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Posted on 7 Jul 2022 in Non-Fiction |

BARRY NICHOLLS The Establishment Boys: The other side of Kerry Packer’s cricket revolution. Reviewed by Bernard Whimpress

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An important book about the Australian Test team during the tumultuous years of World Series Cricket from the author of Second Innings.

The major split in Australian cricket occurred 45 years ago when overtures were made to leading players to join media magnate Kerry Packer’s professional World Series Cricket (WSC) just prior to the game’s major celebratory event, the Centenary Test at Melbourne in March 1977. An Ashes tour to England immediately followed as news of defections broke and it became known that all but four members of that Australian team had signed contracts with Packer.

Financial woes were the source of player discontent, and Packer’s aim of securing television broadcast rights for cricket with the establishment of WSC as a rival competition to Test cricket became a bargaining tool.

During the two years of division, labels were applied to each group of players. Packer’s troupe were despised in official circles as playing ‘exhibition cricket’ and being a ‘circus’, while the players loyal to the traditional game acquired the moniker ‘Establishment Boys’. The cricket history of the era has been covered most notably by Gideon Haigh in The Cricket War: The Inside Story of Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket and other books by Peter McFarline, Eric Beecher, Andrew Caro and Henry Blofeld, all with the emphasis on the winners, those who played for WSC.

 The story of the losers, however, needed to be told and former broadcaster and journalist Barry Nicholls provides an excellent synthesis not only of the five Test series played by the Establishment Boys but also brings to life the personalities of many of the lesser lights as well as the background issues and intrigues of the time. As he writes in an epilogue:

Test cricket was kept alive by the Establishment players when world cricket was in a state of uncertainty. They played against full-strength opposition and kept Australian colours flying.

Nicholls offers a sound structure with the opening chapters setting the background for the revolution, followed by four chapters on the Indian tour of Australia (1977-78), Australia’s tour of the West Indies (1978), England’s Ashes tour of Australia (1978-79), and Pakistan’s two Tests and the World Cup (1979). A seventh chapter (just three pages) reflects on the meaning of the baggy green cap before winding to a conclusion with the Australian tour to India (1979-80), reconciliation in the home summer, and a final chapter, ‘Where are they now?’, to complete the tale.

The author has read widely and draws strongly on interviews with more than 30 players. Gary Cosier, Geoff Dymock, Craig Serjeant and Kim Hughes were the 1977 Ashes tourists not invited to join WSC. Cosier had played nine Test matches over the previous two summers, scored a century on debut against the West Indies, and was averaging 46, so his exclusion was ‘central to the saga of those who became known as the Establishment Boys … a story of rejection, perseverance, and success’. Dymock was convinced the disruption influenced team unity, the sense of ‘us and them’, a point reinforced by Cosier regarding an incident in a county game against Nottinghamshire:

‘Kim Hughes and I were walking into the dressing room and everyone stopped talking. We’d gone from a friendly, raucous Australian room to “stop talking, they’re coming”. It was just awful and soul-destroying.’

The sense of pain is palpable.

One of the most appealing elements in The Establishment Boys is the colour and background detail provided on individual players’ paths to the Australian side.

Of middle-order batsman Peter Toohey, hearing of his selection for his country:

That day Toohey was working as a labourer at the Flemington Markets when one of his workmates heard the team announced on the radio. Over the general hubbub of the workplace, he heard, ‘Hey, Toohey, you’re in the Test side!’

For leg-spinning all-rounder Tony Mann, playing for Australia was a childhood dream:

Mann was the son of underarm bowler and Houghton’s Swan Valley vigneron Jack Mann. Known as ‘Rocket’ for his fierce throwing arm honed by hunting kangaroos with rocks, he learned to give the ball a decent loop on the polished concrete 26-yard house back veranda. Tony and his brothers Dorham and Bill recruited a fourth player, the Yugoslav kid from the neighbouring vineyard. Future state wicketkeeper Dennis Yagmich proved useful at stopping the ball from hitting Angela Mann’s prize geraniums.

