HOWZAT!: Kerry Packer vs David Lord and the World Series battle
Lachy Hulme as Kerry Packer in the series Howzat!
“As for that agent, that David Lord bastard … I’m going after him too”.
The words from Kerry Packer during the superb first episode of “Howzat!” that aired on Channel 9 last night tracing how World Series Cricket was born and why.
Here’s how I remember those early days:
During the last two days of the second, and final, Test between New Zealand and Australia at Eden Park, at the end of March 1977 – a plot was born to change the face of cricket. Forever.
The Australians were in total command on the field, so the media contingent enjoyed excited discussions about the Centenary Test against England, at the MCG – in just under a fortnight.
Unbeknown to us, there were excited discussions of another kind in the Australian dressing room, right underneath the press box.
John Cornell – better-known as side-kick “Strop” to the versatile Paul Hogan in their high-rating show on Channel 9 – and former VFL footballer Austin Robertson, who managed Australian Test fast bowler Dennis Lillee, were holding secret meetings with the baggy green cappers.
As I was leaving Eden Park on the last day, “Strop” pulled me aside.
“Lordy, there’s something in the wind you should know about – here’s the silent number at my Byron Bay hotel – give me a ring when you get back to Sydney – must run, or I’ll miss my plane.”
And off he went.
“Strop” was the master of the poker-face, yet he was obviously excited.
Back in Sydney, I rang his silent number at least 15 times, in the lead-up to the MCG.
Not once did I reach “Strop”, but half-a-dozen times I spoke to his beautiful wife – Delvene Delaney.
A beauty pageant winner, Delvene became a household name in two soap operas – “The Box”, and “The Young Doctors” – before co-presenting “Sale of the Century”, with Tony Barber.
Regularly talking to an apologetic Delvene was very pleasant – but it wasn’t getting the job done.
Arriving at the MCG for the much-hyped celebration of 100 years of Test cricket, between the two oldest Test-playing countries – and still no “Strop”.
Not in the flesh, nor on the phone.
The Centenary Test was so absorbing, “Strop” didn’t enter my mind again.
As “Strop” told me well down the track, he was going to fill me in on how he, and Robertson, had put together a plan for Kerry Packer to hijack the best cricketers in the world, and have the television rights for Channel 9, denied him by the Australian Cricket Board.
And the reason “Strop” picked me out of the media maul was my consistent public support for a better financial deal for the Test men.
World Series Cricket (WSC) was it.
I’ve often wondered what would have happened had I’d spoken to the little bloke, with the poker-face.
But as all sporting folk know only too well – “if” never wins anything.
The gripping Centenary Test ended with a 45-run win for the Australians – exactly the same result as 100 years before.
The Australian ’77 Ashes campaign in England began almost immediately, and was well underway when I covered the first Test at Lords, which ended in a rain-affected draw – and came home.
I went back for the second Test at Old Trafford, where England romped home by nine wickets in four days – and home again.
But there was something obviously troubling the Australians, they were well below par.
We soon found out why.
In the long break between the second Test, and the third at Trent Bridge – all hell broke loose.
Two top-class Aussie cricket-scribes – Alan Shiel from the Adelaide Advertiser, and Peter McFarline, (Melbourne Age) – first broke the WSC story from Hove, in Sussex – the home county of Tony Greig.
As luck would have it, Greig was hosting a party at his home for the Australian cricketers when he got wind of the Shiel-McFarline scoop that was to be published in their respective newspapers the next day – Sunday, May 7.
With an eight-hour time difference before WSC hit the fan, the phones ran hot between Greig, Packer, and the senior man in the concept – Richie Benaud – who turned out to be the three main players in the hijack.
Two days later, with the cricket world still reeling, Packer called a media conference at his Park Street, Sydney office.
The outer office was chockers with media of all descriptions
After all, it was the biggest cricket story since the infamous Bodyline Ashes series in Australia, during the 1932-33 season.
As the cricket, and rugby, host on Rex Mossop’s Sunday morning Sports Action program for over a decade, I was there for Channel 7.
Packer emerged from his bunker, and pointed.
“Come in David, you’re first,” he said with a big smile, extending his hand.
Ninety minutes later I emerged with three 30-minute cans of film, and headed for Channel 7 armed with one of the most fascinating interviews I’d ever done, or likely to do.
Kerry Packer was sensational – very open, very forthcoming, he didn’t hold back on any question, any position.
He was a man with a mission to sell, and it did it supremely well.
The main thrust was how he tried in vain to wrest the TV rights off the ABC, to how he’d offered the Australian Cricket Board $1.5m, yet shown the door.
That was a fortune in the 70s, but money wasn’t the stumbling block.
It was the near 20-year happy marriage between ABCTV, and the Board – which was commercial stupidity.
Not that the ABC did a bad job, they covered the sport as well as they could with limited resources.
