The Joy of Six – The Benson and Hedges World Series Cup
1. Come on Aussie C’mon
These days one-day internationals are a little bit like Wes Anderson films; there’s too many of them, they all look the same and you can never quite escape the feeling that the best ones happened at least ten years ago. There are a variety of reasons why Australian punters seem to have no great interest in attending them these days, some of which relate to the points above but also social factors beyond the control of cricket and its administrators.
It wasn’t always like this, of course. Not back when he had no internet, no pay-TV, no live broadcasts in each game’s host city and no real idea how to sensibly spend entire days of our leisure time. Back then cricket had only a few weeks of Grand Slam tennis with which to compete for the entire summer and a single screen on which most of our eyes remained focused, even during the adverts.
In that time the Benson and Hedges World Series Cup was where it was at. To be entirely truthful we didn’t flock to those games in the numbers that present-day scaremongers cite (Melbourne ODIs were lucky to pull 60,000 by the early 90s) but the pyjama game certainly ruled the TV ratings and by comparison with recent fixtures, we attended in droves.
Before YouTube and Netflix, the appeal of sitting on a hard plastic seat (or standing? Remember actually wanting to do that?) for eight hours seemed endless. Thus we spray-painted terrible puns onto bed sheets (oh look, another “Declaration of Waugh”) and hoisted them in the air as banners, we slapped on our terry toweling hats, we bought the souvenir tour guides and Channel Nine propaganda pamphlets - still walking away with change from a $10 note – and marvelled in the peerless humour of calling Richard Hadlee a wanker all day. If it was the 23rd over and Hashan Tillkaratne had dug in for the long haul, we headed for the bar.
Yes, the triangular-format Benson and Hedges World Series Cup was King, and we were its willing subjects, happy to be drenched in beer and hit with pieces of roast chicken (or a whole frozen one if your name was Pat Symcox) every time the bogans of Bay 13 went up. Modern cricket and its followers don’t seem to have time for such lengthy endeavours unfortunately, but the endlessly churning hamster wheel of the cricket schedule goes on and on. A quickie 5-game series against a single international side is not necessarily what you want but it’s what you’re given.
We should always remember the Benson and Hedges World Series Cup – fondly glorifying it, misremembering how slow the net run rates actually were, perennially overrating some of the ropey touring sides who made up the numbers against Australia and the West Indies and convincing the generations below us that it was cricket nirvana because occasionally, it truly was. Remember Sarfraz and Imran? Larry Gomes and Gus Logie? Ewan Chatfield and Lance Cairns? Asanka Gurusinha and Ravindra Pushpakumara? Okay, you get the point.
The thing is, hurried bilateral series’ make financial sense in cricket’s current ecosystem, but they’ll never replicate what we once had in the Australian summer tri-series. They were lovingly spread across a leisurely summer. Games felt like they had some broader meaning and actually led to finals.
We can never go back, of course, and not all of it was brilliant, but if the time does finally come for international cricket to croak it, who wants to bet that it’s not with a well-paced tri-series or a 6-Test Ashes battle, but another bloody seven one-dayers between India and Sri Lanka.
2. Money, money, money
By the time World Series crashed the straight-laced party in the late 70s, cricketers and a great deal of their younger audience were happy for the change. World Series Cup one-dayers probably would have succeeded no matter which corporate partner forked over the cash and plastered its name on the banner, but there remains something powerful and resonant about the marriage of sport and commerce that was the Benson and Hedges series’.
By the time the one-day game had taken off in the Packer era, the wallets of advertisers and sponsors were fatter than ever and both booze and smokes made their play for sport. B&H had been an official sponsor of the Australian Board since 1973, but they went all-in on one day cricket. For a decade and a half the two were synonymous and even now the brand is evocative of something lost.
There is an uncomfortable by-product here of course. Many of us non-smokers never found that the pairing of big tobacco and cricket influenced our life choices but it’s no stretch to say that others were pushed to the brand on account of its association with the game and perhaps even the fact that players themselves were walking billboards the minute they left the field and lit up a dart.
