The ICC Cricket World Cup is getting more and more glamorous as years pass by. Until 1975, when the first World Cup was held in England, cricket strictly meant Test Cricket. The one-day games had begun at county levels in England but they were not for the serious-minded. Test matches were the holiest form of cricket and any attempt to change that would have been considered outrageous. As a matter of fact, the first cricket World Cup in 1975 was not even called the World Cup. There were only 15 games in 1975 and the level of public interest was low. ICC was not exactly proud of its new invention that threw up the one-day format. Therefore, when the tournament sponsor Prudential insisted on calling the tournament as Prudential Cup, ICC did not mind. West Indies was dominating cricket in those days and it was nearly impossible to beat them. They had the best batsmen, top-quality bowlers and every team feared playing against them. They won the 1975 World Cup but the silver trophy that Clive Lloyd held aloft in 1975 didn’t have World Cup inscribed on it. It was Prudential Cup instead. In cricket’s bible Wisden too, the name World Cup 1975 doesn’t exist.
Despite transformation of the purest form of cricket into something dramatic, one-day cricket had a factor of infinite value. Unlike test cricket, the shorter format produced definite results like other everyday sports. Cricket in 2015 is vastly different. The steady transformation of the game from 5-day dour affairs, which led to drawn affairs at times, to those hinging on last-ball results, brought unprecedented thrill. In later years, the advent of broadcasting technology made cricket even more romantic and colorful. Commercial houses began vying with one another for sponsorship, TV rights and advertising. With money pouring in, cricket stars turned from appallingly paid souls to super rich, who ran businesses while also playing cricket. The 2015 ICC World Cup is going to be very different from all its past editions. Beginning on the romantic Valentine’s Day, the extravaganza will have 42 matches involving 14 teams playing over 43 days. There will be an estimated global TV audience of over 1 billion, which may not match the size if compared with Olympic Games or football World Cup but considering that only a few nations play cricket, the event is still capable of generating significant business revenues.
The roots of cricket acquiring huge commercial potential lie in the infamous Packer Circus of the mid-seventies, whether one like it or not. Kerry Packer was a playboy with deep pockets, who was barely 40 when his father Frank Packer passed away in 1974. As a lone heir to his father’s media business, Kerry took charge of Australia’s Channel Nine. The ratings of Channel 9 were in dumps and Kerry had a bright idea. He decided to target the sports-crazy Australians by getting more programs on his Channel. What occupied his mind was a weird variation of cricket and he looked for some like-minded guys for support. Until then, cricket broadcasting rights rested with the government-owned Australian Broadcasting Corporation or ABC. There was no money in broadcasting and other Channels shunned the idea.
Packer offered 1.5 million Australian Dollars to Australian Cricket Board, ACB. This bid was 7-8 times the existing bid from ABC. But bound by tradition, ACB awarded the contract to ABC for AU $210,000. Packer felt cheated but didn’t give up. He went to England and made the same offer to Test and County Cricket Board, TCCB for broadcasting rights for Australia’s tour of England in 1977. ACB was against Packer and they advised TCCB to keep him at bay. But Packer doubled his offer, which the TCCB found difficult to reject. Having committed a huge sum of money, Packer began nursing an audacious vision of cricket involving top world stars, on whom he set his eyes. His idea got transformed into the controversial World Series Cricket, WSC, where Packer wanted an Australian XI playing a series of matches with a Rest of the World XI. Without giving too much publicity, Packer connived with the then England captain Tony Greig and the just retired Australian Ian Chappell. These players kept the affairs to themselves and within three months secretly signed 25 players from around the world. The sum of money offered was too staggering to be refused. When the news got leaked, the hell broke loose on world cricket. The first axe fell on Greig, who was stripped off his captaincy but somehow managed to hold on to his place in the team. Slowly the official cricket boards banned the Packer signatories and teams lost their inherent strengths. Australia lost the Ashes 3-0 because many of the players were with Packer.
To solve the stalemate, an ICC team met Packer in mid-1977 at Lords. After 90 minutes of deliberations, Packer said, he would stop if he was granted exclusive broadcasting right post 78-79 Australian cricket season. Since the issue was outside ICC’s control, they couldn’t commit anything and Packer stormed out of the meeting room. ICC retaliated by banning the Packer players from Test and first-class cricket. The players felt cheated as well and many of them returned to playing regular cricket. In the meantime, Packer, Greig, John Snow and South African Mike Proctor filed a petition in High Court to prevent a third party, ICC from influencing the players to break their contracts. The court decision was against ICC and the players could have the best of both worlds but Packer was asked to avoid terms like “Test Match” or “Australia” and he could not use the official rules of cricket, copyrighted to the MCC.
Financially the WSC was a failure but Packer still won because he had the wealth. By the second quarter of 1979, ACB began to negotiate and Packer got what he wanted, and more. Not only did he acquire the TV rights but he also secured exclusive ten-year promotion and marketing contract that he exploited to the full. While many players returned to mainstream, Greig never played again and instead took a media job with Channel Nine.
The commercial accrual in modern cricket is but the legacy of Packer’s defunct WSC. Today, players are well-paid and they are superstars. On the field too, one can see the WSC innovations like floodlit matches, colored kit, white balls, fielding circles, helmets, drop-in pitches and motorized drinks-carts. They may not acknowledge, but cricketers are the beneficiaries of Packer’s hurricane marketing of cricket.