40 years since the World Series Cricket ‘circus’ changed the game

Kersi Meher-Homji Roar Rookie

By Kersi Meher-Homji, Kersi Meher-Homji is a Roar Rookie

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    This month marks the 40th anniversary of World Series Cricket (WSC) devised by Kerry Packer’s money and by the brains and expertise of Richie Benaud, Tony Greig and Ian Chappell among others.

    After months of secret signings of Test stars, the story broke in May 1977 after it was leaked to famous England cricket writer Ian Wooldridge and The Daily Mail (UK).

    In the end, Packer signed up Test greats from Australia, England, the West Indies, South Africa and Pakistan for supertests and One-Day/Night games over two seasons.

    WSC was the biggest game changer in cricket history; bigger than Bodyline, bigger than Ben Hur. No golden chariots, no jousting between knights in silver armour on horsebacks but top-class cricketers demanding proper payment for their days in the sun. And their emancipator was television mogul and billionaire Kerry Packer.

    Books have been written on the controversy that divided the cricket world. The late Bill O’Reilly, regarded as one of the greatest bowlers of all time, was against it and called it the “Packer Circus”.

    Responding to this, Packer had said, “If you want to look at circuses, you’d better look at Australia fielding its third XI.”

    The story of establishment against ‘rebel’ cricketers filled newspaper headlines from 1977 to 1979. Peter McFarline’s A Game Divided (1977) and Gideon Haigh’s Cricket War – The Inside Story of Kerry Packer’s World Series (1993) go into minute details as to how the idea was conceived, developed in secrecy and revealed to a stunned audience.

    There were many reasons behind the creation of WSC. Packer wanted to televise all Test matches in Australia on his TCN 9, Sydney. His Consolidated Press’s bid for Test telecast rights were rebuffed in 1976 by the Australian Cricket Board. In retrospect one feels that had ACB negotiated with Packer, the outcome would have been different.

    When the ICC and England’s Test and County Cricket Board tried to enforce a Test and first-class match selection ban on the defectors, Packer backed a successful High Court challenge against the “restraints of trade”.

    WSC changed cricket as never before and never since. Celebrated cricket author Christopher Martin was moved to write, “With the possible exception of WG Grace, there has been no more influential figure in the history of cricket.”

    As Andy Bull wrote recently in The Guardian, “Packer brought in coloured clothing, flood-lit day and night matches, white balls and drop-in pitches grown in green houses.”

    I do not agree entirely with this statement. Packer provided the money but it was the brains of Benaud, Greig, Ian Chappell and others who thought of these innovations. I may also add that night cricket was tried in England in early 1960s but failed due to fog and dew.

    Despite opposition from the establishment, the WSC supertests went ahead and were very popular in its second season.

    What looked a pipe dream, the matches between Australian, West Indians and World XIs became a reality. Former Test greats Benaud, Ian Chappell, Garry Sobers, Fred Trueman, Bill Lawry, Keith Stackpole, John Gleeson among others were used as consultants, commentators and ambassadors for this innovation.

    VFL Park in Melbourne was the first venue for a supertest on December 2, 1977. After a lukewarm start, the crowds took to supertests in a big way in 1978 with popular chants like “C’mon Aussie C’mon, C’mon” by the advertising firm Mojo.

    A day-night match between Australians and West Indians on 28 November 1978 attracted over 50,000 in Sydney. But the quality of batsmanship suffered with the fast bowlers dominating the scene.

    To quote Haigh, “By the end of 1978-79 summer it was in the interest of both sides to resolve their differences. The failure of the Ashes series had severely depleted the finances of the ACB and its member associations.”

    The same feeling was shared by other countries. The authorities in England, West Indies and Pakistan were under public pressure to re-assimilate the WSC signatories. Fortunately, peace was declared.

    The mesmeriding performances in the supertests are not recognized by ICC and Wisden. The cream of cricket icons had performed brilliantly in those two years of brief divorce before the remarriage.

    Three outstanding performances:

    • Barry Richards’ brilliant 207 in 296 minutes for World XI v. Australia in Perth in 1978.
    • Dennis Lillee capturing 7-23 to rout a star-studded West Indies for 89 in Sydney in 1979.
    • Greg Chappell’s three scintillating centuries v. West Indies in 1979.

    Should these and other marvellous feats in WSC be recognised by the ICC?

    After 40 years of peace and high quality TV broadcasts, the right for Channel 9 to broadcast the cricket is currently debated, with money as always part of the complications. Will this complete a full circle?

    Kersi Meher-Homji
    Kersi Meher-Homji

    Kersi is an author of 13 cricket books including The Waugh Twins, Cricket's Great All-rounders,Six Appeal and Nervous Nineties. He writes regularly for Inside Cricket and other publications. He has recently finished his new book on Cricket's Conflicts and Controversies, with a foreword by Greg Chappell.

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