I was old enough to know that cricket – Test cricket, the glorious game that kept me indoors all summer long with the curtains closed, the better to see the television – might be stopped. I was old enough to know that if something was all over the papers (front pages and back), that this was no idle threat. I didn’t know what “boycott” meant (wasn’t he a player?), nor what the whole thing had to do with the circus – a Christmas Day “treat” I could do without, thank you Mr BBC. But I was old enough to know that the Australian villain of the piece and his buddies sounded more like the kind of people I was beginning to side with.
The older I got, the more I respected the men who were vilified in my teenage years. Drawing on much of the material covered in Gideon Haigh’s majesterial history of World Series Cricket, The Cricket War, Howzat! Kerry Packer’s War is a three hour dramatisation of the events that led to the media mogul’s comprehensive victory over cricket’s ancien regime and the ushering in of just about everything we consider modern in the game. Cricket went from Cliff Richard to John Lennon in two years.
Designed beautifully to render the relentless ugliness of late 70s fashion, haircuts and interior design as a realistic backdrop, the two-part television movie gets plenty right. Packer is portrayed with in all his lonely obsessive ruthlessness by a gimlet-eyed Lachy Hulme, who pulls off the considerable feat of capturing this bullying businessman’s charisma. Packer’s love for the game leeches through the teak hard exterior on occasion, as does his insecurity in his inability to read well and (inevitably) the abusive dead father he continually sought to please, the engine of his will to win.
If Packer is not exactly the hero of the hour, the villains are definitely the old buffers in blazers desperately hanging on to their power over players who would no longer consent to being treated as little more than serfs. There are scenes that have some of the humour of Bruce Beresford’s The Club, as the twentieth century barges into a nineteenth century world of unearned power and misplaced priorities, but caricature is always held at a safe distance.
And the cricket? Well, the cricketers look right. Bushy ‘taches? Check. Paunches? Check. Smoker’s coughs? Check. There’s plenty of Tony Greig’s feisty careerism in Alexander England’s blond giant and the testosterone, never far away (except in the curiously asexual Packer himself) almost gushes from the screen when Dennis Lillee (Matthew Le Nevez) and Ian Chappell (Clayton Watson) lock horns in a very Australian motivation routine.
But the cricket? Well, I can report that the contemporary footage still looks good. This is a serious piece of work that avoids the melodrama of the infamous 80s Australian mini-series Bodyline. It shows just how risky World Series Cricket was for all involved (especially the “disapproved” West Indians who didn’t even have David Hookes’ job in a tyre depot to fall back on if their bans were upheld and WSC folded).
What catapulted cricket from the nineteenth century to the twenty-first century (barely pausing on the way), was the will of a flawed man, a man with psychological difficulties aplenty, but a man who inspired and reciprocated a fierce commitment to his cause.
Cricket owes a big debt to Kerry Packer and I’m glad he lived long enough to see some of that debt acknowledged.
You can tweet me at @garynaylor999.