But Packer and Channel 9 obviously had far more commercial options outside the ABC’s charter – and a darn side more lateral vision.
That was history, Packer was now in control.
Two memorable quotes will stay with me forever:
“David, cricket is the easiest sport in the world to take over – nobody in authority has bothered to pay the players what they are worth.”
And – “It’s every man for himself now.”
The Board didn’t stand a chance, once Kerry Packer set his sights on the rights.
And there was a lot of merit in what he said – especially paying the players what they were worth, they had been used throughout their careers.
I was delighted with that fact, on its own.
But being flushed with success that historic May day, didn’t last long.
It became a May Day, May Day, call.
No sooner had I sat down to edit the 90-minutes of rivetting interview at the Epping studios of Channel 7 – than Bob Johnson, Channel 7′s chief-of-staff, appeared.
“What are you doing here Lordy, you’re not due until Sunday with Sports Action?”
“No, I’m here to edit my Kerry Packer interview – I know where all the good bits are,” was my reply.
Editing in those days was a tedious, boring job – slicing film with a razor blade, and clear taping sections together.
“Don’t waste your time son, none of it will go to air – I’m not going to promote the owner of an opposition channel.”
“You must be kidding Bob, this is the biggest sporting story of our lifetime – and we’ve got tremendous footage direct from the man who made it possible.”
“No, I’m not kidding – you can use all the footage you want on Sunday, when you’re in charge. But I’m in charge here in the news room during the week – so go home, nothing is going to air.”
And it didn’t, not even a mention, with Sunday five days away – and dead news.
In nearly 50 years in the media, this still rates as the very worst media decision ever made.
Nothing could possibly match Johnson’s false pig-headedry, nor twisted news-sense.
I’ve never seen Johnson since, lucky for him. But the fall-out for me was catastrophic.
There were no mobile phones, texts, or emails, in 1977 – communication was simple.
Packer was either at work, or uncontactable.
It was the latter, and even though I explained, in detail, to his secretary on the phone why our interview wasn’t going to air that night, I was pushing it uphill.
Packer turned feral from that point, refusing to take any of my calls.
I’d gone from first-choice interview at Park Street – to public enemy No 1 on any street – in a matter of hours.
Packer was poised to give me both barrels.
He got his first chance when I returned to England to cover the final three Ashes Tests – at Trent Bridge, Headingley, and The Oval.
While I was in the air, Jeff Thomson, Viv Richards, and Alvin Kallicharran, signed with WSC.
I was managing all three, and told Richards he was free to go, with no outside contract to hold him.
But not Thomson, nor Kallicharran.
“Thommo” still had eight-and-a-half years to go with his widely-publicised, 10-year, 4IP radio contract to play with Queensland – Kallicharran had another year with Manly, in the Sydney first grade club competition.
I pulled them both out of WSC and Packer snapped, without knowing the “bastard” quote that surfaced last night.
Within hours, I had a summons in my hand at my Nottingham hotel, near Trent Bridge, to appear before the High Court of England in London the next day, charged by Packer with inducing players to break contracts.
If anyone was inducing players to break contracts, it was solely Kerry Francis Bullmore.
As for the High Court of England, it was not a top tourist resort – far from it.
You couldn’t help but be struck by its long history, just walking into the building.
It was awesome – and Packer was busy.
I was lumped in with the Test and Country Cricket Board, and the MCC – both charged with restraint of trade.
We collectively had a QC, and a junior.
Packer had three QC’s, and five juniors. The scales of justice were heavily loaded in the big bloke’s favour.
And so was the result, after a two-day hearing.
The Test and County Cricket Board, and MCC, had to reappear later in the year, at a date to be fixed.
I was told by Mr Justice Slade, perched on a balcony in the mahogany wall, some three metres above the floor, that if I wanted to interview any Packer-to-be Australians for the remainder of the tour, I had to have a non-Packer player with me – either Craig Sergeant, Geoff Dymock, or Kim Hughes.
If I failed to comply, I’d be arrested, and jailed for contempt of court.
A morally wrong decision, but very effective.
Packer had proved his point – one barrel had fired, the other still cocked.
During the Sunday rest day of the Headingley Test, the Australian media contingent took on the English media, in a 50-over game at nearby Harrogate.
Packer asked to play and made an impressive entrance in a chopper from London, straight from Harrods.
He was dressed to the nines, with brand new cricket gear. Immaculate.
Greg Chappell was our captain – MCC boss Peter Lush, the England skipper.
There was a lot of imp in Gregory Stephen Chappell – he sent Packer to first slip, me to second.
Side-by-side on the cricket field – at arm’s length in court. Bizarrre.
And the big crowd loved every minute of it – High Court protagonists doing battle on the cricket field – with, and against, one other.
On at least six occasions, the ball squirted past, or over, the cordon – and we set off in pursuit.
Packer was astonishingly fast on his feet for such a big man.