Of opening and middle-order batsman Rick Darling:

By the time he’d earned his baggy green, Rick had suffered a fractured skull playing football for Ramco as a teenager. Four days in hospital, first in Waikerie and then in the Royal Adelaide. Six months later a shotgun exploded in his face and Darling was hospitalised as doctors searched for shrapnel scattered through his skull. As a boy he had suffered heavy falls while water skiing and been struck on the head by several bouncers trying to hook the ball when batting.

Forty-two-year-old captain Bob Simpson’s triumphant return to Test cricket with 500 plus runs and a 3-2 series win over India in the 1977-78 season were positives for the traditional game, but there was plenty of confusion as selectors continually swapped players and there was no settled batting order. While Australian Cricket Board (ACB) administrators attempted to gain the high moral ground, the situation at the end of the first season was a stalemate.

Animosity between the warring parties remained strong. Each side took pleasure in the failures of the other. The actual difference between Establishment and WSC was less than it seemed – and less than the ACB wanted the public to think.

Australia lost 1-3 under Simpson against the West Indies in the Caribbean in early 1978 and a 1-5 Ashes defeat in 1978-79 was a crushing blow to the Board. It had pinned its hopes on a big Ashes series that would vanquish Packer, but instead WSC attendance figures trebled in the second season. As Nicholls explains:

After the hubris of the 1977-78 season, the Board was worried it was losing the cricket war … Also, by the end of the Ashes, the battleground of the bitter fight with WSC had extended as far as the High Court in London, with no end in sight … Packer’s investment had cost him a staggering $34 million, but he had deep pockets and knew a win in the broadcasting rights meant the loss would be recouped. Sir Donald Bradman had long retired from his ACB chairmanship but retained plenty of administrative clout. Always the pragmatist he secretly met with Packer in his Holden Street home in mid-February to begin the process of reconciliation for Australian cricket.

In his chapter ‘The baggy green’ Nicholls describes Rick Darling taking great pride in having won 14 Test caps and the angst he has experienced when critics have suggested that for players such as himself ‘it wasn’t really like playing for Australia’.

Australia played 24 official Test matches from 1977-78 to the beginning of the home summer of 1979-80, by which time rapprochement was effected and the game reunited. During that time 31 players wore the baggy green cap but (as Nicholls argues) they should not be seen as second-raters. Eight had been part of full-strength Australian sides before the division, 13 were afterwards, and four spanned the era.

Of the players with previous Test appearances, only Simpson and Jeff Thomson (who, because of a lucrative sponsorship agreement with a Brisbane radio station, stayed loyal to the Test side for one year but then defected to WSC) had substantial careers behind them. Cosier had made a good start, as had Graham Yallop (only to be discarded), while Alan Hurst, Dymock, Serjeant and Hughes had yet to make a major mark. Of the 13 who continued in the Test team after the split, Allan Border became the dominant Australian player of the 1980s; Thomson, Hughes, Graeme Wood, Yallop, Rodney Hogg, Bruce Yardley, Dymock and Jim Higgs all made important contributions. The 13 players whose only Test matches came during the divide also included some high-class players, particularly wicketkeepers Steve Rixon, John Maclean and Kevin Wright, and swing bowler Wayne Clark, who performed creditably. Ian Callen was a promising fast bowler whose career was ruined by injury, and Darling probably ought to have received a further opportunity at the top level.

The Establishment Boys is a book that prompts further analysis of the period and one way of doing this is to note the composition of the Australian teams following reconciliation. In the first match against the West Indies at Brisbane in December 1979 the team comprised eight WSC and three Establishment players (Hughes, Border and Hogg) but by the end of that summer Toohey, Dymock and Higgs had been added to make six of Australia’s 18 representatives. The next two years provide a revealing picture. While Australia’s team for the English Centenary Test of 1980 maintained the dominance of eight WSC players in the eleven, Establishment players accounted for seven of 13 representatives during the 1980-81 summer and a larger proportion of the team that toured England for the 1981 Ashes series.

In the last line of his book Barry Nicholls writes: ‘It’s time to bring the Establishment Boys home.’ He has done just that.

Barry Nicholls The Establishment Boys: The other side of Kerry Packer’s cricket revolution Wakefield Press 2021 PB 294pp $34.95

Bernard Whimpress usually writes on sport and his most recent book (co-written with Robert O’Shannassy) is Adelaide University Cricket Club: A History (2022).

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