Tony Greig (left) dons his WSC avatar. Geoff Boycott (right) warms up to ODIs © Getty Images
Tony Greig (left) dons his WSC avatar. Geoff Boycott (right) warms up to ODIs © Getty Images

November 20, 1978. The English team in the Sydney Airport ran into the World Series cricketers who had pledged allegiance to Kerry Packer. Arunabha Sengupta remembers the curious meeting and the even more surprising outcome.

As someone later said, one bomb in the Sydney airport that day would have wiped out most of the cricket talent in the world.

It was a chance meeting.

The English team, led by Mike Brearley, had thumped New South Wales by 10 wickets. Derek Randall had hit 110, young Ian Botham had struck 56 and picked up 5 second-innings wickets. The underrated Geoff Miller had picked up 6 for 56 in the first innings.

They were now headed for Brisbane on the evening flight.

And they ran into the World Series cricketers, bound for a tournament in Perth. Their flight was at the same terminal, just a few minutes earlier.

It was Alan Knott that the English cricketers spotted first, the closest crony of Tony Greig  when the two played for England. The spruce little wicketkeeper had been one of the first English recruits to sign for Packer. Knott was there early, and there was a rather strained embarrassment as the establishment cricketers walked into the terminal.

And then arrived two buses carrying all the WSC cricketers representing the World and Australian teams.

They were supposed to be enemies. One group siding with the traditional authorities, the other having supposedly sold their souls to a media mogul. For a minute or their eyes locked in hesitant stares.

And then cricketing camaraderie broke through.

They had played with and against each other, after all. They were mates. They respected the abilities of the fellow cricketers. The authorities and the WSC organisers could fight their own battles. The cricketers decided to mingle.

Bob Willis, the England spearhead, was the first to break the ice, approaching his predecessor as the English lethal weapon, John Snow. Soon they were engrossed in animated discussion.

Clive Rice spotted Randall, his teammate from Nottinghamshire. Backs were slapped and hands were shaken.

A slightly confused Botham, not quite sure about the difference between the World and West Indian XIs in the Packer Circus, looked in vain for his great buddy Viv Richards. But the Antiguan was already in Perth.

Barry Richards was moved by all this to remark: “Wouldn’t it all be easier if the authorities got together as happily as this?”

The meeting lasted just ten minutes before the WSC men had to board their flights, but goodwill and bonhomie reined.

However, the greatest surprise was in store one floor up, in a corner of the airport restaurant.

Greig, World XI captain and Packer’s general, sat there, enjoying a bit of privacy along with wife Donna and children Samantha and Mark. There was also his business manager Bruce Francis in the small group.

And at that moment the door swung open and the England opening batsman Geoff Boycott walked into the scene.

Ten months earlier they had clashed in the worst possible manner. Boycott, not one to mince words, had declared in his newspaper column that Greig and the other WSC players were parasites. And Greig, the last person to take an insult lying down, had responded saying that Boycott had “spent five years running away from the world’s best fast bowlers.” He had also added a couple of rather derogatory remarks about Boycott’s abilities as captain.

The comments of Greig had landed him in front of the disciplinary committee of TCCB. The result had been a two-month suspension. The two men had not spoken since.

And now, the unpredictable Boycott walked across the restaurant, hand outstretched to greet Greig. Even an unflappable Greig was taken aback. Later he admitted that the Yorkshireman’s charm had been unnerving.

However, the hands were grasped and shaken. The goodwill was everywhere.

When Brearley had landed in Australia he knew that his job was not to win The Ashes. With Graham Yallop standing in front with his motley crew, that would be simple enough. The main challenge of the Englishmen was to fight for the crowds, the turnstiles, as Packer’s Big Boys played at night.

Yet, during that chance meeting, it was amiable geniality that shone through.