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By Gulu Ezekiel
Three decades after the release of the Australian TV docu-drama ‘Bodyline’, the small screen Down Under is once again witness to the portrayal of a real-life cricket drama, though of more recent vintage.
Channel Nine Network’s ‘Howzat! Kerry Packer’s War’ is fascinating, gripping and infuriating in equal measure, just as ‘Bodyline’ was back in 1982. The stormy ‘Bodyline’ series between England (MCC) and Australia way back in 1932-33 threatened to split the Commonwealth and severely strained diplomatic ties between the ‘Mother Country’ and its Dominion state.
The TV series was released to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the iconic Test series and the ‘Howzat!’ release marks 35 years since Packer’s World Series Cricket (WSC) burst on the scene so dramatically. WSC did not have political implications in the manner of the Bodyline tour. But it did briefly split the world of cricket and changed the face of the game forever.
Just as the TV series depicting ‘Bodyline’ played hard and fast with the historical (and technical) facts as it painted Aussie hero Don Bradman as an angel and English captain Douglas Jardine as the Devil incarnate, so too ‘Howzat!’ shows Packer in positive light as cricket’s messiah out to rescue the world’s cricketers from near-bondage.
Famed Anglo-Australian cricket historian David Frith dubbed the ‘Bodyline’ TV series “dangerous faction” in an editorial in his magazine Wisden Cricket Monthly back in 1982. Being an Australian production it was naturally slanted to the Aussie view of things. But much of what it depicted is till today in India accepted as gospel truth after the series was telecast on the state TV network ‘Doordarshan’ back in the mid-80s. It drew a massive audience and even those with no interest in cricket were drawn to watching it avidly.
Packer (who died in 2005) being head of the Nine Network—the channel that launched WSC in 1977 and revolutionized televised cricket—‘Howzat!’ too is a piece of cricket propaganda which gives the channel’s ‘official’ point of view and depicts Packer as always willing to reach out and compromise with the authorities who stonewall him repeatedly. Of course it also shows his fierce temper and foul mouth and the cruel manner in which he treated his subordinates. But then all this was public knowledge even during his lifetime.
All the leading lights of WSC have for the past 35 years been singing from the same hymn sheet in praising their former boss and benefactor who for sure brought about a sea-change in the way cricket was telecast, played and administered.
It was not all rosy though and every now and then a dissenting voice—one of the lesser lights like former Australian pace bowler Len Pascoe for instance—will break ranks with his WSC buddies and talk of how they knew in their hearts that the games were nothing but exhibitions and how Packer ditched them all once he got what he wanted.
In Packer’s case it was the rights to telecast all official cricket in Australia on an exclusive basis on his channel rather than on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) which had been showing cricket Down Under for decades in a cozy deal with the Australian Cricket Board (ACB).
It was fascinating back then to see actors depicting cricket heroes like Bradman, Jardine and others in the ‘Bodyline’ TV series. But the majority of the viewers were not familiar with players of that generation. For me the most riveting aspect of ‘Howzat!’ was to watch those who we have seen in flesh and blood—Dennis Lillee, Tony Greig, Ian Chappell, Clive Lloyd and others—played by actors on screen.
As one would expect from such a professional network, the production values of ‘Howzat!’ are top class. The way famous incidents—for instance Australian David Hookes having his jaw broken by West Indian Andy Roberts in the first WSC season in 1977-78 (there was only one more the following year)—are depicted, with actors morphing back and forth with actual historical footage edited so slickly one can hardly tell the difference.
That particular Hookes incident is one example where historical facts have been distorted, whether by ignorance or deliberately is hard to tell. It shows England batsman Dennis Amiss becoming the first cricketer to wear a helmet BEFORE the Hookes incident. Actually it was after that horrific moment that Amiss led a parade of players to don protective headgear, initially in the style of motorcycle crash helmets in order to survive the relentless barrage of fast bowlers that WSC reveled in.
Also, when Hookes did return to the crease after surgery it was not Joel Garner who bowled the first ball to him as depicted here, but in fact Roberts, whose expected bouncer was gloriously hooked out of the ground. There is also a brief shot of the actor playing the West Indies captain Clive Lloyd as a right hander, despite the real Lloyd being one of cricket’s greatest ‘lefties’.
Also, the complete erasure of former Australian captain Kim Hughes’ role in snubbing Packer is baffling unless one has read Chris Ryan’s masterly book ‘Golden Boy: Kim Hughes and the Bad Old Days of Australian Cricket’ which so expertly depicts how the stalwarts of WSC cricket—the Chappells (Ian and brother Greg), Lillee and Marsh--victimised and hounded out Hughes from international cricket once WSC was disbanded in 1979 and most of the ‘rebels’ returned to the ‘official’ fold with Packer and his channel now in charge and pulling the strings of Australian cricket.
One of my favourite scenes is the trial of coloured balls to be used under lights after WSC had broken new ground by introducing ‘night cricket’ and the red ball was found to be unfeasible. Greig and a handful of players and a TV crew took out a box of various coloured balls with Lillee sending them down to Ian Chappell with the lights on. And it was finally the white ball that was found to be the most suitable for a form of cricket that is now played all over the world.
The bonus disc has the original 20th anniversary documentary as shown on Channel Nine’s Wide World of Sport programme in 1998.
‘Howzat!’ is highly recommended. But just like ‘Bodyline’ thirty years earlier, there should be a statutory warning on the box cover: “Please watch with a large pinch of salt.” Instead the warning reads: “Frequent Coarse Language”—all courtesy Packer except one memorable scene where the big man gets a taste of his own medicine from none other than the legendary ‘Chappelli’.