Insomniacs, invalids and cricket obsessives (step forward yours truly) were probably the only people who stumbled on it, but BBC4 put out a cracking drama from Down Under the other day called Howzat! It was subtitled ‘Kerry Packer’s War’ and was a rumbustious retelling of how the Australian media millionaire put a bomb under the sport with World Series Cricket, complete with Boogie Nights moustaches, preposterous hairstyles and tight, tight shorts. There was no doubt who were the show’s villains (that would be the uptight suits at Lord’s and the MCG, not to mention the intimidating off-screen presence on the phone of an ultra-traditional ‘Sir Donald’), and who the downtrodden heroes (that would be the cricketers, often forced to take part-time jobs to make ends meet). When the handsome but angsty David Hookes threatened to leave WSC because he doesn’t want to risk his job at a garage in Adelaide, Packer replied, ‘Listen mate. I’ll buy the fucking garage and then you can work when you want.’
Packer’s ferocious destabilising campaign can be seen clearly as one of the principal forces that helped to turn international cricket into the global money machine it now is. Amid the corporate hospitality, champagne tents, food villages and banqueting suites at Lord’s last week, the spirit of the grisly old hammerhead shark was probably smiling grimly. In Packer’s day, an Aussie team could field Ian and Greg Chappell, Rod Marsh and Dougie Walters, not to mention Lillee and Thomson. They would all have been welcome in the dressing room at Lord’s — to bawl out their underperforming countrymen if not to put on some whites themselves.
What has happened to Australian cricket? That was a peculiarly dismal contest at Lord’s, no matter how much Cook , Swann, Prior and the rest big up the skill of the Aussies and say what a hard game it was. On Saturday England put Australia on the floor and suffocated the life out of them. But by golly it wasn’t much fun to watch. The first two sessions were teeth-numbingly dull, and by the time Root and Bell let rip after tea, the Aussies were out of the game. Now they seem bust: Michael Clarke should be on some sort of self-harm watch, and Shane Watson under protracted psychiatric care. The exhausted bowlers, who have tried their hearts out, must be looking daggers at their dismal batsman, who managed to secure them just a few overs’ rest during Friday’s batting collapse. Now poor James Pattinson, who got just a couple of hours to put his feet up, has pulled out of the rest of the series.
But at least a solution is at hand. Cricket Australia is extending its Big Bash League by two weeks to two months over the heart of the Australian summer, slap bang in the middle of the return Ashes series. What better way to build the latest squad of young Aussie batsman than have them flogging 75 in 30 balls for the Melbourne Renegades or the Perth Scorchers?
The last time Australia had such a bad string of defeats Kim Hughes resigned in tears and Allan Border took over, the catalyst for turning Australia back into a side of hard bastards. Where is the modern Border? Not Clarke, surely. And definitely not Shane Watson. Maybe David Warner, the Birmingham pugilist, could be the man to bring back the mongrel.
And as for all this winning, what about a bit of excitement? The Lions climax ended with a blowout; Murray, brilliant and brave, was a straights-set victor at Wimbledon; there was never any doubt who was going to win the Tour de France; even the Open was wrapped up by Mickelson with several pairs still left on the course. Isn’t the edge of your seat a better place to be occasionally?
Roger Alton is an executive editor at the Times.