, 2005. Towards the end of the night, Merriman accompanied Malcolm Speed, by then the ICC chief executive, to announce the amount of money raised by the occasion. As Speed spoke, a figure of $10.5 million turned, in a trice, to $14.5 million via "the Packer family". The punchline arrived later in summer. "A few weeks later we had lunch with Kerry. James Packer is there, [senior Nine executive] John Alexander's there, and James Sutherland and I. The first thing I said was, 'Kerry, on behalf of cricket and everybody, I'd like to thank the family for the $4 million', and he turns to James and says (sarcastically), 'How much did you put in James? No f****** money at all'. James just looked at him!"
There were more than a few power lunches around this time, and as many revelations. "One day we were talking a little bit about WSC," Merriman says. "I said, 'You're bloody lucky those lights in Sydney stood up - not as good as the lights in Melbourne you paid for', and James Packer says, 'You paid for those lights in Melbourne too!' And Kerry just says, 'Of course I f****** did'."
While technology was advancing, sport remained a highly reliable source of large audiences, even as other forms of television lost their former attractiveness. "People generally forecast that with the widespread development of other technologies and other methods of distribution, not necessarily through traditional television networks, that the value of sporting rights would gradually diminish because the audiences were going to get smaller and smaller," Fitzmaurice says. "In Australia the average audiences that networks now attract don't compare with what they were doing in the 1980s, and the trend is that gradually people and particularly young people look for other sources.
"They don't sit down at their television at a prescribed time determined by the broadcaster. That means that you don't get the big movie nights anymore, or mini-series, and you'd get really big audiences to them. All that's gone. However, live sport remains one of the final few products that free-to-air television can get hold of and still get the sorts of audiences they used to get in the 1980s. It's one of the few things that still attracts a mass audience. That's why you've got a change in the sort of television diet offered by traditional broadcasters."
It was in this climate that Nine and CA commenced negotiations for Packer's last cricket deal, to run from 2006 to 2013. The groundwork was done with agreement that its many detailed clauses would be worked through by Sutherland and Gyngell, while Merriman and Packer would meet later in the process to haggle over the dollars involved. In late 2004, Packer called Merriman to Melbourne's Crown Casino to express concern that the chief executives were taking too long sorting through the detail. "I didn't say it," Merriman recalls, "but it was obvious his health wasn't great." Among the many changes wrought by the deal was the move to live coverage against the gate in Melbourne and Sydney, irrespective of ticket sales. From the beginning of the PBL/ACB deal, only the last session of Tests, and the first two hours of ODIs, were shown live into the city of origin unless a match was sold out.
"Son, stop telling us how f****** cold it is in Hobart and how the fielders are wringing their hands and how people are wrapped in anoraks and having a shit time"
When the time came in early May, 2005, to conclude the deal with a final day's negotiation, Merriman got an unpleasant surprise. Packer did not want Nine to have to broadcast the Twenty20 Big Bash, a new, state-based tournament, that CA had scheduled for the following summer. "This T20 cricket is no f****** good," Packer declared. "When do I make a dollar? The batsmen change on the ground; there's no time; there's a small lunch break; there's no tea break; there's no drinks break. When do I make my f****** money?"
"Oh, so you don't want it," Merriman replied."No, no, 50-over cricket is the thing I want." 
Suddenly worried by the scene unfolding, Merriman called for a break. "So James [Sutherland] and I and Gyngell went out of the room and I said to James, 'Go and make a couple of calls to see if pay-TV want T20. See what you can do - the Shield final has got to be in it', and Fox got it," he says. "Even though we only got about $6 million for it, we got an opening for it. We were going to have no-one to telecast it, that was the biggest thing." This separate deal, pulled together quickly as Fox Sports also gained non-live highlights to international matches, meant that Merriman could return to dealing with Packer on more comfortable ground.
"That's off the table, you don't need to worry about that," Merriman told Packer about the Big Bash and the Shield final.
"What do you mean?"
"You don't need to worry about that. I give in." The afternoon was now wearing on, and Packer eventually met the figure Merriman was seeking: $275 million over seven years. "The clock was up on the wall and I said to him, 'What time's that?' He said, 'What do you mean?' I said, 'What time's that?' And he said, 'It's five to five, what do you mean?' And I said, 'We've got a deal,' and shook his hand. He said, 'You're going to go out there, and you'll have grog, and you'll say how you did Kerry Packer'." But Packer had, in fact, wrested back one clause given up by James Packer when dealing with Speed in 1998: the requirement for Nine to underwrite at the end of the deal. "It was in the last bloody deal and I didn't like it," Packer told Merriman. "I was sick in hospital and bloody Denis Rogers put it over James'."
Merriman and Sutherland got a brief fright in the following weeks when Packer re-hired Lynton Taylor to work alongside Gyngell, who soon quit in frustration at being watched over in such a way. But the deal stood, and so too the split of domestic T20 away from Nine. The tournament remained a Fox Sports property when it was relaunched as the Big Bash League in 2011, and then became critical extra ballast for the first post-Packer deal in 2013. Nine was pushed to a still higher figure by the added interest of Ten, which failed to claim the whole cricket package but still walked away with the BBL for $20 million a season. Together, the new agreement was worth $590 million to CA over five summers.
