The Reunion - Kerry Packer's World Series Cricket

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BBC Radio 4, 23 August 2009
Over thirty years ago the cricket world was torn apart by a revolution similar to that experienced today, as sixty top cricketers signed up for World Series Cricket (WSC), organized by television magnate Kerry Packer. Having tried and failed to prise the broadcasting rights to home Test Matches involving Australia away from the Australian Broadcasting Commission, Packer had set up a rival series of matches - both 'Super Tests' and one-day internationals (ODI's) involving Australia, West Indies and a World XI - to be broadcast by his own company Channel 9. Many of the innovations characteristic of today's ODI's were brought in by WSC, including floodlit matches, white balls and coloured clothing. At first the Australian Cricket Board refused to negotiate with him, but after two years a compromise was reached whereby Channel 9 secured exclusive broadcasting rights and WSC was disbanded.
In this entertaining Radio 4 documentary presented by Sue McGregor, broadcast on the final day of the final Test between England and Australia at The Oval, some of the major personalities involved in the Packer affair gathered to look back on its significance for cricket. They included former England captains Tony Greig and Mike Denness, former West Indian captain Clive Lloyd, Australian fast bowler Jeff Thomson and ex-BBC Cricket Correspondent Christopher Martin-Jenkins. Others taking part included John Snow, Derek Underwood and Greg Chappell. From the discussion it emerged that the major reason why so many players signed for Packer was money - as a top-line Test player Thomson received only $200 per match, while his English counterparts were equally badly remunerated. The late 1970s were a time of considerable prosperity in cricket; the Centenary Test of March 1977 had proved a money-spinner for the Australian Cricket Board, but little of that money found its way into the players' pockets. Packer offered security - the chance for Test players to receive a guaranteed monthly wage, in contrast to the 'official' cricket authorities, whose wages were determined on a pay-as-you-play basis. If players weren't selected for the Test team, they did not receive any money.
Some of the conflicts that emerged at that time have still not been healed. This was evident in Martin-Jenkins' comments; while understanding the reasons why the players signed for Packer, he still admitted to feeling ambivalent about the whole affair, and its potentially damaging consequences for the game of cricket. However our sympathies lay far more with the players, several of whom ran considerable risks by signing Packer contracts. While Greig always wanted to move to Australia (which gave him a good reason to work for Packer), he was not prepared for some of the treatment meted out to his family. Once-close friends became enemies; for many Sussex members he was nothing more than a cricketing pariah. Lloyd experienced similar suffering at Lancashire. Underwood signed for Packer in spite of considerable disapproval from his father, and the knowledge that he would not add to his current tally of 297 Test wickets. On the other hand he obtained financial security for his wife and two young daughters. The only person to emerge unscathed from the whole affair was Thomson, who agreed to remain in the official Australian side after having signed a lucrative contract with a rival entrepreneur.
As the discussion progressed, we learned more about the benefits of WSC. It helped to inculcate a more professional outlook amongst the players: cricket was a vocation as well as a game, and the players had to provide value for money for the paying customers. Floodlit cricket helped bring in new audiences - women and children - who enjoyed the razzmatazz associated with the event (deafening music, coloured clothing and hyperactive PA announcers). WSC helped bring together a band of cricketers who forged lifelong friendships out of adversity. Greig in particular wished he was young once more, so as to enjoy the thrill of playing every day against the world's best players.
The Reunion proved how important it is for cricket to adapt to changing times. The sight of flanneled fools on the village green might be a seductive image, but cricket is a business that needs to continually rebrand itself in search of new audiences, especially the younger generation. WSC achieved this task successfully, just as the IPL is doing today.