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He brought colour, lights to cricket

There is a certain poignancy to Kerry Packer’s death, coming only weeks before the Indian team embarks on a tour of Pakistan. After all...

Written by Ashok Malik | New Delhi | December 28, 2005

There is a certain poignancy to Kerry Packer’s death, coming only weeks before the Indian team embarks on a tour of Pakistan. After all, as cricket’s faithful but endangered band of archivists will remember, it was on the historic tour of Pakistan in 1978 that this country’s cricketers came into the business-sphere of the Australian media tycoon.

A compulsive gambler—he was the Bradman of casino tables—Packer had just reacted to the Australian Cricket Board’s rejection of his offer to buy television rights by announcing his alternative cricket universe. If the fuddy-duddies at the ACB insisted on dealing with the public broadcaster and were cussed enough to turn down a lucrative deal, Packer was going to show them!

He devised World Series Cricket: coloured clothing, matches under lights, baseball-style player promotionals (remember the delicate thunder of “Lillee, Lillee”?), instant replays, stump cameras, gladiatorial contests called “Supertests”. And, essentially, invented the cricket entertainment industry.

The orthodox dismissed it as a ‘‘circus’’, Bill O’Reilly famously called night cricket the “Pyjama Game”, but Packer, like the prophet the old Pharisees refused to heed, was convinced of his destiny — and cricket’s.

First, of course, he had to hire the world’s best cricketers, pay them salaries their official employers — shamateur national cricket boards — would baulk at.

The Chappell brothers brought in the rest of the marvellous Australian team of the era. The other big guns — the West Indies superstars — signed up mid-series during Australia’s 1978 tour.

In his autobiography Living for Cricket, Clive Lloyd describes how he was persuaded by a taped message from Ian Chappell, which spelt out the Packer creed and why it was so important for the future of cricket and its practitioners.

The front man for Asia was Asif Iqbal, an entrepreneur in his own right who later took the Packer dream to new territory: Sharjah and the Cricketers’ Benefit Fund Series (CBFS). When India travelled to Pakistan in 1978 — a series for which the host Board condoned its stars their WSC affiliation, and which one Indian magazine headlined ‘Packer’s Pak versus Bedi’s India’ — Asifbhai was waiting.

So was Lynton Taylor, Packer’s agent who had flown down from Australia. Using Iqbal’s good offices, Taylor spoke to eight Indian cricketers, including Sunil Gavaskar, and apparently offered them $25,000 for a three-year tie-up. The threat of a ban from the Indian team—and, presumably, a middle-class tradition of risk-aversion—led to Taylor going home without a single signed contract.

Within three years, the Packer crisis had been sorted out. By 1981, his innovations had been appropriated by and incorporated into “official” cricket, his Channel Nine had the rights to Australian cricket, even the World Series was now “legit”.

In 1981, too, Asif Iqbal organised the first Packer-type “masala match” in Sharjah, between a Sunil Gavaskar XI and a Javed Miandad XI; by 1984, “desert cricket” was kosher.

The revolution came to India a decade later. In 1993, Jagmohan Dalmiya, a hustling buccaneer whom Packer no doubt recognised as a long-lost brother, snatched the BCCI’s flagship property — TV rights for all cricket played in India — from Doordarshan’s self-imposed monopoly and sold it to TWI, the highest bidder.

That was Indian cricket’s Packer moment. Starting with the 1993 series against England and the Hero Cup later in the year, Dalmiya (and I.S. Bindra) fought and defeated the government in the Supreme Court, validated their product patent, and put Indian cricket on a non-stop, ad-fuelled, deal-lined treadmill.

By the time Packer came to Jagguda’s India in the late 1990s—Nine Network bought time on DD Metro for a shortlived, non-cricket venture—he was visiting a converted country. A bit like Marx in Lenin’s Russia.

In the end, you could blame it on the genes. Afflicted by polio and dyslexia as a boy, Packer grew up in the shadow of his father Frank, a martinet parent and newspaper baron.

The senior Packer too was part of a famous cricket story. In 1932, just before the Bodyline series, there was a crisis in Australia. Don Bradman was in danger of being dropped from the team because he had committed to writing a column for Associated Newspapers, publishers of The Sydney Sun.

Jack Fingleton, Bradman’s team-mate, could write for the papers, the Australian Board ruled, because he was a professional journalist in addition to being a gentleman cricketer. Bradman, who usually made his money as a stockbroker, was not free to write.

Eventually, the owner of Associated Newspapers untied the knot. Frank Packer released the Don from his contract and allowed him to play for his country. It was an early rumble of that devastating cocktail: cricket, commerce and big media. Frank Packer stepped back that time, yielding ground to the Board. A half-century later, his son avenged him.

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