A Pitch in Both Camps

Published: 1979
Pages: 188
Author: Lee, Alan
Publisher: Stanley Paul
Rating: 4 stars

A Pitch in Both Camps

I first became aware of Alan Lee’s journalism as a reader of Wisden Cricket Monthly many moons ago and back then appreciated his succinct summaries of events on the English county scene. Given that we now acknowledge Gideon Haigh’s Cricket War as being the premier testament to the Packer era, it is refreshing to read Lee’s slim volume from 1979, published at the conclusion of the second, and final, World Series Cricket season. Therafter, the game would change and Mr Packer would have his way with exclusive broadcasting rights for the Australian game, augmented by an annual jamboree of international fixtures each summer. Compelling and deserving of its plaudits though Haigh’s book is, Lee gives us a glimpse of what players, administrators and journalists actually felt at the time.

Lee’s is not the only contemporary account, of course. Bob Willis and Tony Greig both put pen to paper to advance their own fairly polarised stances; Greig as chief recruiter and cheerleader in-chief and Willis very much belonging in the nay lobby, having stayed faithful to the England set-up throughout. Lee’s account, though, is not solely concerned with WSC’s second season. Having embarked on his own alternative to the establishment schedule Packer slammed into the wall of a century of history and the game’s greatest rivalry in his second season of the enterprise. Touring Australia that winter were Brearley’s England, tactfully managed by the evergreen Doug Insole and intelligently led both on and off the field by Mike Brearley himself. It is this dichotomy that Lee wrestles with throughout the book, constantly juxtaposing the new and old worlds; the seemingly staid Ashes series between an Australian team stripped of its charismatic core and an England team led by a captain who was the very antithesis of the cliched larrikin Australian.

Importantly, Lee is all too aware of these stereotypes and is keen to debunk the myths where necessary. England’s Ashes schedule has the players jetting off to far flung parts of the continent to play “country” games against oppostion such as the Western Australian Country XI in Albany. A treat for the locals, perhaps, but not exactly ideal preparation for a Test match. Here Lee treads warily; the “establishment” team were following a schedule that could be construed as bordering on the exploitative, appeasing local dignitaries as the MCC ensured that traditions were met and obligations fulfilled. Meanwhile, WSC, though tough and demanding on the field, was remunerated significantly better with Packer, we understand, taking care to meet players’ welfare. Establishment or WSC, though, a surfeit of cricket was played by the standards of the time with, as usual, much travel. Packer’s band had even hopped across the Tasman to tour New Zealand before returning for their scheduled Supertests.

As ever the tales of touring life reveal a far from tranquil existence, whoever the paymaster. Recently arrived Down Under, perennial insomniac Willis is found pounding the streets in the early hours, unable to sleep and adjust to the mammoth time difference. Botham, on tenderhooks, as Kathy, heavily pregnant back home with their second child, is about to give birth.

The greatest trauma undergone by any England player was, of course, that endured by Boycott. Having just reached his 38th birthday, there were those who were already calling time on his Test career. His form was atrocious, the furore over his future at Yorkshire both draining and ongoing and his mother had recently passed away. Such a combination of events would have been difficult to bear for the sunniest of characters surrounded by friends and family at home. For Boycott, however, an introvert now 12,000 miles away from Yorkshire,the strain must have been close to unbearable. Recalling the team’s travel arrangements, Lee notes that Boycott sat in a no mans’ land between players and journalists, as if unsure who his friends were or where he belonged. Even his tour best 77 at Perth was eked out in over a day’s playing time – painstaking even by his standards. Re-reading the book again highlighted the darker side of life for the touring cricketer and threw into sharp relief the awful experience of Marcus Trescothick in 2006-07. It was to Boycott’s great credit that he would bounce back during the 1979 domestic and international summer and re-establish himself so late in his career.

These were not the only homesick Englishmen, however. In the WSC camp “Deadly” Derek Underwood, forsaking Kent and England temporarily for the star-spangled alternative under lights, led a solitary existence. With his family half a world away, Underwood had chosen to tour alone. For all its on-field flamboyance, competiveness and glamour life in WSC could be gruelling. Anyone who has worked shifts will understand Underwood’s difficulties adjusting his bodyclock to what was essentially the task of working the afternoon shift during the day/night games and Supertests. He missed playing for England, was willing “Boycs” to make a big score and would like to have made contact with Brearley, but was unsure how. “Deadly” also laments his treatment at the hands of the Kent committee back home, some of whom were anxious to dismiss him, irrespective of his long service to the county. Perhaps surprisingly he names a great from the distant past in Les Ames as being the one figure most loyal to him throughout his trials. For all the alleged animosity between the two camps a chance meeting at Sydney airport in November 1978 as WSC were flying out to Perth with England en route for Brisbane, showed that the players themselves got along just fine in the main. Even Boycott and Greig seemed to bury the hatchet as the Yorkshireman sought the South African out and pumped his hand. These were, after all, simply cricketers who were county colleagues, former team mates at international level and now pawns in a battle over television rights and fair pay. As Barry Richards remarked in that brief airport rendezvous wouldn’t it all be easier if the authorities got together as happily as this?.

Lee delivers facinating vignettes and portraits of the administrators at the centre of the WSC operation. The man himself, Packer, portrayed in the Australian drama Howzat as being by turns crude, brash, boorish but capable of lavish generosity and inspiring great loyalty, comes across as a Lyndon Johnson figure: mistrustful of the English press, thin-skinned and hurt by the constant demeaning of his “product” with the use of the epithet “circus”. However, after granting a cursory interview with the patient Alan Lee, Packer presents a more measured and polite figure, albeit one apparently stung by the words of English scribes. Above all, though he divided opinion, one cannot escape the conclusion that he was a genuine cricket enthusiast. His lead administrator, the Managing Director of WSC, Andrew Caro, was an Englishman who was anything but the on-screen MD of the recent Channel 9 two-parter Howzat where the fictional Gavin Warner is portrayed as a stressed-out, pill-popping doormat. Warner may have been a work of fiction but the role – and Caro – were not. Almost evangelical in his zeal, WSC, Caro assured Lee, was the future and the only miracle was that the international game’s administrators had got away with their exploitative treatment of players for so long.

Given the enormity of Packer’s undertaking and the genuinely revolutionary effects that it had on the face of cricket it is perhaps understandable that events on the field at WSC games took a back seat to the politicking. This is a great shame since Greg Chappell, Imran Khan, Viv and Barry Richards to name but a few all rate the cricket they played under the big top of the “circus” as being the toughest and most challenging they ever played. The sheer brutality of it can be seen in the batting averages from that second season: Greg Chappell averaged 26.80 and brother Ian 25.86 for the Australians, while Viv Richards came away with a mean of just 19.33 in 6 Supertest innings. It was a quick bowlers world, however, as Lillee claimed 23 scalps at 16.61 and the big South African, Garth Le Roux, 17 at 15.88 for the World XI.

It was also the advent of the helmet and an advance in protective gear from which the game has never looked back. The motorcycle style SP crash hat sported by Tony Greig and Barry Richards may look plain weird these days but it was the forerunner of later, more sophisticated designs. During the concurrent Ashes series Gower, Brearley and Roger Tolchard all took to wearing more specialist designs. If anyone had doubted the authenticity of WSC then the shocking jaw breaking administered by Andy Roberts to David Hookes validated the exercise, according to Gideon Haigh. From the moment Hookes spilled blood everyone knew Packer, the players and the series was the genuine article.

Given the quality on show it is difficult, perhaps, to understand the public’s initial scepticism and why enthusiasm for the “official” Ashes series remained. A supporter cannot easily be weaned off supporting their national team, though. Ultimately it was the absence of genuine representative international cricket that created a lacuna for the WSC players; the very act of playing for their countries. The bulk of that Australian “second” XI which turned out and was resoundingly thrashed 5-1 by Brearley’s team was larely forgotten after that series. Border, Hughes, Hogg, Wood, Dymock and skipper Yallop would go on to augment the Packer band of brothers in the Australian Test team in succeeding seasons, but it was pretty much an Australian reserve XI that fought for the Ashes in 1978-79. England missed its own stars of course: Knott, Underwood and Woolmer, the Kent triumverate would all return to England colours in the not too distant future. The fledgling West Indies team was signed up en masse by Packer and returned to the offical fold as one of the greatest line-ups in the history of the game two years later.

It is still fascinating now to look back on footage of that second season and see Lillee run in, his remodelled rythmical action casting him as a force of nature under lights in canary yellow. Some careers were made and some were broken; Tony Greig among others was a spent force at the end of WSC. One year later and the real impact of the Packer schism hit home as England returned and even Boycott and Brearley were playing in pyjamas with coloured pads under lights. Now that was revolutionary.

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