The circus or a revolution?

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09 May 2020 | 08:43 AM
authorSomesh Agarwal

The circus or a revolution?

The big names that participated in World Series Cricket, formally announced on May 9th 1977, term it as the most competitive cricket they have ever played.

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When two smaller storms come too close to each other, they converge into a giant one in a phenomenon known as the Fujiwhara effect. In 1977, the storms that were brewing involved an ambitious cricket-lover-cum-businessman who was seeking exclusive broadcasting rights for Australian cricket and international cricketers who started to realise that the money they were making with respect to the overall revenue, to put it mildly, was peanuts.

Kerry Packer, the owner of Channel Nine, offered the Australian Cricket Board (ACB) a healthy sum of $1.5 million for exclusive broadcasting rights for three seasons from 1976. Feeling an owed allegiance to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) – either due to a 21-year old partnership or a brotherly relationship between two bodies whose abbreviations involved the same syllables - the ACB awarded them the contract for $210,000 (14% of Packer’s offer)

The 1970s was also the era when gate-crashing fans after the end of the game became a usual sight. Something that acted as an eye-opener for the players towards the reverence for them. The Australian cricketers, led by Ian Chappell, started being more aware of not getting their due. “A quarter of a million were the earnings at the gate for a match, the players – 12 of them on the field – received only 200 each” – Chappell later recalled1.

Till 1975, during his five years as the captain of Australia, Chappell made numerous official and unofficial attempts to negotiate with the ACB (that included Sir Don Bradman as its member) that could help the players make a better living. This included seeking permission to play professional cricket in England and acting as a player’s representative in board meetings for better deals. He even advised others before Packer, who were looking to sign players for professional cricket, to meet the ACB who paid no heed to the advances. “Bradman treated the board money as almost his own”, Chappell vented out1. Similar fruitless negotiations were underway in England and the West Indies with players repeatedly coming out with the short end of the stick.

Keen to get cricket on his network, Packer – motivated by his aides in actor John Cornell and former Aussie rules football player Austin Robertson (who represented several high profile cricketers) – conceived the idea of televised exhibition matches. By the time the idea of World Series Cricket (WSC) leaked on May 9th 1977, players like the Chappell brothers (Ian now retired at just 32), Tony Greig and Clive Lloyd – players largely responsible to get others to sign-up - agreed to be a part of new world order with around 50 other players from nations including South Africa, New Zealand and Pakistan. Packer solidified his team by adding Richie Benaud as his advisor.

ICCs intermediation to convince Packer to find a middle-ground but being in no position to alter the ACB’s decision on TV rights infuriated him further and strengthened his will to strike a blow to the administration. Displeased by Packer’s audacity, ICC planned to devoid the WSC matches of first-class status and banned the perceived rebel players from first-class and international cricket. A timely intervention from Packer’s lawyers to challenge The Test and County Cricket Board (now ECB) helped Greig and other players keep their place in the England national and county sides but Greig lost his captaincy and was ostracized in the cricketing circuit for pursuing his career in ‘Packer’s circle’. 

Necessity is the mother of innovation

The cricket boards around the world then were not open to advertisements, sponsorship and TV rights that could aid in better revenues which could subsequently trickle down to the players.

The focal point of Packer’s vision was using the marketing value of the product to generate better revenues for everybody involved. Not allowed to term the games as "Test matches" or to call the team as "Australia" – copyright of MCC - Packer rebranded the matches "Supertests" and the team as "WSC Australia XI" while the other teams were the “WSC World XI” and the “WSC West Indies XI”. 

As the ACB controlled the cricket stadiums, the immediate need for WSC was a search for venues. To use the football grounds in Adelaide, Sydney and Mulgrave (Victoria) as the venues, the organizers planned to use drop-in pitches grown in greenhouses, an innovation common to the historic cricket venues in the country now to allow the usage of the grounds for other sports in winter.

Initially, the idea of alternate cricket did not resonate with traditional cricket lovers, even when it involved the best players from around the globe.  The common scepticism being the chief motif of the contest was that the players appeared to be playing for money. 

When the matches began in the summer of 1977, the attendance was abysmal – a crowd of 500 in the VFL Park with a capacity of 80,000. The spectators, spoilt for choice now as two Australian teams represented the country simultaneously, opted to show their allegiance to the more depleted traditional Aussie side playing India at the Gabba, a game that saw a crowd of 12,000.

