Packer transformed game and face of cricket

By John Mehaffey
Guyana Chronicle
May 5, 1999

LONDON, England, (Reuters) - On a warm Sydney evening back in 1978, the cricketing world tilted on its axis.

Night cricket had come to the Sydney Cricket Ground and nothing in the game has ever been quite the same.

Kerry Packer, outraged when his bid for exclusive television coverage of Australian Test cricket was contemptuously rejected, had bought the best players in the world for his own World Series Cricket tournament.

But the public in the summer of 1977-78 stayed away from his Supertests, preferring instead to watch the official Australian side play India in a riveting series.

In the following season Packer threw an audacious counter-punch at the establishment.

The Australian media millionaire had six floodlight towers built around the Sydney Cricket Ground and staged the first limited overs day-night match between Australia and West Indies on November 28, 1978.

World Series Cricket officials hoped for 20 000 spectators. Around 50 000 poured in to the famous old ground to celebrate an Australian win. Thousands more stretched out at home after work and watched on television.

Packer knew he was on to a winner and by the time he reached a truce in the following year with the game's authorities so did the players and public.

One-day cricket had been introduced in England in the 1960s in an attempt to counter declining gates at county matches, although it was regarded by the traditionalists as an inferior version of the real thing.

International one-day cricket began in 1971 when 46 000 spectators gathered at the Melbourne Cricket Ground to watch Australia beat England in a one-off match hastily organised to appease fans after the first three days of the third Ashes Test match were rained off.

But it was the Packer years which transformed the game and the face of cricket.

By the end of the 1970s, Australia was evolving into a vibrant, cosmopolitan society looking more to the west coast of the United States for its entertainment and inspiration than to Britain.

Night cricket appealed to a young audience looking for instant entertainment and Packer's Australian side of the era - rebellious, irreverent and successful - were perfectly equipped to deliver.

Dennis Lillee, man-of-the-match in the inaugural day-night match, was a marketing man's dream with his aggression, perfect fast bowler's action and flowing black hair and the West Indians were equally exciting and equally successful.

Paradoxically, Ian Chappell's Australians had been slow to embrace one-day cricket but soon adapted when it became clear that this was what attracted the crowds and generated the money needed to pay the significantly higher salaries they were to command.

Nearly all the innovations which have made one-day cricket a distinctive game in its own right, bearing increasing affinities to baseball and its intense concentration on every ball, came from the Packer series.

A white ball, black sight-screens and coloured clothing were introduced. Later, restrictions on the positions of fielders, based on a South African experiment, were also successfully added.

West Indies won the first two World Cups in 1975 and 1979 and turned up in Australia almost every other year for the annual triangular World Series Cup.

Under Clive Lloyd, West Indians played both Test and one-day cricket with ruthless efficiency, based on a quartet of relentlessly accurate express bowlers.

They failed to win a third World Cup in 1983, losing unexpectedly to Kapil Dev's Indian side, an upset which sparked a cricketing revolution on the Indian sub-continent.

One-day tournaments proliferated and it was now the one-day internationals rather than traditional Test matches which began to attract the crowds in India, Pakistan and New Zealand.

The game even spread to the desert when Sheikh Abdul Rehman Bukhatir built a stadium in the Emirate of Sharjah, to provide entertainment for the masses of labourers from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh working in the Gulf.

The sheer number of games and the amount of money bet on the outcome led to serious allegations of bribery, a shadow which hangs over the current Pakistan side now in England for this month's World Cup.

Fears that Test cricket would be adversely affected have been largely discounted by the ease with which modern cricketers adjust to both games.

A contrary argument can be advanced that the current crop of players, including that wonderful trio of batsmen Sachin Tendulkar, Brian Lara and Aravinda de Silva, are as good as any in the history of the game.

All have been raised on the one-day game.