Could this just be the most turbulent phase in cricket? There are multiple signs that suggest so. The most powerful board in international cricket, the Board of Control for Cricket in India, has been outvoted by the rest of the International Cricket Council panel to end the dominance of the “Big Three” (India, England, and Australia). West Indies, as always, have their contractual disputes going and seem to continue with their home season without the best players who are playing the Indian Premier League.
The IPL itself has just about managed to emerge from the shadows of fixing but lost two major franchises in the process. South Africa has seen players leave because of the selection policies. Unsurprisingly, Pakistan are beset with problems on most fronts – the biggest being the inability to host a series at home. Perhaps the greatest shock in recent months has been the payment dispute and the television rights issue raging in Australia.
With the proliferation of Twenty20 leagues in virtually every country, cricket boards are faced with an extremely tricky situation. One costly mistake could see an exodus of players to the lucrative leagues. Does it seem like the toughest time for the game? Perhaps not, actually.
Step forward, Kerry Packer
World Series Cricket, a brainchild of Kerry Packer, stunned the cricket world in the 1970s and shook the very foundations of the sport. Despite all the naysayers, it became apparent in the years after WSC that the concept had done much more good to the game than bad.
Many draw parallels between the IPL and WSC. On some fronts, the comparisons are justified. But on many others, WSC differs significantly. Packer, a keen cricket fan but an exceptionally shrewd businessman saw an opportunity which nobody else did. Top cricketers were paid a pittance by their cricket boards in the 1970s and had to often rely on an additional source of income to keep their life going. Cricket, it seemed, had not yet embraced the concept of professionals and was still stuck in a mindset that favoured only amateurs – who played the game purely for the joy of it. Needless to say, many players were disgruntled and were quietly rebelling against these policies.
World Series Cricket turned the game upside down
Packer had tried negotiating television rights with the Australian Cricket Board but received no support. Undeterred, he went on to state that he would run a parallel cricket league on his own and bring the best of players on board. Buy players, build grounds, fly drop-in pitches, introduce coloured clothing and flood-lit games – all this seemed a fairytale proposition to most but Packer went about executing each of these and turned the cricketing world upside down. WSC brought on board the best cricketers from Australia, England, and West Indies, who were quickly emerging as a cricketing powerhouse.
In addition, Packer also managed to sign up top South African professionals who had been playing in the leagues in England following their country’s ban from international cricket. Regular Test cricket continued around the world with most teams featuring second-string and back-up XIs. Most boards kept believing that WSC would fail quickly but that did not happen.
From initially being called a “circus”, the series became a massive hit in Australia without any compromise on the quality of the players and contests. In sharp contrast to the ordinary quality of batting and bowling in most T20 leagues nowadays, the quality encountered by players in WSC was top class. Every major player who featured in the series has gone on to speak about the fearsome bowling, the exceptional batting line-ups and the improved quality of fielding in WSC. Many top batsmen were ruthlessly exposed against high-class fast bowling.
Truly world-class cricket
Few batsmen came out with their reputation unscathed and an even smaller number actually managed to showcase how good they really were. In November 2015, Cricket Australia declared that players’ WSC stats would now be recognised. What made these stats so impressive and highly valued? Let us find out by running through some numbers.
WSC severely depleted both Australia and West Indies, and to some extent, England and Pakistan. The teams that continued playing international cricket for these countries were at best second-string sides. India travelled to Australia in 1977-‘78 and played a series at the same time as the first WSC season. The Australian team which had virtually no major international star was led by Bobby Simpson who was recalled from retirement. In the subsequent years, India scored a victory over a patched up West Indies team and Australia were crushed 5-1 by England. Meanwhile, what unfolded in the WSC contests was something totally different.
A look at the top batsmen across the seasons of WSC tells the story. Barry Richards, who played for the World XI, was in supreme touch. After a dream start to his career in the 1969-‘70 series against Australia, he had lost out on what could have been a glorious international career because of South Africa’s apartheid ban. Facing up to the finest fast bowlers, Richards scored 554 runs in five SuperTests for the World XI at an average of close to 80.
Vivian Richards and Greg Chappell came into WSC in prime form and continued to prove why they were by far the best batsmen in international cricket at that point. Richards, who played for West Indies XI and the World XI, averaged over 55 and made four centuries while Greg Chappell demonstrated why he was acknowledged as one of the finest players of fast bowling by scoring five centuries and averaging 56.60. A telling statistic that highlights the quality on offer in the breakaway tournament is the fact that almost 90% of the top 15 batsmen and bowlers in the four years leading up to the first WSC season (1974-‘78) were all playing in WSC.