Anticipated crowd attendance and TV viewership were the trusses of Packer’s vision. Then came the tactic of deploying more limited-overs cricket and playing under lights with a white ball and a dark sight-screens even for the Supertests to ensure a primetime slot for his matches. By 1979, the quick-implementing WSC team of planners even had players playing in coloured clothing.  

In a bet to schedule fast-paced encounters that had no place for slow bowlers – perhaps the only vision that Packer lacked – the WSC encouraged fast bowling on untested wickets. In the battle between bat and ball, an incident of passion on occasions is a testament of the intensity of the battle. Similar to how the most iconic moment of the 2019 Ashes was a blow to Steve Smith on the head by Jofra Archer, it was a blow to David Hookes off a bouncer from Andy Roberts that broke his jaw which made the ambivalent audience realise the fierceness of the battle. Similar to how the Phillip Hughes accident resulted in stricter norms on concussion and helmet design, the Hooke’s incident pioneered the usage of helmets though the ones used then were more suited for the motorsports arena.

As a successful marketing gimmick, a theme song - ‘C’mon Aussie C’mon’ - released before the second season in 1978-79 infused the sense of patriotism among the audience that helped to bridge the gap between the perceptions of playing for money versus playing for the country.

In the words of the famous Chinese strategist Sun Tzu – strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactically sound and proactive in his strategy to popularize his product, Packer witnessed an attendance of close to 50,000 in a match at the Sydney Cricket Ground – that allowed the scheduling of WSC - in the 1978-79 season.

”The television coverage, rather than relying on the usual two cameras, used eight, with extensive reliance on video replays. Microphones embedded in the ground near the stumps captured the players’ grunts and the wickets’ rattle; a boundary interviewer even solicited their post-dismissal musings,” recalls the esteemed writer Gideon Haigh2 

As described by Tony Greig, Packer - a gutsy administrator - once asked a member of his staff to slow the clock down to add five minutes in every thirty to ensure that the game did not suffer due to strict orders from the local authority about the time until which the floodlights can remain on.

“It’s hard to exaggerate the impact it had on all of Australia, not to mention the rest of the cricketing world. It was the rock and roll of the moment, both sexy and cool. Previously when we watched a Test match, there were players we didn’t know, all in the same white gear, with only one camera behind the bowler’s arm – and the wicketkeeper’s arse every second over – filming them and low-key commentary talking about it all”, chuckled Shane Warne while describing all the initiators from Packer, Cornell, Robertson, Benaud, Greig and Chappell as his men of the century.3

The Legacy

After the second season of WSC in 1978-79, ACB, marred by a depleted Australian team and the growing popularity of WSC, decided to give way to Packer’s ultimate objective and granted Channel nine the exclusive rights, but not before the WSC altered cricket forever. 

As innovations flourished under Packer, fitness standards improved due to incessant scheduling. It assisted the rise of West Indies cricket, who constituted a team by themselves with players doubling up for WSC World XI, and went on to dominate World Cricket for 15 years after that. Cricket-lovers witnessed the magic of the South African Barry Richards – widely regarded as among the best in the world – and the rise of Sir Vivian Richards.

“World Series Cricket’s historical impact has been in dispute for most of the last quarter-century. Some have maligned it as the end for cricket as we knew it. Others have celebrated it as the beginning of cricket as we know it. For certain, cricket has never evolved so far so fast.” says Haigh3 who is seemingly unimpressed by how the game turned into a commodity for the unprincipled men to harass.

The next Fujiwhara effect thirty years later was when India – a nation with more cricket lovers than rest of the world combined – won the inaugural edition of the World T20 and the Packer 2.0, Lalit Modi, delivered his brainchild - the IPL. Unlike the ACB then, the BCCI were much more pragmatic to assess the impact a franchise based cricket tournament could create. Analogous to the laws of nature, the BCCI let the rebel ICL die its natural death by creating a bigger fish to eat it.

Similar to WSC, the IPL still finds support equivocally. Michael Holding who could not believe that the number in his bank account had a comma after he signed up for WSC refers to T20 as a circus, a term used for WSC by the British media. But, it is the outcome of the inherent characteristic of the governing bodies to maintain the status quo of the game to protect its culture that there are more decades in cricket’s history than Test-playing nations. While, the grandchild of Test cricket now covers more than a third of the globe in just 15 years of its history.

Sources-
1-    Australian Broadcasting Corporation
2-    Writings on cricket by Gideon Haigh
3-    No Spin by Shane Warne

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