Clayton Murzello: Kerry Packer: Ruthless but fair

Published: 03 November, 2016 08:36 IST | Clayton Murzello |

It’s 40 years since the TV magnate expressed his desire to televise Oz cricket. An anecdotal recall of how he went about winning his game

Kerry Packer, founder of WSC, surrounded by journalists in 1977. Pic/Getty Images
Kerry Packer, founder of WSC, surrounded by journalists in 1977. Pic/Getty Images

Among the plethora of cricket books released in Australia this summer, one is by television commentator Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire county captain, who, as one news report put it the other day, is the centre piece of the Channel 9 commentary team.

Nicholas’ A Beautiful Game: My Love Affair with Cricket, promises to be a fascinating read; probably far more insightful and more worthy than the other new books which are of course ghost-written and heavy with controversy, with a view on sales.

Recently, the Australian media published grabs from Nicholas’ book which included some uneasy interactions between him and Kerry Packer, the departed Channel 9 boss. Nicholas wrote about how Packer pulled him up for telling listeners know how cold it was during a game in Hobart. Packer said: “Son, stop telling us how f***ing cold it is in Hobart and how the fielders are wringing their hands and how people are wrapped in anoraks and having a s*** time.

The only people having a s*** time are those of us at home who have to sit here f***ing listening to you... And another thing, when you’re next in Sydney, come and see me. Ring my secretary and make an appointment.” It was typical of Packer to shoot from the hip. It was his style. It was his best artillery to convey a message.

It’s 40 years since he registered World Series Cricket (WSC) as a company and it was 40 seasons ago that Packer expressed the desire to televise international cricket in Australia, only to be turned down by the Australian Cricket Board (who stuck with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation).

Two books — Gideon Haigh’s The Cricket War and Ashley Mallett’s Hitting Out (on his captain Ian Chappell) — provide a wealth of information on how Packer acted and reacted to things during his cricket circus which ran from 1977 to 1979. What he told Chappell when he first met him to discuss WSC was profound. Chappell, who had retired from international cricket when he met Packer in 1977, was asked who he wanted in his WSC team. He reminded Packer that his brother Greg was captaining Australia, but the burly businessman indicated that Ian would lead the team with the words, “You think this is a f***ing democracy, do you?”

Chappell and Packer hit it off, but that doesn’t mean the captain was overawed by the boss. In the final season of WSC, the circus moved to the West Indies. In the opening ‘Test’ at Kingston, Australia bowled out their hosts for 188 on Day One, but were bundled out for 106 by the Caribbean pace attack. Skipper Clive Lloyd belted 155 by lunch in the second innings and a distressed Chappell went straight to the dining area of the Kingston Cricket Club without entering the dressing room. As he tucked into his lunch, he felt a thump on his shoulder. It was Packer. “Tough day out there, son,” he said to Chappell, who reacted sharply: “F*** off.” Packer left the Australian captain alone and Greg sitting at a nearby table couldn’t believe what his brother had told their employer.

The same West Indies tour was not going to make any money for WSC so the players were expecting to be paid $16,000, which worked out to be less than what was mentioned in their WSC contract. When Chappell indicated that it will be fine by the players, Packer told him (as mentioned in Mallett’s book): “Son, I’ll tell you something. $3,40,000 is about the price of a B-Grade movie for my television station. That’s not going to break me. What will f***king break me is not sticking to the word of my contracts.”

Fast bowler Jeff Thomson was somehow not signing his WSC contract in the fear of jeopardising his career. Packer was keen that he become a contracted player before their tour party left for the West Indies in the 1978-79 season. “Has Thomson signed?” was a question Packer repeatedly asked his WSC officials at a meeting. Finally, he was told that his legal expert, who was getting it firmed up with Thomson, was on holiday. “Well, we’ll f*** that holiday up,” exclaimed Packer. Thomson signed the dotted line after that meeting.

Livid he also was when West Indies played spineless cricket to be bowled out for 66 by Australia in an International Cup limited overs fixture at the Sydney Cricket Ground in December 1978. He threatened to send some players home and Andy Roberts is convinced that the “tongue-lashing” changed West Indies cricket. A game which ought to have finished at 10.30 pm, ended at 6:15 pm. Michael Holding resisted from reproducing Packer’s exact language in his book No Holding Back, but wrote: “He (Packer) left no one in doubt that he was the paymaster and if we didn’t perform, we would be out.”

Packer loved his cricket and would do anything for his players. When a short ball from Roberts broke David Hookes’ jaw at Sydney on December 16, 1977, Packer drove Hookes to hospital in his Jaguar at break neck speed, not only to reach the hospital on time, but to distract Hookes from the pain the blow had caused him.

It’s a good time to remember Packer — his deeds, misdeeds. His sense of fair play too.

mid-day’s group sports editor Clayton Murzello is a purist with an open stance. He tweets @ClaytonMurzello. Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

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