Society now compels us to hold tobacco companies in utter contempt, which is fair enough, but I have to be honest and say I could never hate the Benson and Hedges brand, not when they footed the bill for appearances of the likes of Roger Harper, Abdul Qadir, Graeme LaBrooy and Mohammad Wasim.
In that sense, not much had actually changed. Tobacco company propaganda infiltrated cricket as early as the 19th century when manufacturers slipped trading cards into packs in the hope of luring young fans toward their product. Indeed much of the commercial expansion of the game in its traditional strongholds as well as new frontiers was underwritten by cigarettes; Rothmans in England, Benson and Hedges there and in Australia and Imperial Tobacco’s ‘Wills’ brand in India.
Print ads from the time would be a scandal now with their changeroom montages. In them a players’ kit wasn’t complete without a baggy green cap and a 20-pack of B&H. The World Series Cup was their masterstroke though. Long after cigarettes are taxed out of existence and an entire generation views them as a cringeworthy historical oddity, old fogies will look back with a wry smile at memories of the Benson and Hedges World Series Cup. To this day you still see those distinctive golden Benson and Hedges World Series Cup team posters framed on the wall of dodgy pubs and immediately feel at home.
Even better was Channel Nine’s Schweppes Classic catches, a pop-cultural phenomenon from which the soft drink brand still wears a halo. That popular segment shone a bright light on acrobatics, one-handed flukes and downright showboating. By the end of the 80s Nine was getting a staggering 250,000 entries per summer for the promotion. Those weren’t lazily phoned in or sent via SMS, either; you had to write out your selections (the 0055 number came later) and post them. That would just sound like a sick joke now. Would they even get 250 entries? You’ve got to be in it to win the P&O cruise of the Caribbean, people.
3. Lights, Camera Action – the Channel Nine broadcasts
These days Channel Nine’s cricket coverage has grown so infuriating that you almost forget how revolutionary and, well, marvellous it really was in the beginning. On account of the innovations brought to the table by Nine’s WSC-era TV sports genius David Hill, for the first time we were treated to multiple camera angles, something that’s now taken for granted but certainly wasn’t by those who watched entire days of play from behind the bowlers’ arm at one end.
Richie Benaud once said that Hill’s mantra was, “Before opening your mouth, make sure your brain is in gear.” It’s a simple piece of advice but one from which the present-day coverage would certainly benefit. Where to even start with Nine’s coverage of the World Series Cup? With Tony Greig sticking his car keys in the pitch, I guess. The magic marker helped us learn about field placements (sort of) and the late 80s saw the introduction of stump cam (“The older viewer, for the most part,” noted Richie Benaud, “was close to apoplexy.”).
There was Tony Greig’s Weatherwatch station, sometimes un-sponsored, at other times backed by Rexona or Dulux, because nothing screams “paint the house” like a 50-year old man squatting on a cricket pitch pointing at an incomprehensible dial. Eventually the Weatherwatch “leapt into the computer age”, which meant data from a Unisys laptop that would now only serve as the basis for an internet meme. Of its ten different “sensors” at least seven were probably useless. What was the “players’ comfort” reading, exactly? “Light intensity” was a favourite, as was “barometric pressure”.
Sure it was superfluous information but it was still far more appealing than cross-promotions for The Block.
Perhaps all the many naff elements of current-day broadcasts will one day seem gloriously retro and we’ll think back on them with fondness, but surely not like we do when we remember Richie, Bill, Tony and Ian in full flight. So now, dear readers, if you’re heading off for some lunch, make sure you get back to the sofa in time for the 18-foot skiffs.
4. The uniforms
Show me a cricket fan whose heart isn’t warmed by the sight of Benson and Hedges World Series Cup uniforms and I’ll show you a liar. This colourful innovation can obviously be traced directly to the Packer incursion, but things didn’t actually get off to a great in the first officially-sanctioned summer of one-day in Australia in 1979-80. Fearful of change, Mike Brearley and his English side not only baulked at innovations such as the new limited overs fielding restrictions, but refused to don the new “pyjamas”.
