Packer's cricket revolution leaves mixed legacy

West Indies cricketer Clive Lloyd with Kerrie Packer.

Channel Nine's mini-series Howzat! Kerry Packer's War has shone the light once again on the creation of World Series Cricket and its enduring legacy for the sport.

The build-up to the show was particularly intense during the Olympics, but there was an ominous feeling that it would just be a puff piece for Channel Nine's most prominent owner.

In the end, the series mostly avoided puffery and was a success, dramatically entertaining an average of more than 2 million viewers for each episode.

The basis for the success was that it rooted the series as much as possible in what actually happened in the creation of the breakaway professional cricket series over 1977-79. To this end the makers employed Gideon Haigh as a script consultant and based much of the series on his book Cricket Wars, seen as the most definitive account on what took place in World Series Cricket.

Haigh was clear on the extent and limitations of Packer's revolution, saying, "What really happened is that Packer went in and broke a long-standing cricket board monopoly … then he recreated it.”

It is this theme that pervades the whole series — self interest and commercial success was the name of the game for Packer, everything else stemmed from this.

This was made clear in the series from the very first scene, when Packer told the board to give him exclusive television rights for $1.5 million, which up to that point was held by the ABC. When rebuffed, it became clear that to get what he wanted, Packer needed to go against the established interests in cricket.

Lucky for him, that same establishment had already laid the grounds for the revolution to take place. Packer could only complete his bid due to the old cricket boards' systematic policy of ripping off players by underpaying them.

Packer himself admitted this, he told cricket journalist David Lord: “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.”

In the 1970s, cricket was only a semi-professional game. Even though players were expected to compete at an extremely high level, many had to take other jobs just to get by.

Just before World Series Cricket, Braham Dabscheck said in an article, “The Professional Cricketers Association of Australia", a player competing for his state regularly could “expect to earn between $1,000 to $2,500”.

In 1975, Australian players touring England for the Ashes were paid $182 a week. Players earnings represented only 4.59% of gate earning, with more than 95% of the earnings going elsewhere.

This disparity caused a great deal of discontent, with players increasingly looking to assert their rights. Then-Australian captain Ian Chappell was leading the charge.

Chappell wrote in his book Chappelli in 1976: “The Board has a responsibility to see that the leading Australian cricketers are satisfactorily rewarded … I think it's time that the Board carefully considered the principle of binding the leading Australian players to full-time contracts in much the same way as other sportsmen, businessmen and celebrities are contracted.”

Chappell had two meetings with the Australian Cricket Board about paying players fair wages but was rebuffed both times. He was once told by an administrator that if they didn't like it, there were 50,000 players prepared to play for nothing.

Leading the charge against fair pay was former player Donald Bradman, the most prominent figure on the board. Despite his status as the best cricket player of all time, Bradman was despised by many as a player but particularly as an administrator.

Chappell told the 7:30 Report in 2002: “I remember when I got to point five [of player demands] Bradman sat up like that so I had point five, whatever it was about finance and this voice comes from over on the right, 'No, son, we can't do that.' And away he goes on the reasons why we can't do that, you see.”

Bradman's role in frustrating players' rights was made clear in Howzat!, but Chappell's account was much more explicit than the series. He said: “Bradman to me had as much to do with the starting of World Series Cricket as anybody.”

Frustrated, Chappell started discussions with ACTU president Bob Hawke about forming a union. But before this grew into anything concrete, Packer stepped in and offered many of the conditions that the players were beginning to agitate for.

Professional contracts, better pay and conditions were all on offer. Packer knew that this discontent was how he could take on the established boards.

The players' interests and Packer's commercial interest were temporarily aligned, which is the reason why World Series Cricket ultimately changed the game (compare it to Rupert Murdoch's failed Super League project) and why a lot of players admire Packer.

After a shaky start, World Series Cricket eventually became a success, which forced the Australian Cricket Board to give Packer everything he wanted. His monopoly had begun.

The Packer revolution, though, has had decidedly mixed impact. The positive sides are that it established better pay for players with secure contracts and helped to modernise cricket.

Television coverage improved and World Series Cricket provided the impetus for one-day cricket to become much more firmly established.

But it was also the beginning of the dominance of television magnates over the game, with all that brings. Top players are paid well, but increasingly have been treated as performer monkeys, asked to play on command, with schedules mostly determined by what is in the interests of particular TV companies. Meaningless games that players have to drudge through have proliferated.

Some of the gains have been under attack recently. Players had fought to the point where they had a collective agreement that 26% of all income generated by cricket would be distributed to players.

But this came under attack this year with Cricket Australia seeking to move to a "performance pay" model. This would mean elite players would make more, but most would earn less.

Cricket authorities could again be playing with fire, with cashed up television moguls prepared to pay top dollar to lure players to play in private 20/20 leagues.

The incompleteness of Packer's revolution can be seen in Channel Nine's coverage. Where once it may have been innovative, it has now become stale, banal, boring and hard to tell whether it is a cricket game or an extended advertisement for Channel Nine shows and Kentucky Fried Chicken.

The downside of commercialism has become abundantly clear. The next revolution that needs to occur is the empowerment of players and fans to establish a game that best suits people rather than corporations and rich magnates like Packer.