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A price for everything

A look back at the Packer revolution, three decades on

Gideon Haigh
Gideon Haigh

Packer with key accomplice Greig: he didn't spend $12 million buying the game; he spent $12 million turning it into something that could be bought © The Cricketer International
From the late 1960s, the minutes of Australian Cricket Board meetings feature a recurrent phrase, always repeated with a mixture of dread and disapproval. "Private promoter" might sound innocent enough; at the time, the sight of one was like the distant flutter of the skull and crossbones.
The first of these merchant venturers, theatrical impresario Jack Neary, was allowed a trial of his World Cricket (Doubles) competition before being denied permission to restage it. Others didn't even make that amount of progress. The DJ Foynes Organisation suggested an "Australia v the World" Test at the MCG, with cuts for Greg Chappell and Tony Greig as well as the board: it got nowhere. William Hollins & Co, representing the Viyella (Shirt) Company, proposed a "World Cricket XI"s to play games against first-class opposition: it was dismissed. Even an annual invitation game at Drummoyne Oval for the benefit of the Spastic Centre of New South Wales caused discomfiture.
Flirtations, meanwhile, only ended in confusion. In August 1976 former Australian captain Bob Simpson mooted a revival of the Cavaliers XI concept, killed off in England by the rise of the John Player League. After a cordial reception, Simpson recalled, "suddenly, out of the blue, the Australian Cricket Board withdrew their approval of the venture" and 'the whole concept was put in moth balls".
So where the public saw Kerry Packer's first Supertest at VFL Park on December 2 1977 as a bold innovation, cricket authorities regarded it as a nightmare made real - something, in fact, fit for mothballs, if they'd had any say in it. Yet it's not hard to understand why. Cricket run on commercial lines shows just how uncommercial is cricket's reality, with a tiny international treasure chest bankrolling a massive loss-making support structure. The Australian Cricket Board 30 years ago was acutely vulnerable to competition, deriving the bulk of its revenue from gate receipts on inbound Ashes tours and profit guarantees on outbound Ashes tours. Other tours barely covered their costs; first-class, junior and club cricket ran at significant losses; broadcasting rights and sponsorship had yet to make a significant impact on the national cricket exchequer.
Kerry Packer, by contrast, owed no fealty to anyone - even the players were mainly a means to his end of securing exclusive television rights for Australian international summers. At the height of the dramas surrounding World Series Cricket, Packer vouchsafed in a press conference that cricketers had long been exploited by authorities, and that they deserved better pay and conditions because of the pleasure they gave to millions. A journalist took up the thread for his remarks and wondered if the businessman was saying that his enterprise was "half-philanthropic". Packer's realism was too embedded for him to agree. "Half-philanthropic?" he said. "That makes me sound more generous than I am."
Now with Twenty20 the game's manifest destiny, the drive among administrators is to develop the game before someone else develops it for them - if anything, a reverse of the attitude that prevailed 30 years ago
The freedom to define his own sphere of operations became an especially obvious advantage in the second summer of World Series Cricket. In the first season Packer tried to replicate the structure of a conventional summer by playing five-day and one-day cricket in each mainland capital. In the second he stuck to the two most profitable centres, Sydney and Melbourne, with a few matches at the Gabba when it happened to become available. Where the ACB in 1978-79 lumbered itself with two Tests in Perth, forgettable and poorly-attended, WSC was busy expanding the number of limited-overs fixtures, and pushing ever deeper into nights. The ACB was constituted by 14 representatives representing their states in proportions almost unchanged in three-quarters of a century; Packer was, of course, the proverbial committee of one. The ACB could theoretically have run its own cricket along Packer lines for a limited time, scheduling games only in the most populace centres, disbanding the Sheffield Shield, abandoning grassroots cricket to its own devices, relying on the existing players to provide a non-stop cycle of international attractions. But a generation in action without a generation in waiting was always a finite proposition.
At a superficial level the structure of cricket was not much altered by the Packer risorgimento. Even in Australia, ground zero, the hierarchy of international and interstate cricket remained essentially unaltered, and the governance conventions continued unchallenged. The authorities were gifted their game and players back in return for the rights Packer had always coveted.
The transaction, however, came with strings attached. The not-so-secret ransom was the agreement that Packer should promote the game in Australia through his PBL Marketing subsidiary: an arrangement that cut the ACB out of perhaps the most important and fastest changing function in cricket administration. The result can only be a matter of speculation, but it is interesting that the 1996 World Cup in India made the 1992 World Cup in Australia look so staid. In hindsight, it may be that India stole the march on Australia in the 1980s and 1990s where the selling of the game was involved. Australia carried on with a single sponsor, Benson & Hedges, and an external promoter, PBL, interested primarily in its own bottomline rather than the game's.
World Series Cricket, however, isn't simply to be understood by what it accomplished; it should also be assessed for what it made possible. Before Packer, the idea of Australian cricket having a "market value" would have been unthinkable. As Dr Greg Manning observed in Wisden Australia, Packer didn't spend $12 million buying the game; he spent $12 million turning it into something that could be bought. In theory, it could have been bought by others, and the impresarios of the rebel tours were able to make off with key assets. In fact, Packer so skilfully barred and gated the way here that international cricket in his wake was a monopoly more strongly fortified than before. But 30 years after the World Series burglary, authorities have ears cocked for the bump in the night, of other "private promoters". If anything, players are more susceptible to inducements than they were when they were paid a pittance. Now that everything has a value, nothing is beyond price. And although that discovery would probably have been made anyway, Packer's nimble recruiting agents John Cornell and Austin Robertson made it a decidedly memorable one.

Where the public saw WSC as a bold innovation, cricket authorities regarded it as a nightmare made real © The Cricketer International
Now with Twenty20 the game's manifest destiny, the drive among administrators is to develop the game before someone else develops it for them - if anything, a reverse of the attitude that prevailed 30 years ago. The reason is that World Series Cricket also fundamentally changed expectations among cricketers, and that these have continued to rise. Australian cricket now has something it did not have 15 years ago: after the false dawns of 1977 and 1988, the players finally cobbled together their own trade union, the Australian Cricketers' Association in 1995. It places the players within the system, provides infrastructural support and mechanisms to resolve disputes. As Lyndon Johnson said when he appointed Bobby Kennedy his attorney general: "Better inside pissing out, than outside pissing in."
But it doesn't answer everything. The best players are not always the most marketable. Jacques Kallis is probably a more valuable cricketer to his team than Brett Lee, but whose services would an advertiser prefer? And individuals and countries are essentially selling into the same market, Brett Lee being every bit as much a media property as the Australian cricket team, and perhaps even superior to it. In a zero-sum game, does not the promotional success of one deprive, potentially even impoverish, the other? One question, too, is seldom asked because the idea seems fanciful - in fact, it is anything but. The game has been blessed by success and public support; if this weakened, how would the burden of sacrifice be distributed? Like most professional sports, cricket has seen its commercial value do nothing but appreciate for the last 30 years. But no market rises indefinitely, and in a game that now provides for so many hungry mouths that is a disquieting thought.
Asked to comment on the consequences of the French Revolution, the Chinese premier Zhou Enlai famously replied that it was too early to tell. The same applies to the cricket revolution. It will be little consolation to them looking on from Valhalla, but those Australian cricket administrators of the 1970s were right: the private promoter leaves nothing unchanged.

Gideon Haigh is a cricket historian and writer