England have been to hell but are looking at the stars now
It is an appropriate time to be celebrating one-day cricket, given we are 40 years on from Kerry Packer's great heist. Not that Packer started one-day cricket, not close, just that he embedded its commercial power and changed forever the way in which the game was financed and broadcast. World Series Cricket featured most of the great players of the day, though those two memorable Australian summers sorely missed Graeme Pollock, along with the very best of the Indian players, such as Sunil Gavaskar and the spinners.
The Pollock story is too convoluted to explain in full, other than to say that, yet again, a fine South African cricketer was denied by the apartheid policies of his government. This was particularly unfair given the acceptance of other South African players such as Barry Richards, Mike Procter and Clive Rice, who had played county cricket - the no-objection certificate of the day!
The reason for the absence of the Indians has never been crystal clear. For sure, they were fearful of the response of their board of control, or indeed, of their government. At the time of recruitment, WSC was cloak and dagger and then seen as rebellion by the time the first ball was bowled. India were touring Australia in 1977-78 and then playing Pakistan the following summer, so it is as simple as: none of the players either wanted to miss those series, or dared to.
That first summer of 1977-78 was far from a smash hit. Crowds were desperately disappointing and some of the logistics hit a wall. Because the major Test match grounds refused to give Packer any access, the first "Super Test" was at VFL Park, an Australian Rules football ground in a relatively inaccessible part of Melbourne's Eastern Suburbs. West Indies won in three days but only 13,885 people turned up. The next Super Test was played at the Sydney Showground, slap bang next door to the SCG. Again West Indies won in three days, and this time 23,762 people turned up. There was, however, a momentary and almost Machiavellian upside to the downsides. David Hookes' jaw was broken by an Andy Roberts bouncer, a delivery so lethal in both intent and execution that the public were shocked into realising that WSC was far from a circus act.
Ten months later something simple but game-changing happened: a Channel Nine television commercial blew everyone's socks off. It showed close-ups of the leading Australian players in a new canary-yellow trim and was set to a catchy tune with an easy partisan lyric.
"Come on Aussie, c'mon, c'mon / Come on Aussie, c'mon / You've been training all the winter and there's not a team that's fitter / And that's the way it's gotta be / Cause you're up against the best, you know / This is Super Test, y'know / And you gotta beat the best the world has seen."
It was brilliant; still is. It launched the second season and was every bit as big a boost as winning the battle against the New South Wales Cricket Association to have matches played at the Sydney Cricket Ground. This writer arrived from the UK fresh out of school at exactly the time the ad was taking root as the soundtrack of the summer. We all sang it and knew every word. The next thing was to get to Sydney and see these guys in action.
To be at the SCG for a one-day match between Australia and West Indies, sitting on the Hill on the night of the fullest house - the night Packer threw open the gates - was electrifying. Official figures record that 44,377 people were there. It felt like double that. By now the players' kit had a palette of colour - that yellow for the Aussies, coral pink for West Indies, pastel blue for the Rest of the World - and the night-time spectacle drew gasps of admiration from us all. The stage the players had been given was beyond our imagination. WSC formed the aspirations of a new generation of cricket lovers, all of whom were awash with the originality and sense of optimism in the cricket played.
In the years that followed, Test cricket reverted to its more traditional course but a template for the one-day game had been created, and remarkably, it is pretty much followed to this day. Packer televised the annual 15-match, 55-over Benson and Hedges World Series triangular tournament on his network, and the stealing of the trophy from under Australian noses became the greatest thrill for all-comers. These days there are only rare sightings of a three-team tournament, but a face-off against Australia at night in front of huge crowds continues to pump the adrenaline of those who visit like very little else.
England were slow to catch on to the reformation. Having introduced 65-over one-day cricket to the world in 1962, the Test and County Cricket Board pulled it back to 60 overs a side the following year, and in so doing, all but cornered the market until Packer turned up.
But Packer was anathema to English cricket administrators: gauche, loud-mouthed and, worst of all, commercial. Neither the man nor his methods were embraced, and thus, until the millennium, one-day series in England remained in the best-of-three format and were played during the day in white clothes with a red ball. Various sponsors came and went: some happy, some not so. There were a few good men - Graham Gooch, Neil Fairbrother and Darren Gough of English descent; Allan Lamb and Robin Smith from South Africa - who mastered the game's pace and options, but in general, England played one-day cricket as if regulated, or worse, shackled.
Not that the players were much fired by the overdue introduction of more matches over fewer overs and a willingness to play them under floodlights. In damp conditions, the English way often prevailed but when the pitches were dry, or when bat balanced against ball, England were too often found out for lack of imagination, flexibility and power. There were occasionally glorious moments but nothing to fall back, no mantra from which could come ambition and belief.
The watershed came after a stupefyingly feeble campaign at the 2015 World Cup in Australia, when the embarrassment of losing a make-or-break qualifying match to Bangladesh was too much to bear. The captain, Eoin Morgan, made his thoughts clear, and even the most conservative corners of the English game accepted that a change of attitude to one-day cricket was not only necessary but inevitable.
That change came almost immediately, with the appointment of Andrew Strauss at the helm of the England team. Strauss made strong decisions about personnel and gave clarity where confusion had reigned. He confirmed Morgan as captain and endorsed the "no fear" approach that characterised the world's best players. His hired Trevor Bayliss, an Australian with white-ball pedigree, as coach, and told him to prioritise the one-day game. He made winning the 2019 World Cup in England a key part of his mission statement, insisted that the 50-over game occupied a more relevant space in the county cricket calendar, and encouraged the best to go and mix it in the IPL.
This gave Morgan a mandate to which he could refer in both good times and bad. It loosened off selection, every bit as much as it did those chosen. It encouraged a sense of adventure and demanded a more dynamic and audacious approach. Suddenly the players let their minds run free, and from this their spirit came alive. To the naked eye, the fear of failure was outlawed, though it should be said that it is an unusual sportsman who does not have the nasty little man gnawing away somewhere at the back of his mind.
With the Champions Trophy imminent, England can be installed as favourites on their own shore. Opponents admit to fearing an awesomely powerful line-up of batsmen and a varied bowling attack that learns its lessons quickly and applies them with courage and skill.
The top order loves to swagger, the middle order loves to bully and the bowlers work as one through those ghastly days when the game turns against you and Lady Luck offers her favour elsewhere. Morgan reacts sharply to what he can see and, of late, has begun to pre-empt the best and worst of times. The really good cricket captains appear to have psychic qualities and respond to situations before they get out of hand. Morgan is acquiring something of this gift. Undoubtedly his moment is now. The cruel loss of the T20 World Cup final to West Indies in Kolkata has, to follow cliché, strengthened his players. They have been to hell but are back with a smile and now promise something far brighter and rewarding.
Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel Nine in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK