December 29, 2005

Kerry Packer – from a pariah to messiah

By H Natarajan

Memories flashback to 1978 when India and Pakistan overcame historical pride and prejudices to meet on the cricket field for the first time in 17 years. There were many unforgettable moments in the series, notably the arrival of a promising young fast bowler - Kapil Dev Nikhanj. But the one that had a seismic effect back home was the disturbing news that Kerry Packer’s agent, Lynton Taylor, had flown into Pakistan and was in talks with eight of the biggest names in Indian cricket, including Sunil Gavaskar.

Mercifully for Indian cricket, none of its players signed up for Packer’s breakaway World Series Cricket (WSC). But it was a reflection of the turbulent times when the Australian tycoon flexed his financial muscle to get 60 of the finest and biggest cricketers from Australia, the West Indies, South Africa, Pakistan and England to align on his side of the divide. For Packer, it was war against the Australian Cricket Board (ACB) for its refusal to accept an A$1.5m bid over rights to telecast of Tests and Sheffield Shield matches.

Australia lost 18 of the their top cricketers to the WSC, forcing the ACB to recall a near 42-year old Bobby Simpson out of his retirement and lead a bunch of greenhorns (as many as six debuted in the first Test of the series) against Bishan Singh Bedi’s touring Indians in 1977-78. Simmo had last played a Test in 1968 – coincidentally against India, where Bedi bowled him for seven in the first innings. But the veteran led from the front against the spin trio of Bedi, Bhagwat Chandrasekhar and Erapalli Prasanna, with scores of 89, 176 and 100 adding lustre to his remarkable consistency.

But what does one make out of Packer who, in his quest to win the telecast rights, is famously quoted as telling the ACB mandarins (chairman Bob Parish and treasurer Ray Steele): “There is a little bit of the whore in all of us, gentlemen. What is your price?" Arrogant? An in-your-face, hard-nosed businessman? A moneybag who believed money is a master key to open any lock? An overgrown brat who had to get what he wanted at any cost? One or all of the above may find takers as the popular perception of the man outside Australia was mostly negative. But such notions got a posthumous change when Australian Prime Minister John Howard highlighted the much-maligned man’s generous and philanthropic side that few knew outside Australia.

If cricket made the transition from a traditional English pastime pursuit to a megabuck sport with a pop culture image that excited the masses, it’s because of the Australian impresario who dared to take on a smug establishment that languished far behind its times. Packer ripped off the mask of conservatism and gave it a trendy make-over. The innovations in the abridged version of the game – coloured clothing, white balls, helmets, stump cameras, stump microphone, flood-lights, drinks buggies, etc - has its origin in WSC. Channel 9 brought an exciting new dimension to coverage of cricket matches, and it has sustained its desire for innovations till this day.

When the peace treaty was signed, the man who was seen as pariah by the ICC was now viewed as a messiah. The minute's silence as a mark of respect before the start of the second day of the Australia-South Africa Test and Cricket Australia chairman Creagh O'Connor’s comment that Packer has to be seen on the same pedestal alongside the venerated Sir Donald Bradman as an influencing figure for Australia said it all. Even the game’s ruling body acknowledged the man’s contribution when ICC President Ehsan Mani said, “Packer took the game by the scruff of the neck and dragged it into the modern era.”

The comparison with Bradman is interesting. Way back in 1932, Bradman was locked in a stand-off with the ACB. Bradman was contracted to write articles as part of his employment with Associated Newspapers, the Sydney Sun and Radio 2UE. The ACB had allowed another Australian cricketer, Jack Fingleton, to write for his newspaper because it felt Fingleton was a professional journalist, which Bradman was not. The great man was unflinching in his stance, even if it meant running the risk of being sidelined from the national team. But Australia heaved a collective sigh of relief when the newspaper owner relieved Bradman of the contractual obligation so that he could serve the country. The gentleman who came to Australia’s and ACB’s rescue was Sir Frank Packer – Kerry Packer’s father.

Frank Packer apparently did not have a high opinion or expectations of his son Kerry - dyslexic and afflicted by polio. But the Senior Packer was wrong in his assumption, as events later were to prove. Kerry Packer was an unapologetic but highly successful businessman. As he once said: "I've read about Genghis Khan: he wasn't very loveable, but he was bloody efficient."

Two anecdotes illustrate the uncompromising businessman, and it involved two men who were abrasive, anti-establishment, feared and held exalted status in the game.

Jonathan Agnew, the former English fast bowler and now with the BBC, narrates the first incident: “I remember West Indies fast bowler Andy Roberts telling me that Packer once came into the dressing room. Their heads were drooping and he came in and gave them a roasting. He told people like Viv Richards to get out on the pitch again, buck their ideas up or they'd be on the next plane to the Caribbean and wouldn't be paid.” Am not sure how many people would have the guts to speak to Viv Richards in that fashion - and survive.

Ian Chappell, whose temperament was very similar to Packer himself, recalls an incident in the tycoon’s office before the players were selected: “He had his shoes off, had the feet up on the desk, and he said "Righto, son, who do you want in this side?" I said, "Well hang on, Kerry, I'm not captain of Australia, at this stage, my brother Greg is the captain of Australia". And he said "Son, what do you think this is? A democracy?" He said, "I'm paying the bills, you're the captain." No diplomacy and as direct as one can get.

But he was also a players’ man. Concerned about the future of the players who lined up for WSC, he got a written assurance that they would not victimized. Packer was a very benevolent person and cared for Australian cricket. When defections plagued the Australian side for the 1985 Rebel series, it was Packer who ensured that the nation was not deprived of talented youngsters. He contracted five talented youngsters, among who was Steve Waugh.

He lived life on his terms and even chose to leave this world on his terms. Apparently, he told ordered doctors attending on him not to prop him medically, according to reports appearing in the media. His cardiologist Ian Bailey said knew he was dying late last week and could have opted for more dialysis, “but chose to go quickly and with dignity".

Kerry Francis Bullmore Packer leaves behind an empire that included television networks, magazines, films, casinos, ski resorts, plantations, chemicals, rural properties, diamond exploration and coal mines - a US$ 5 billion fortune that has made him the richest in Australia and among the 100 richest in the world. But the lasting legacy that the visionary Aussie will be remembered for is the way he revolutionized cricket – especially One-Day cricket.