How Kerry Packer bowled over the cricket establishment

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KEN PIESSE was on hand to witness the birth of the Kerry Packer cricket revolution in suburban Moorabbin:

FORTY years ago this month, World Series Cricket began with a whimper at Linton Street, Moorabbin, a boggy suburban football venue best known for the “Doc”, big Carl and Allan Jeans. The cream of Australia’s best cricketers practised on a set of sub-standard practice wickets out the back in the car park before playing an initial two-day trial game – Wednesday and Thursday, November 16 and 17 – in front of ever-so modest mid-week crowds.

The players were at their diplomatic best, the youngest and most charismatic David Hookes signing autographs after his net session for almost two hours. While others escaped inside into the anonymity of the dressing rooms and scanned the memorabilia and honour boards belonging to the ground’s most famous tenant, the St Kilda Football Club, Hookes stood and chatted amiably to the fans young and old, signing even the scrappiest pieces of paper for just about everyone who had bothered to come. At its height his queue alone was almost 200 yards long, stretching from the “animal enclosure” wing way beyond the far goals at Nepean Highway.

Hookes, then 22, had initially been one of the more reluctant players to join the ranks of the World Series breakaways, the cricketing outlaws who had finally bucked against the peanuts they were being paid by the ultra-conservative Australian Cricket Board and agreed to play for the money and might of Australia’s highest-profile businessman, Kerry Packer.

Ian Chappell practising in his WSC gear
Ian Chappell practising in his WSC gear

So ostracised were the players that they were forbidden from even training, let alone playing with their clubs. Max Walker was forced to turn out with the Melbourne Cricket Club’s fifth XI alongside dozens of Saturdays-only club cricketers at Fawkner Park. Ray Bright joined his old mates John Sharp and Dave Leach in his local Footscray league. It least it was turf cricket.

Packer’s WSC Supertests and the day-night revolution beckoned but few of the players had any idea of their own roles in history. They were being paid five years’ worth of cricketing wages annually — and for most, that’s all that counted. So what if they never played again for an official Australian XI.

Having finally committed to join the rebels, alongside another of Australia’s rising youngsters, Sydney-sider Ian “Wizard’ Davis”, Hookes was soon the darling of the whole troupe and such a public relations winner that later in the summer, when he had his jaw broken by Andy Roberts’ change-up bouncer at the Sydney Showgrounds, Packer himself drove the wunderkind to hospital.

Despite the signing of the biggest names — England’s Geoff Boycott was about the only champion to reject Packer’s advances and cheque book —the crowds attending the establishment Tests between Australia and India were double those of World Series (11,000 a day to 5000 a day), Packer commenting: “You can’t create tradition in one year.”

WSC’s enthusiastic publicity officer Christopher Forsyth kept sending press releases to the newspapers saying how players in the supertests had hit so many more fours and sixes than their establishment counterparts.

The ever-canny Packer established a winner-take-all set of bonuses for both his supertests and the one-dayers. Fast bowlers from all three teams, WSC Australia, WSC West Indies and the WSC World XI, all began to wear some sort of protective headgear for the first time. Bouncers were now part and parcel of any innings for anyone in the order from No.1 to No.11. Helmets were a must.

The World XI’s famed opening batsman Barry Richards marched out in a motor racing helmet, complete with visor. On steamy days he said he could hardly see a thing and had to cut way the Perspex. Hookes also used one, as did Tony Greig, captain of the World XI, who’d stand in mid-pitch and gesture for Dennis Lillee to keep bowling them short and try and score a direct hit.

The great Packer yawn

I was co-editing Cricketer magazine at the time for David Syme — anything but a Packer ally — and we ran a front-page headline, THE GREAT PACKER YAWN, with a picture of a near uninhabited VFL Park, Waverley, at one of the supertests. A kicker line was INDIAN TOUR: IT’S A THRILLER! No prizes for guessing our editorial slant… but there had been no interference from fifth floor. The traditional Test series was simply more vibrant, alive and meaningful, the recall of 41-year-old Bobby Simpson to captain Australia adding to the intrigue of it all.

Despite failing to win over the public with his longer-form “exhibition” games, as we dubbed them, Packer remained positive that cricket needed a new professional edge and that others of the more glamorous establishment stars like Jeff Thomson would soon also be joining with the ultra-conservative ACB continuing to treat the players like puppets.

Packer spent millions on infrastructure from drop-in wickets, grown in concrete tubs outside VFL Park Waverley, to having cameras at both ends of the ground, aallowing Channel Nine viewers to see a front-on view of the action every over, rather than staring at a batsman’s bottom at every change of ends.

He even employed a “live” reporter, 3AW’s David Grant, to interview a departing batsman while they were walking from the round. That created more than a little angst, especially among the WSC West Indians, livid at just having been bounced, often unmercifully, by the likes of Lillee and Lenny Pascoe.

Night cricket was to be Packer’s saviour and on the night he finally got to play his first day-nighter at the Sydney Cricket Ground, so unexpectedly large and enthusiastic was the crowd that Packer himself manned the turnstiles to hurry people in.

Tens of millions were squandered over two and a half years, the WSC Australians touring New Zealand and the West Indies as part of Packer’s ambitious and expensive programming, home and away.

Greg Chappell made three centuries in consecutive Caribbean supertests and said how he’d never batted better. Unfortunately for Greg and Dennis Lillee who took 79 wickets in 15 supertests, the records of official and unofficial international cricket will never be married and some of their most outstanding performances all but forgotten.

Before negotiating a peace treaty, Packer was ready to expand into a third Australian season, despite his $30 million in losses. He met a 71-year-old Don Bradman at the Don’s home in suburban Adelaide and they brokered a deal allowing Packer’s WSC players back into the establishment ranks immediately.

Packer was granted the TV rights he so wanted and today, 40 years on, Test cricket remains an integral for the Nine Network.

As Hookes loved to say, every modern day professional cricketer worldwide should say a thank-you prayer to Kerry Packer each and every night. “Without him there was no way known the players of today would be so well off,” he said.

KEN PIESSE covered the World Series revolution for Cricketer magazine, the Age and the old “pink paper”, The Sporting Globe.

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Author: Ken Piesse

KEN PIESSE has covered cricket and football for more than 30 years in Melbourne. He has written, edited and published more than 70 sports books. Signed copies of his latest cricket book Heroes of the Hour, cricket’s quintessential moments from Bradman and Lillee to Warne and Steve Smith, is available from www.cricketbooks.com.au

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