Forty years ago, cricketers past and present were making their way to Melbourne for a special match to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Test cricket. The match itself was a thrilling spectacle in which Australia beat England by 45 runs, exactly as they had done in the very first such encounter in March 1877.
Yet behind the scenes there was intrigue enough for a John Le Carre spy novel, as Australian television tycoon Kerry Packer signed up over 50 of the top players in the world to take play in a private series of matches in direct opposition to official cricket.
Dubbed the ‘Packer Circus’, World Series Cricket (WSC) lasted only two years but its impact still reverberates through the game to this day.
Yet the revolution might never had happened had the Australian Cricket authorities been willing to grant the television rights for Test match cricket to Packer’s Australian commercial network Channel Nine. In the mid-seventies, he was not even permitted to bid as the rights were signed over to the Australian Broadcasting Commission.
Thus rebuffed, Packer targeted the Australian team who were ripe for recruitment. Led by captain Ian Chappell and later by his younger brother Greg, they played aggressive, attacking and entertaining cricket and were very successful. They also attracted huge crowds especially at home. Even so, they had no full-time contracts to play cricket and had to juggle a career with their playing commitments.
"We’re not getting a fair share of the pie," said fast bowler Dennis Lillee, who admitted his teammates were at one stage contemplating refusing to play. Lillee’s agent was television executive John Cornell and very soon the pair were talking to Packer. Lillee’s original idea for a one-off match with proceeds divided amongst the players was adapted by the businessman into a full blown series. Packer later reflected that cricket was: "The easiest sport to take over. Nobody bothered to pay the players what they were worth."
Packer made one crucial recruit behind the scenes. Richie Benaud was a successful Australian test captain from the 1960s who worked as a journalist. He was also a highly respected television commentator. It was a master stroke. Benaud’s presence lent the new enterprise immediate credibility.
England’s South African-born captain Tony Greig also played a key role. Six-foot six in height, he had been a towering and flamboyant presence in the England side for most of the decade and like the Australians, he was irritated by the lack of rewards on offer. "We were getting paid an absolute pittance," he recalled bitterly, shortly before his death in 2012.
When Greig’s part in the scheme was made public two months later, he was immediately stripped of the England captaincy and vilified by many.
"Presumably if he could arrange it, Tony Greig would play cricket for Australia rather than England, so long as he was paid more for doing so. Not a good example from a captain of England!’’ wrote one furious reader to the Cricketer magazine.
An uneasy peace still prevailed.
Greig and the handful of other English players who had signed up for Packer were permitted to play in the official Test series that summer. The majority of the Australian team which provided the opposition Packer signatories including their captain Greg Chappell.
England beat Australia 3-0, but the series was played out against a backdrop of almost open warfare in the corridors of power.
Packer himself came to England and even took part in the traditional match between the English and Australian press corps. He also visited Lord’s where negotiations with officialdom were less cordial.
The governing body which regulated international cricket was then known as the International Cricket Conference (ICC). It decided that: "The whole structure of cricket could be severely damaged by the type of promotion proposed by Mr Packer and his associates."
The ICC described the matches arranged by Packer’s organisation JP Sports (Pty) Ltd as "disapproved" and decreed that: "No player who after October 1,1977 has played or made himself available to play in a match previously disapproved by the ICC shall thereafter be eligible to play in any test match.’’
Packer was furious and warned: "If they start to victimise the players who’ve placed their trust in me, at that point it is an all out scrap."
The dispute was played out at the High Court in London that autumn. When the final submissions had been made, the legal verdict occupied 211 foolscap pages and took Lord Justice Slade five hours to deliver. It threw out the ICC’s proposed ban.
Even so, the battle lines had been drawn and most of those who had signed for Packer took no part in official international cricket. Some, such as Warwickshire and England batsman Dennis Amiss, continued to play domestic county cricket, but found the atmosphere frosty.
"It was a very difficult time, I think I found the easiest thing was to be out on the field and trying to score runs, rather than coming back into the dressing room and being in a difficult situation," recalled Amiss years later.
In the first winter of the split, Australia played India in a Test series, whilst across town the new rebel circus took flight. It says much for how the game has changed that India were not then considered a big international draw and no Indians figured in the WSC matches. Plans were later made to involve them, but before they could take part this time a settlement had been reached.
In 1977, many of the matches were played in stadiums that had previously been used for Australian rules football or trotting. These did not have dedicated areas for cricket so WSC groundsman John Maley grew the pitches off site in special trays and then simply lowered them into place at the appropriate ground.
On television, Benaud described the first ‘Super Test’ as "an exciting new concept", though crowds in the early days were somewhat sparse.
All of that changed when they introduced what became their greatest innovation. No-one had taken the idea of night cricket seriously before Packer’s organisation switched them on for the first time at Melbourne’s VFL ground in December 1977.
Television commentator Tony Cozier burst into a rendition of "Blue Moon" as the cameras picked out the moon.
"The day that floodlit cricket came to Melbourne was the day I knew World Series cricket had arrived," said Greig.
An advertising campaign later saw players wear t-shirts proclaiming "Big Boys play at night".
