The WSC Transition
Russell Degnan

Bradman and Packer: The deal that changed cricket - Dan Brettig

Of the various revolutions to convulse cricket since its inception, the Packer one has garnered the most attention, and courtesy of several decades of Nine commentators, the most praise.

In its own way though, it was the least impactful on the nature of cricket. The International revolution, when Australia first defeated England in 1877 then, more importantly, followed up with tours and further victories in England was part of a continuum of touring sides dating to William Clarke's All England Eleven. But the Australian Eleven was a box-office draw like no other, and set the shape of international Test Match tours that continues almost unabated to this day.

The Board of Control takeover, from 1905-1912, that saw tours shift from the hands of Player's Elevens to national boards, concomitant with the founding of the ICC was less revolutionary, with almost no impact on the general public, but had enormous influence on the nature of cricket administration and player payments that eventually led to World Series Cricket 70 years later. More recently, the advent of domestic T20 has had more significant impacts on the shape of cricket than any event since the advent of the International game.

The ructions caused by World Series Cricket were significant, but short lived. The "peace treaty" was signed in 1979, but the public face of cricket, particularly in Australia was changed forever.

Most histories focus on those public changes: the white balls, coloured clothes and changed emphasis to ODI cricket. Dan Brettig's new book focuses on the private changes, and most importantly, the role of Australian cricket's most important figure: Donald Bradman. In doing so, it makes the Packer revolution look less like a revolution, and more like an extended transition from amateur to professional cricket board.

International cricket boards exist for three purposes: to administer the game, to act as a monopoly employer of cricket talent, and to sell a product. The Board of Control takeover was a victory for the first of these tasks at the expense of the latter. In the Board's eyes, the player led tours were reaping undue rewards from a product they had no right to control. It was a victory for establishment amateurism and sporting purity.

Bradman came into international cricket 16 years after the Board takeover in the dying days of players having control of their income. League cricket - with more in common with today's T20 leagues than County cricket - could still lure Sydney Barnes and Learie Constantine with reasonable salaries; and some of the older Australian test players had played with those of the earlier era of player control. Some, like Victor Richardson, had markedly different approaches on and off the field to Bradman who, despite an early run-in with the Board, was philosophically and politically inclined to the establishment. As a member (and for most of that period, Chairman) of the Board for 35 years he did more than any other to entrench a Board approach that focused on the administration of cricket at the expense of labour.

The graph above provides an inflation adjusted (to 2012) summary of cricketing salaries from 1893 to 2018, taken from Trove news articles and Brettig's research for the WSC/PBL era. The Players era pre-1912 provided variable but healthy incomes from tours to England (and therefore higher when home receipts are considered) that exceeded what cricketers would earn from the game until the Packer revolution.

Not that tours were unprofitable (at least to England) in the ACB-era. Players could expect around 50,000 in today's money for their six months on tour. It was the home salaries that lagged, and even a late increase (undercut by rising inflation) prior to World Series Cricket did little to bridge the gap between what they earnt, and what Packer was willing to pay.

Brettig picks up the story in 1979. Both Packer and the ACB were haemorrhaging money trying to compete for local interest, the ACB for lack of star players and control of their game, and Packer for lack of cost control. The untold story, until now, of Bradman and Packer agreeing to treat for a resolution puts these into perspective. Packer had no need to retain either the players nor overall control of cricket; his interests lay in selling the product and in Bradman he found an unlikely ally.

The stability of player incomes over almost 50 years was underpinned by the inherent conservatism of the Board. Its membership was driven by continuity. A certain amount of income was received from ticket sales, an amount allocated to associations and player expenses. Bradman didn't believe in full professionalism, but he did believe in attractive cricket and his later writings showed plenty of willingness to embrace innovation in the game. Unlike most of the board, paralysed by fury and disbelief, Bradman was pragmatic and readily acceded to Packer having not only the TV rights, but the marketing of the game via PBL in exchange for certainty and control.

The deal was a fleecing of the ACB, but it made sense for a Board entrenched in the amateur era. As Brettig describes the post-WSC period, it took almost a decade and a South African rebel for the ACB to realise that they were seeing a fraction of the money coming in to cricket. For players on the ACB books, renumeration was well above the pre-WSC era, but remained well below what it could have been.

There was a further issue with PBL having marketing control of the game, and that was their focus on ODI cricket as the core product of Nine's summer. Test matches and ODIs were interspersed throughout the 1980s and early 1990s with the tri-series competition given higher standing and better promotion. Lynton Taylor as Chairman of PBL marketing had no problems telling the ACB that Test cricket was dying. Average crowds declined through the 1980s as Australia struggled, and beyond before reaching a nadir in the early 1990s when the MCG was hosting as many days of ODIs as Test matches with three times the average crowds.

A change had been sweeping through the Australian Cricket Board though. Empowered by younger business oriented members in Malcolm Gray and Graham Halbish, the retirement of Colin Egar and Bradman (officially), and the success in hosting the 1992 World Cup the board took back control of selling their product.

The "revolution" in the management of Australian cricket, that started in 1977 with WSC, became a Board transition that didn't end until 1994 (if not later when it achieved independence from the State Associations). Whereas the Bradman-era Board was unwilling to treat with Packer, then blindsided by his ability and willingness to outbid them for players, the Board from the mid-90s on has been more frequently accused of being for players and product over administration. The players, empowered by the Board's growing income, unionised and ensured their contracts soon jumped far above the y-axis of graph shown above.

The rhythm of cricket changed too. Test cricket returned to the centre, and not unremarkably, soon recovered both crowds and prestige. The ODI tri-series carnival that drip fed cricket into lounge-rooms nightly for the entire summer went into a terminal decline, was progressively shortened, and finally replaced by domestic T20 cricket.

This book provides an important glimpse into these changes, the personalities involved and the downsides to Nine/PBL's control of many aspects of cricket in an era otherwise tinged with nostalgia and a belief that everything changed, when in some important aspects nothing changed at all, and in others the change was fundamental, but much more drawn out than supposed.

Idle Summers 4th March, 2019 00:39:38   [#] [0 comments]