World Series Cricket - no more an outcast

The dramatisation of the Packer affair is just as exciting as all the drama that unfolded 35 years ago

Brydon Coverdale
Brydon Coverdale
Screenshot of <i>Howzat: Kerry Packer's War</I>

Screen grab of the Howzat promo: The retelling of the WSC story will be enjoyed by those who lived through it as well as those who only read about it  •  Channel Nine

There is a scene in Howzat! Kerry Packer's War in which John Cornell goes behind Packer's back to organise an advertising blitz for World Series Cricket, having the "C'mon Aussie C'mon" campaign played ad infinitum on Channel Nine at the expense of paid advertisements. It's tempting to wonder if Cornell was in charge of the ads during Nine's coverage of the Olympics this year, so pervasive were the promos for Howzat!
Both bombardments worked. World Series Cricket gradually gained momentum and eventually thrived, but there was no such slow start for the two-part drama Howzat!, which crushed its opposition in the ratings over the past two Sunday nights across Australia. Viewers were drawn in to watch the dramatisation of cricket's greatest revolution, based largely on Gideon Haigh's 1993 book The Cricket War.
It made for fascinating viewing. The re-creation of the late 1970s was vivid - safari suits and moustaches all round - and the performances generally convincing. Lachy Hulme stacked on the kilograms to play Packer, who was portrayed as a menacing employer and a man who would always get what he wanted - eventually. Despite his frequent abusive outbursts, Packer was cast as the hero and the cricket authorities as the stuffy, clichéd villains who wouldn't give the players a fair go.
The portrayal - or non-portrayal - of Don Bradman was intriguing. Though he is never seen in Howzat!, references are made by the Australian Cricket Board administrators to phone calls from Bradman and the inference is that his words - initially anti-Packer and in the end conciliatory - are not to be ignored. The then-ACB chairman Bob Parish, as represented in the show, notes that Bradman is "good at sniffing the breeze".
Thirty-five years on, the politics of World Series Cricket are still open to debate. After the first instalment of Howzat! was aired, the batsman Gary Cosier, portrayed as a naïve young man who could not work out what was going on around him, spoke in a radio interview of his belief that he was not given a World Series Cricket contract because he voted against a player strike in South Australia several years earlier, which had stuck in the mind of WSC captain Ian Chappell.
Cosier also spoke in the media of his loneliness during the 1977 Ashes tour, shortly before the news of WSC broke. "At one stage in England I was waiting in a bar for my team-mates to come downstairs, but because everyone was up the street with Packer, they never came," Cosier told the Courier-Mail. "The portrayal of me in the TV show is fairly close. There is a little bit of a hole in my heart there, but I'm not prepared to make the hole get any bigger."
Several other portrayals were spot-on. Alexander England, an Australian actor, embodied the South African-born Englishman Tony Greig; Peter Houghton captured some of Richie Benaud's facial expressions and mannerisms brilliantly; and Brendan Cowell seemed born to play Rod Marsh. You'd swear you were looking at Max Walker when Andrew Carbone is on screen, though he barely has a line. And it would be remarkable if Hulme does not win awards for his work as Packer.
Not that the series was perfect. Some aspects of the two-part saga were fictionalised and the actual cricket shown, though generally believable, occasionally grated, no more so than when Dennis Lillee ran in to bowl to Clive Lloyd and "Lloyd" square-drives for four - batting right-handed instead of left-handed. The eagle-eyed cricket fan will also spot the occasional Victoria player on camera as "cricket doubles" for the actors; at one point Clive Rose plays a World XI spinner who gets hit for six.
Rose is from a generation who would know of World Series Cricket through hearing about it or reading about it, but did not live through it. For those viewers especially, Howzat! is a fascinating dramatisation of the tumult that engulfed cricket 35 years ago. It is a reminder that Twenty20 and the IPL are drops in the ocean compared to the Packer revolution. And those who are old enough to remember the era enjoyed reliving it.
The technological advances brought on by World Series Cricket and its televisual demands are an interesting sideline, including when Lillee struggles for form and then makes changes to his run-up having analysed it on screen, or when the TV producers find a novel way of keeping pitch microphones from getting wet, sheathing the equipment in a condom. They clearly didn't use the same method for the cameras, so fast did they multiply in number.
Whether these events happened exactly as they are portrayed is not especially relevant, for Howzat! is a piece of entertainment, not a documentary. Above all, it is about capturing an era and telling a story, and that it does superbly. Even if Clive Lloyd was transformed into a right-hander.
Howzat: Kerry Packer's War
Channel Nine

Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here