“In a player revolution unprecedented in sport, the world's top 34 Test cricketers have secretly signed contracts to become freelance mercenaries.” Thus ran the earth-shaking story by the late Ian Wooldridge in the Daily Mail of May 9, 1977. Thirty five years after Wooldridge’s scoop, Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the fateful day that announced a crack in the foundations of the cricket world.
The headline matched the sensational War that seemed to have been declared between the establishment and the rebels. “Cricketers Turn Pirates” screamed the banner. “The new Dogs of Cricket include England captain Tony Greig and 13 of the Australian touring party now in England,” Wooldridge wrote.
The signings had been going on all summer and the touring Australians did not seem to have their heart in the Ashes series they ultimately lost 0-3. Greig, engaged as the Chief Recruiting Officer of the then little-known businessman Kerry Packer, went about surreptitiously contracting legendary cricketers of the day for World Series Cricket (WSC).
The English, Australian, West Indian, Pakistani and South African, greats and not-so-greats, signed on the dotted line without expending much thought, let alone having second ones. The motivating factor was also highlighted in the Wooldridge report. “Disenchanted by low pay and what they regarded as doormat treatment by cricket authorities throughout the world, they are to play exhibition ‘Tests’ for television and 10 times the money.”
“I signed eight players in two days,” Greig recalls approaching the West Indians and Pakistanis in Trinidad. “And I can tell you it wasn't difficult. My problem was who to leave out.”
At home in London’s Churchill Hotel, John Snow, Derek Underwood and Allan Knott were joined by South Africans Graeme Pollock, Barry Richards, Mike Procter, Eddie Barlow and Denys Hobson, hands eager and extended, reaching out for the pen. Even before the introductory speech had ended, Barlow was heard to ask: "Where do I sign?"
Circus that shifted the balance of cricket world
Packer was mostly regarded as a hardcore businessman, whose sensitive financial nose had caught the whiff of huge potential profits. Additionally, he was also getting back at the Australian Cricket Board (ACB), who had snubbed his efforts to negotiate the rights to televise cricket. According to witnesses, he had famously started off the 1976 meeting with the ACB members saying, “There is a little bit of the whore in all of us, gentlemen. What is your price?”
The term Circus to describe the rebel set up was first used by John Arlott. “It is virtually certain that if a circus scheme were launched in competition to Test cricket, it would fail,” he remarked. Wonder what he would make of the commercial comedy shows that pass for cricket now.
As a reaction to the ‘treachery’, legendary cricket writer EW Swanton publicly ended his friendship with Greig.
Wooldridge himself recalled the day with vividness. “I heard the rumours, and phoned Richie Benaud to see if he knew anything, as it was an amazing story. Initially he said he didn't know anything, but he phoned me back a couple of hours later and asked me round to his house. In the meantime he had obviously been in contact with Kerry Packer and confirmed that he could reveal what was going on.”
Unknown even to Wooldridge, Benaud was the cricketing brain behind Packer's ambitious project, advising on how to deal with the Australian Cricket Board (ACB), and also on the logistics of playing cricket in a far from orthodox fashion.
After his discussion with the former Australian captain, Wooldridge was able to reveal the names of 15 of those who had signed World Series Cricket contracts. "I couldn't believe it," he says, "… “it was such a major story, and it had all been done so secretly. Overnight, the whole balance of world cricket has shifted since a clash of engagements over the next three years will make the players unavailable,” he wrote.
The news from Fleet Street was taken up by the Australian newspapers 12 hours later.
Peter McFarline of Melbourne's Age ran a story quoting an unnamed English player as forecasting “The biggest explosion in cricket since WG Grace”.
Traitors and mercenaries were epithets that made rounds as Greig was stripped of the English captaincy.
The hostilities continued as the next season began with rival Tests - the WSC's inaugural Supertest in Melbourne’s VLF Park and the official Test match between a depleted Australian team and Bishan Bedi’s Indians in Brisbane.
After two years of conflicts, a compromise was reached. Many of Packer's players were welcomed back in their teams, while the businessman himself finally secured his television rights. Meanwhile, cricket and its telecast had undergone a professional revolution. The much-vilified Packer has to be accepted as the man instrumental in making this happen.
Wooldridge himself believes there was more than simply business motivating Packer's actions. “He was doing something that had to be done but of course there was some self-interest.” The media tycoon is often, with some justification, credited for taking up cudgels to ensure cricketers got the sort of money their talents merited.
When Packer passed away, he was mourned with a minute's silence at the MCG as one of the most influential figures in the history of cricket.
(Arunabha Sengupta is trained from Indian Statistical Institute as a Statistician. He works as a Process Consultant, but purifies the soul through writing and cricket, often mixing the two into a cleansing cocktail. The author of three novels, he currently resides in the incredibly beautiful, but sadly cricket-ignorant, country of Switzerland. You can know more about him from his author site, his cricket blogs and by following him on Twitter)