It sounds pathetic writing this, but we jostled, and shouldered, each other every chase.
But it was meaningful at the time – the odds about even.
Then the ultimate irony.
Lush was batting superbly until he nicked me to first slip where Packer took a brilliant catch, low to his right.
Lush c Packer b Lord 45.
That scoreline appeared in every newspaper in England, and Australia.
It was the ultimate irony alright.
Especially for Packer, it was written all over his face as the rest of the team rushed to congratulate him.
He would have done anything to deny me that wicket, but his pride wouldn’t allow him to drop the hot chance.
The perfect Catch 22.
I tried to talk one-on-one with Packer that day, to tell him about the pitiful Bob Johnson incident, and the subsequent events that led to our confrontation.
But Packer wasn’t at all interested, he just turned his back, and walked away.
I got the distinct impression he was actually enjoying the stoush.
Only once did he have another public crack.
Throughout those early days of WSC I remained firm friends with Tony Greig, even though we were on opposite sides of the WSC fence.
Packer had put me there.
I rang Tony, and we met in Adelaide behind closed doors in February 1978, during the first season of WSC, to broker a peace.
Greig was close to Packer, I was close to the Australian Cricket Board – it was well worth a try.
We negotiated for a marathon 14 hours, and came up with a very workable solution:
* A home-and-away series over 12 months between the big six – Australia, England, the West Indies, India, Pakistan, and New Zealand – in a round-robin to be finalised in the last four weeks of the Australian season between the top four countries, on a points basis.
* The teams would be selected by national panels, in the usual way.
* The new series would be under the control of the ICC, and in addition to previously scheduled Tests.
* Players to be fully-professional, and paid accordingly.
* With Channel 9 to own exclusive television, and radio, rights for the new series.
A win-win, for both sides.
Surprisingly, Tony Greig refused to sign the dual-proposal.
That came from left field, given the 14 hours it took us to nut out the proposal.
But he reported the concept to Packer, and I wrote to the Board that had given me permission – through the emergency committee of Sir Donald Bradman, Tim Caldwell, and Bob Parish – to negotiate a peace.
But they made it quite clear I was not officially representing the Board.
The official tag was immaterial – the communicating vital.
The Board was amazed Tony and I had been able to go so far in agreement.
What was even more amazing the Board decided not to bite the bullet and activate the proposal, but referred Packer to the ICC.
That was a cop-out, leaving such a major decision to a toothless ICC.
The coup started in Australia, and should have been settled in Australia.
The rest of the cricket world would have followed.
Little wonder the ACB was so easy for Packer to beat, there was no resolve.
Packer, true to current form, dismissed our Adelaide meeting through an un-named spokesman.
“Mr Packer has no interest in any discussions which involved Mr Lord, and he did not anticipate having any discussions with Mr Lord, except before the High Court of Justice, in London.
“Mr Packer saw no purpose in dealing with Mr Lord who, as far as he is aware, has no official standing.”
Yet Packer admitted later he had given Greig permisson to have a chat with me, so long as Packer was kept fully informed.
There’s only one possible explanation for the “no interest” quote.
Packer couldn’t bring himself to admit he had originally failed with the Board for the television rights. Yet Tony and I had done a thorough job.
More pointedly, Packer point-blank refused to recognise my part, as an instigator of the peace proposal.
Not that I gave a continental – one way, or the other.
As I said at the time – “I never wanted to be involved, but as nobody else seemed to care what happened to international cricket, and especially Australian cricket, I have tried my best to bring the warring factions together.”
And that’s exactly what happened.
In the wash-up, had Packer not been so vindictive towards me, and ACB chairman Bob Parish not been so weak – there would have been peace virtually overnight, instead of well over a year later.
But egos, on both sides, yet again muddied the decision-making waters, at a critical stage.
Big people, small minds. Petty.
Eventually peace reigned in 1979, but so much time had been lost, and so many friendships un-necessarily burned.
Notably Sir Donald Bradman, and Richie Benaud, who found their long-standing respect for one another split by the WSC fence.
Kerry Packer died on Boxing Day 2005, aged 68, without ever really knowing the truth behind what happened on so many fronts.
Nor recognising I was one of his genuine believers.
What he did for cricket set higher standards, and revolutionised public interest in limited-overs with day-night games, a white ball, and coloured clothing.
And, more importantly, what he achieved for cricketers’ wallets, by taking control.
None of those major pluses will ever be forgotten – and forever saluted.
And that includes me.
Even though Kerry Packer had shunted me to the back of the pack, I was at the head of the far queue.
Those were heady days that made Kerry Packer the saviour of cricket. It took an enormous amount of courage for him to overcome all the hurdles placed in front of him. But thankfully he knocked them all down.
And a special salute to Lachy Hulme who played Kerry Packer last night. A brilliant portrayal, if was Kerry to a T.
Can’t wait for the second episode next Sunday.
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