"We used to always do the international T20 matches but a lot of that domestic stuff Nine didn't pick up," Mark Taylor says. "You can say that's a mistake, but as Kerry would've pointed out if he was around, it's not just about the cricket, it's also about the business. Whether he would've made enough money out of it, I don't know. I wasn't privy enough to what was going on behind the scenes then. It would've been interesting had Nine picked it up, even in 2013 when it went to Ten from Fox; if Nine had done the whole lot, where we would have landed today."
Almost forty years after the first deal between Nine and the ACB, that landing resulted in the shift of cricket away from Packer's old network to the pay-television wing of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp, with free-to-air rights to Tests, BBL and WBBL on-sold to Kerry Stokes's Seven Network. In turn, Nine took over Seven's grip on the Australian Open tennis tournament. In April 2018, Australian cricket's domestic TV rights deal topped the $1 billion mark for the first time, as Fitzmaurice's view of sport's broad-based attraction to television held true, despite the Newlands ball-tampering scandal. For the first time, too, the women's game made up a substantial part of the deal, thanks largely to the persistent lobbying of CA's head of media rights, Stephanie Beltrame. The third major broadcasting deal of his 18 years as CA's chief executive was also James Sutherland's last.
Kerry Packer made a lasting impression on Sutherland. "He wanted Nine to own the big stuff, the really important stuff, and he was a great traditionalist when it came to international cricket," Sutherland says. "Nine was broadly suspicious of T20 cricket and state cricket. Even this year [2018], when we did the TV deal, Nine was very much about Test cricket. They wanted international cricket, but once they got the tennis they were still very much in the game around Test cricket, and had a really strong view and belief in its longevity and importance.
"No organisation has put more into cricket financially or promoted it more than the Nine Network, and Australian cricket should always be incredibly grateful for that. That's Kerry's legacy - World Series Cricket and then owning the rights when he was the principal of Nine. But beyond that, if you really love the game you should be positive about the game, and promote the game. Kerry was very strong on that, so much so that as folklore has it he'd ring the commentary box and have people talk the game up, to the extent he'd give them one warning and might not give them two.
"Sure there are things to be critical of, or things that may be different, but it just concerns me when some people get to the stage in life where, even though they proclaim to be genuine lovers of the game, all they can do is criticise. I think it's sad that it's come to that, and maybe they've just done one too many laps."
"You're going to go out there, and you'll have grog, and you'll say how you did Kerry Packer"
Former Nine commentator Mark Nicholas has chronicled his own phone call, received in the summer of 2004-05, after he had gone to some length describing how cold and dank it was in Hobart, how the crowd was rugged up and how the touring Pakistani team was trying as best it could to keep warm.
"Son, stop telling us how f****** cold it is in Hobart and how the fielders are wringing their hands and how people are wrapped in anoraks and having a shit time," Packer ordered. "The only people having a shit time are those of us at home who have to sit here f****** listening to you. And son, we're a commercial network. We sell the game. It's not over 'til it's over. I don't care how far in front the Aussies are, it's never over. Our business is numbers, son, eyeballs."
This led to a swiftly-booked flight to Sydney, first thing the next morning, and a meeting with Packer at Park Street, where Nicholas was accompanied by co-commentators Mark Taylor and Ian Healy. Beginning with a wider harangue of their commentary, Packer kept the trio in his office for three and a half hours, gradually working his way from the hard messages to quizzing Taylor about the CA Board (Taylor was on the Board from 2004-2018) and Healy about the Australian Cricketers' Association, and then the state of the game in general, batting techniques, golf and tennis. Finally, he left them with a message to remember him by: "Take care of the game, because it won't take care of itself".
The last time Merriman saw Kerry Packer was at the one-off match played between Ricky Ponting's Australians and a World XI at the SCG in October 2005. "I was lucky enough to have Clive Lloyd there, and Tony Greig and Ian Chappell," Merriman says. "Kerry was terribly sick - he hardly ate anything at lunch. In fact, I had to get the car all the way up to where the door was. 'I'll be right son. I'll be all right son,' he said. So I sat with them for a couple of minutes, but thought, 'Hang on this isn't where I should be.' There's Clive Lloyd, Tony Greig, Ian Chappell and Kerry. We didn't get a photograph of it but we should have. And then about half an hour later he came up and said, 'Son, seeya 'round', then he just went off, and I never spoke to him again."
With Packer's death that December, a link to cricket's past was severed, but not forgotten. The Bradman and Packer names were intertwined again in 2013, when a permanent exhibition on WSC was opened at the Bradman Museum, also known as the International Cricket Hall of Fame, in Bowral. On the day that the exhibition opened, Richie Benaud spoke at length about the period between 1977 and 1979, working his way through many of the familiar tales explaining how the war began. Then, with a typical pause and the hint of a grin, he let his audience in on a secret, too. "Many people," Benaud began, "know the story of how World Series Cricket began. But let me tell you how it ended..."
Bradman & Packer - The Deal That Changed Cricket is published by the Slattery Media Group

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig