Saturday, January 25, 2003

Kerry Packer, one day cricket, and the impact of television.

A month or two back, I read an Australian newspaper article about the 25th anniversary of World Series Cricket, the commercial breakaway cricket competition that occurred in 1977. Various Australian players were quoted as saying that media mogul Kerry Packer, who sponsored the competition, had tuend the sport into something fully professional and had saved the game of cricket from oblivion, and that if he hadn't come along, the sport would have faded into obscurity.

As a claim, I think this is excessive, but still, there is some truth in it.

International cricket has traditionally consisted of so called "Test matches", which go for a number of days each. Each member of each of the two teams gets to bat twice, and when it is all over, the side with the most runs is the winner. If the amount of time scheduled for the match runs out, then the game is declared a draw. (This is distinct from a "tie", which is the result if both sides end up scoring the same number of runs). Over 126 years of international cricket, the number of scheduled days per match has varied from three days to no limit, but for the last few decades it has been standardised at five days. Typically, the national team of one country tours another country for two to three months, and in that time they play three to six of these test matches with the host side.

A disadvantage of this is that type of game is that spectators who attend a game for one day only see part of a match. It was believed that if an entire game could be played in one day, then more spectators might be interested, and in 1963 the Gillette Cup was founded in England. For top level domestic cricket between the county sides in England, games were normally limited to three days. However, this was a competition of one day cricket: teams batted once each instead of twice, and each side was only allowed to bat for a maximum number of overs, so that the match could be completed in one day.

This competition was quite successful, and the number of domestic one day games played in England and elsewhere steadily increased over the years. However, these were considered largely social games, and at international level, test cricket continued to be the only thing that was played until 1971. In 1971, rain ruined a test match being played between Australia and England in Melbourne, but the weather was fine on the last scheduled day. Rather than waste the day, the teams agreed to play a one day, limited overs game between the two sides. A large crowd turned up to see that match, Australian won, and international one day cricket was born. For the next few years, most international tours followed a test series with between one and three one day matches. In 1975, the first World Cup of one day cricket was played in England, with the West Indies defeating Australia in a very exciting final. One day cricket was on the rise, but was still the poor relation of test cricket.

The highest rating television network in Australia, Channel 9, was in the 1970s ownwed by Kerry Packer. (Packer owns the network today, too, although he spent some of the time in between not owning it). Packer was smart enough to observe that cricket, if it has a large following, is almost a perfect sport for commercial television. The game goes for long periods of time, and can thus fill up many hours and days of television schedule time, and it does this in summer, when finding other programming can often be difficult. In addition, cricket has breaks in play between overs every three or four minutes. Normally, these breaks are just slightly longer than a standard 30 second television commercial. (Cricket also has slightly longer breaks for drinks once an hour and after batsmen get out). For this reason, Packer attempted to bid for the television rights to cricket in Australia. He was rebuffed, not for financial reasons but because the governing body was more interested in the national coverage that could be offered by the ABC and that commercial networks could not offer. (Commercial television networks did not have a national reach in Australia in the 1970s, although they do today).

The administrative body of cricket in Australia was not especially commercially minded: although cricket was theoretically a professional sport, it had the structure of an amateur sport. (In many ways it still does. Professional cricket consists of games between teams representing states, countries, counties, and other geographical and political entities, rather than the types of clubs and franchises that exist in soccer or baseball). In the mid 1970s, relations between the Australian board and the players were not good, and the players were badly underpaid. Packer was aware of these grievances, and did a deal directly with the players. He signed up all the best players, and set up his own, rebel cricket competition called "World Series Cricket" (WSC) in 1977, consisting of three teams: Australia, the West Indies, and one representing the rest of the world. (An advantage doing it this way was that he was able to sign up some of the best South African players, who were otherwise banned from international cricket). For two years this organisation played its own matches in competition with the official matches, and (at least in Australia) WSC had most of the best players. WSC was originally intended to consist mainly of five day "Supertests", but was much more willing to experiment than the traditional cricketing authorities. It turned out that there was great interest in one day matches, so the number of these in the schedule was steadily increased.

The Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG) is owned by the state government of New South Wales. This government had no wish to upset the most powerful media mogul in the country, and so the government gave permission for WSC matches to be played at the SCG.
However, the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) actually belongs to the Melbourne Cricket Club, which would not give Packer permission to play his games there. Therefore, another venue had to be found, and the games were played at VFL park, a ground which was built for Australian Rules Football. Football matches were often played at night. As the lights were already there, WSC decided to experiment with night cricket, and scheduled one day games starting in the middle of the afternoon, and concluding just after 10pm. (This was also excellent for prime time television). The traditional red ball did not show up well against artificial light, and a white ball was substituted. This white ball did not show up well against the white clothing traditionally worn by cricketers, and therefore coloured uniforms were substituted.

The night matches were a huge success. In Sydney, with the cooperation of the state government, lights were erected (in the middle of the night, without warning, so as to foil potential protests from local residents) and night games were played in Sydney too. By the second season of World Series cricket, a format had been established: a mixture of five day matches and a triangular series of three teams playing one day matches, in which players wore coloured uniforms, played with a white ball, and in which many matches were played in the evenings under lights. This product was extremely popular with fans, and this success was a factor in the peace settlement that Packer signed with the cricketing authorities in 1979. This was essentially a surrender to Packer. Packer was given the television rights to cricket, a company called PBL marketing (that belonged to Packer) would market the game and essentially control its administration, and each season would consist of test matches between Australia and either one or two other teams as well as a triangular one day series with Australia and two other sides. The one day games would be played with a white ball, coloured uniforms, and many games would be played under lights. The one day game was marketed more heavily than the five day product, and the number of one day games was much greater than anywhere else in the world. Purists (such as myself) claimed that test cricket was a better and more interesting game, but the crowds, sponsors, and television ratings suggested that most people didn't feel that way. In Australia, from time to time we got "Is test cricket dying?" articles in the newspapers.

Thus, by 1979, international cricket in Australia had gone through two years of rapid change, and ended up with a format that remains essentially unchanged nearly 25 years later. Australia was playing a great many more one day games than any other nation. However, it wasn't especially good at them, and its win/loss ratio was only so-so. While most other countries were still using the old format of a test series and two or three one day games, triangular tournaments in Australia featured as many as 19 games. Crowds were large for one day games, but were much smaller for test matches.

What was in retrospect another key factor in changing the game occurred in 1983. The third World Cup was played in England, and it was quite unexpectedly won by India. Interest in cricket was already high, but winning the World Cup (in combination with the spread of television in India, which was just starting to occur) caused it to explode. Inevitably this led to an increase in interest in one day cricket in India as well, and this increased the proportion of one day cricket played there, as well. The 1987 World Cup was played in India and Pakistan, and was a great success (although the hosts were a little disappointed when their own teams were eliminated in the semi-finals). Australia ended up beating England in the final.

In most nations the changes were gradual. The number of one day games played on a tour steadily increased. Lights were gradually installed at a few grounds, which led to a greater number of games in coloured uniforms played with white balls. There was a gradual move towards triangular tournaments rather than series between two sides. (Stand along triangular tournaments in neutral venues were also played, largely for the benefit of television. These triangular tournaments started off containing fewer games than the immense tournaments played in Australia, but they steadily grew.

Australia hosted the World Cup in 1992. Whereas the 1987 event in India had been played using a similar format to the earlier events in England (white clothes, red balls, day matches), the 1992 event was one day cricket in the Australian style. This tournament also marked the return of South Africa to international cricket after sanctions against them had ended. Unbeknownst to most people outside South Africa, a culture of cricket had developed there that was if anything even more brash than what existed in Australia. Lots and lots and lots of one day games, many played under lights with a white ball, lots of loud music, you name it. Tours of South Africa were like tours of Australia, only more so.

From about 1992, the Australian model was adopted virtually everywhere with the exception of in England. Enormous triangular tournements were being played in South Africa, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka. (Not coincidentally, this is about the time when large amounts of money started being paid for television rights, particularly in India). Whereas the 1987 World Cup in India and Pakistan had been played under an English model, the 1996 World Cup, again played on the subcontinent, was an event featuring all the features or cricket that had been adopted in Australian fifteen years before. The final was played in Lahore under lights, where Sri Lanka beat Australia.

As late as 1997, England had played more one day internationals at the Melbourne Cricket Ground than they had on any ground in England. They still played matches in the day, in white clothes and a red ball, and had breaks for lunch and tea. However, even they eventually succumbed. Coloured uniforms and a white ball were introduced for some of their domestic matches. The 1999 World Cup, the first in England for 16 years, was played using a format similar to what was done in the rest of the world. These were the first internationals played in England in coloured uniforms with a white ball, but they weren't the last. A year or so later, England signed a television deal with BSkyB which called for two touring sides every year, and a mixture of test cricket and a large triangular one day tournament, which was to be played with a white ball etc etc. The deal was extremely similar with the one that Australian cricket had signed with Kerry Packer 20 years before.

So, cricket was transformed. Teams were playing huge numbers of one day matches, were playing nine months of the year, and were being paid far better than had been the case 25 years earlier. Some would say that the whole world copied the format invented by Kerry Packer in Australia in 1978, but to be truthful I doubt that was it. Television transformed the sport, but television would have likely transformed the sport in exactly the same way had Packer not arrived. It simply would have taken longer. The contrast is between what happened in Australia, where all the commercial reforms happened at once, and everywhere else, where they came gradually. Had Packer not come along, they would have come gradually in Australia as well. I think it extremely unlikely that they would have never come along. (It might be worth comparing with rugby, which became fully commercial in about 1995).

One question that is worth asking is simply whether the earlier commercialisation that occurred in Australia helped Australia build their subsequently great teams. This one is tricky. Three or four years after the end of WSC, Australia had one of the worst teams in their history. This may have been a consequence of the disruption to the game caused by WSC, or it might have just been bad luck. However, Australia responded to this crisis by reforming the system of player development in Australia thoroughly. The commercialism of the game that existed by then, and the money that was in the game by then, certainly made it easier for them to do this. And of course, the game was not being controlled by traditional administrators at that point: it was being controlled by businessmen who reported to Kerry Packer. Certainly these people were much less sentimental than the sorts of people who ran (and run) the game in, say, England.

Finally, there has been one other interesting transformation in the game in Australia in the last decade. In the 1980s, one day cricket was promoted much more heavily than test cricket, and this showed up in television ratings and crowd figures. However, in the second half of the 1990s, this trend reversed itself dramatically. Crowds for test cricket started to rise, and for one day cricket to fall (although one day crowds remain good). It seems that the large numbers of new cricket fans who had started following the game due to its commercialism were now interested enough in it to appreciate test cricket, and in fact to prefer it. (It may be that once you have watched a few one day games they all seem the same, whereas test matches are subtle and extraordinary things). This trend has been visible for a while, but by this season it had become clear that test cricket was in Australia once again the pre-eminent form of the game and one day cricket was the poor relation. (This trend may have been strengthened by the rise of legspin bowler Shane Warne, whose skills are shown off more by test cricket than one day cricket). A South African friend of mine who visited Australia a year ago was astonished by just how high was the profile of test cricket in Australia.

However, for now, one day cricket is still king in South Africa, in India, and elsewhere. (England is kind of complicated). Certainly in the rise of commercialism and one day cricket, everyone else followed where Australia led. So an interesting question is whether Australia is leading the world again in a trend back to test cricket, or whether this is something uniquely Australian. I will watch this with interest.

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