After experiments with various shades of ball, they settled on white, still used today for day-night matches. The sightscreens, traditionally white in cricket by day, were swapped for black screens. In the second season, coloured clothing, albeit in pastel shades came in for the first time. The West Indians were less than happy to be allotted apricot pink. Critics described the new gear as "Pyjamas". The atmosphere was transformed into altogether more gladiatorial, but evening cricket had an appeal all its own and instead of a traditional tea interval, players now took supper.
"For the spectators, there was not only enjoyment in the cricket but in the entire spectacle. For those watching on television it was most suitable There was no need to take time off work," said Pakistani all rounder Asif Iqbal, a member of the World XI.
WSC also put great emphasis on limited overs One-Day Internationals (ODI). Before Packer, these had been few and far between and were still treated with suspicion by some. When the West Indies toured Australia in 1976, only a single ODI was scheduled and that was described by the respected Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack as "an anticlimax".
By the time the official West Indies team returned to Australia in 1979, there was a full blown triangular series which also involved England and ran to 14 matches. Very soon, The authorities scheduled more ODIs than the longer five-day Test matches and many of these were under lights.
Since 1992, every official Cricket World Cup tournament has featured day night matches. The five-day Test match format has also used artificial lights. Initially they were switched on to allow play to continue when natural daylight was poor, but their use has been extended. Australia met New Zealand in the first fully day-night Test match two years ago, using a pink ball. The Ashes will also include evening play for the first time in 2017-18.
"We have to compete, we have to make it as attractive as we can and part of that is floodlit cricket is the razamatazz," said Dennis Amiss, who returned to English cricket after his time with Packer and later became chief executive of Warwickshire, his home county club.
Amiss was also amongst the very first to wear a protective helmet for batting. It seems incredible they were not introduced until 1977. There had been some experiments with padding to protect the head but early helmets looked more like those used by bikers. They were not universally liked or adopted despite the fearsome fast bowling. Australian batsman David Hookes preferred to wear the traditional cricket cap, albeit in untraditional WSC yellow. But in one match, he was struck on the head and forced to leave the field. When he returned to action a few weeks later, he too was a convert to the helmet. Manufacturers were soon producing custom built head gear specifically for cricket and designs continue to be updated to this day.
In the Super Test years, the West Indians were the most star studded team in cricket. They had fearsome line ups for batting and bowling. They joined the Australians and a World XI that featured superstars from England, South Africa and Pakistan in a triangular programme of matches.
Ian Chappell described the actual cricket as "the toughest season I’ve ever played in, mainly because you never played against a bad side".
The Twenty20 short form of the Game was not around in Packer’s day, but extravaganzas such as the Indian Premier League (IPL) and Big Bash in Australia owe much to how Cricket was presented in the WSC years.
American football-style cheerleaders whip the crowd into a frenzy. Back in the un-PC 1970s, WSC teams were attended by girls in tee shirts and hot pants.
To the chagrin of some, piped music has become an integral part of the one-day scene. During the 2015 ICC World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, music came through the tannoy between overs.
The WSC Australians had their own pop song, a catchy ditty called C'mon Aussie C'mon. It was written by Allan Johnston and Alan Morris from the Mojo advertising agency in Sydney. "The critics scoffed but the players loved it," said a not entirely neutral Channel Nine announcer. But when it was hastily pressed into a single, it ousted Rod Stewart from the top of the Australian charts. For many Australians, it embodied the Larrikin streak of their national identity if not the most a sophisticated taste in music.
Television coverage of cricket today has every conceivable angle covered and some that no-one had budgeted for. Often the players themselves wear microphones and offer their thoughts during the matches. Back in 1977, idea of using stump microphones and cameras was unheard off and no-one had used eight cameras to cover a cricket match.
"Kerry Packer wanted to see televised cricket translating the excitement and tension of a cricket match onto viewers’ screens," said Channel Nine Vice-President David Hill.
There was no denying that the coverage showcased the skills of the game in a way that had never before been seen. When a batsman was unlucky enough to be dismissed without scoring, a cartoon Daddles the Duck appeared on screen to accompany him back to the pavilion.
In 1979, after two years of conflict, WSC finally signed a peace agreement with the official cricketing authorities. Kerry Packer got what he had wanted all along, the rights to transmit Test cricket. Channel Nine continue to do so in Australia to this day.
Gradually those who had signed for the ‘Rebels' were welcomed back into establishment cricket. In 2009, Packer signatory Derek Underwood even became President of the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC).
The cricket played under the World Series banner has never been accorded official status and is not included in any of the records.
The jury is still out on whether the Packer revolution brought about a material improvement for all professional players. Former England opening batsman Geoffrey Boycott remains convinced that those in county cricket have not benefited to the extent which has been claimed.
It cannot be denied that players at the very top level now have central contracts on much improved salaries. Those signed by the mega rich franchises in the IPL can command eye-watering fees. In the 2017 player auction, England all-rounder Ben Stokes landed a deal worth £1.7 million ($2.1 million/€2 million) with the Rising Pune Supergiants. He take his place in the same team as Indian superstar MS Dhoni.
The sums offered by Kerry Packer back in the 70s seem tiny by comparison, but that era continues to fascinate. A few years ago there was even a dramatised television mini-series.
And to think it all started with all that cloak and dagger at the biggest birthday party cricket had ever seen.