Ian Chappell is famously said to have remarked about how difficult it was to get back into form if one was facing Lillee, Holding, Garner and Roberts every second day. One of the batsmen who found the going extremely difficult was Zaheer Abbas. The Pakistan great who feasted on most attacks in the subcontinent, managed to average just about 30 during WSC and was never comfortable against the high-quality pace bowling.
It wasn’t just the famed West Indian fast bowlers and the Australian quicks. The batsmen also had to contend with Imran Khan, the legendary Pakistan all-rounder, and Mike Procter and Garth le Roux, two outstanding South African bowlers who performed brilliantly in first-class cricket. While Lillee and Roberts picked up the most wickets (67 and 50 respectively), Roux and Procter finished with the best averages (15.88 and 16.07).
The above table below provide a good idea of how competitive and challenging WSC was. While Barry Richards made everyone sit up and imagine how good he might have been, Vivian Richards and Greg Chappell matched their pre-WSC form. Both Clive Lloyd and Gordon Greenidge did not fare well in WSC but had a much better time of it post the WSC stint. Zaheer Abbas’ numbers do tell the story of how he failed to cope with the bowling attack.
Mike Procter was yet another case of an exceptional talent to miss out on a great international career. His WSC numbers show just how good he was. While Lillee, Roberts and Holding bowled just as well during the tournament as they did in their pre and post WSC phases, Imran Khan lifted his bowling to a seriously high level in the years after WSC. Given that nearly every top bowler was operating at his peak during WSC, it becomes evident how hard the batsmen would have found it.
The World XI and West Indies XI were the two top teams in the WSC years. World XI which also had the services of Clive Lloyd, Vivian Richards, Gordon Greenidge, Andy Roberts and Joel Garner during the 1977-’78 season won five out of their six matches. West Indies won three and lost four of their 11 Tests. In contrast, the West Indies team playing international cricket went on to lose a series in India and struggled to hit the consistency they had managed in the three years leading to WSC. Australia were heavily hit by WSC and their international performance suffered greatly. From being the best team in the four-year period leading up to WSC, they crashed to a major low with a win-loss ratio of just 0.44 in the WSC period.
West Indies cricket has WSC to thank
In the movie Fire in Babylon, there are multiple references to WSC making West Indies cricket and cricketers highly professional. It was perhaps Packer’s timely criticism (and threat) that changed the way West Indies approached their cricket. In the years after WSC, West Indies emerged as a devastating unit that dominated the 1980s. With their glittering array of batsmen and the fast bowling armada, they went about crushing every major team. The challenging contests in WSC had a lot to do with the transformation of West Indies from a good to a great unit.
The chart below shows the win-loss ratio of the four teams that had players participating in WSC. Australia suffered a major dip in fortunes during WSC given that their best players were away. They did get back to winning ways immediately after WSC but were never quite the dominant force that they were in the mid 1970s. England had their best run during WSC and enjoyed wins over Australia’s weakened squad but were quickly brought down to earth by a full-strength Australia and the powerful West Indies.
West Indies struggled a bit during WSC but came out of it the strongest and dominated the whole of the next decade. Pakistan were easily the second-best team in the 1980s and enjoyed a golden run when they provided West Indies with the strongest challenge. It is pretty clear that WSC proved to be a shot in the arm for most teams and lifted the players’ skill level.
In the majority of T20 leagues being played nowadays, players are paid huge sums but the quality on display does not quite match up. It might be a completely different format requiring very different skill sets but the performances are unlikely to have recall value because the context and impact are missing. WSC provided the cricketers with their sternest examination ever.
While the best stood out and forged great careers, many fair-weather batsmen were made to look ordinary. It is scarcely believable that WSC stats of players have not yet been made official. The modern game owes a lot to the innovations that WSC brought. It may just be appropriate to have the world’s best Test team play a World XI featuring the best of the other teams annually.
The attempt in 2005 in Australia failed as a contest simply because the World XI lacked the preparation needed to take on the might of the Australians. But with the right planning, preparation, and execution, an annual three-Test series (including day-night Tests) between the top Test team and a World XI could just be our generation’s only chance of reliving the high quality and brilliance that was on display during WSC.
(Madhu has worked in the stats team in ESPNCricinfo. He spends most of his spare time connecting every number he sees to an obscure stat from the game.)