Thus that inaugural series was played in dowdy whites with coloured stripes down the side.
Thereafter it was sports fashion nirvana for a good 15 years. The ‘canary’ yellow with green side panels somehow made an even greater sight of the brawny specimens donning Australian caps (and also provided a colourful back-drop to the underarm incident, it must be said), while powder blue, maroon, lime green and beige surely reached their zenith.
Everyone has their favourites; the cross-bar designs of the mid-80s are revived in VB promotions for a reason – people will never stop loving them; baseball-style script lettering and fancy player name lettering (which first appeared in 88-89) bridged the gap between the 80s and 90s and the lightning bolt designs of 92-93 were brilliantly daft. Is it any wonder that Benson and Hedges’ eventual departure as naming rights sponsor brought with it the end of cricket kit design’s golden era? Now it’s as though only designs featuring the liberal application of gradient, southern cross stars and random colour splotches get a gig.
5. When the Player-of-the-series actually received an award
One thing about Australia’s recent Carlton Mid Series against the Proteas that struck me as being particularly inept was the perfunctory and unceremonious manner in which Steve Smith was acknowledged as player-of-the-series, receiving little more than a handshake before Mark Nicholas threw to the end credits and another post-cricket airing of Christopher Reeve-era Superman.
This never would have happened during the World Series Cup, especially not on Tony Greig’s watch. Back then he would have been stationed in his specially-constructed awards presentation area, probably with a giant three-dimensional Channel Nine logo on the wall behind him. In addition to a handshake and interview, the man of the moment would at the very least receive a tray of golden goblets, perhaps a $500 cheque and maybe even a Baccarat crystal ships decanter (classy), which was upgraded to the coveted gold-handled ice bucket - on a plinth, no less - for the man of the series.
At one game in 1989-90, Greig missed with illness and watched on in horror at home as the lights went out on fill-in Max Walker and Imran Khan right as the novelty cheque was about to change hands. The process only became more overblown when the “International Cricketer of the Year” received his award.
Who could forget Craig McDermott and his teammates bombing around the MCG in a pair (because by that point one car alone was not a sufficient prize) of Toyota Rav 4s? Or the slightly less sexy combo of a Toyota Corolla Seca and also a Vienta Touring Sedan the following year?
Sure players now earn enough money that cars might seem slightly gauche prizes, but Simon O’Donnell never looked happier than when he was perched on the bonnet of a $60,000 Land Rover Discovery after the 1990-91 summer. Curtly Ambrose scored a Nissan Patrol for his efforts two years later. A year before O’Donnell’s win, Imran Khan ended up having a “Sorry I won the car” t-shirt printed after he was a most unpopular winner of the metallic silver Rover 827 Vitesse. People’s champion Dean Jones would have to make do with some gold goblets and the love of a nation. At least he’d be in with a show for the Nissan Maxima a year later…
6. Neutral games
Often now we’ll lament that a great number of one-day internationals in Australia are essentially meaningless, mainly because they’re devoid of context beyond ICC rankings and nobody really cares about those until their own country is on top. Yet only fifteen years ago, give or take, is felt entirely reasonable that 10,000 people might turn up and watch India play Zimbabwe at Hobart. It was the era of the neutral game on local soil.
For those of us who now become hypnotically glued to TV sports as marginal as European handball and Indian Super League soccer, opportunities for exotic sports-watching were a little thinner on the ground in the pre-cable days of the 80s and early 90s. That’s why 10,235 people turned up to the SCG to watch New Zealand play England in the 1990-91 World Series Cup. The TV audience would have been a significant multiple of that figure, too. At those games (only 4,650 turned up for the equivalent fixture in Adelaide), you had the opportunity to stretch out across a few seats and marvel and the wonders of Danny Morrison and Wayne Larkins. What’s not to like about that?
I guess next year we’ll again get the chance to see just how dedicated Australian sports-goers are in this respect (West Indies vs Zimbabwe at Manuka Oval anyone?) when the World Cup rolls into town. Ticket prices probably play a part here. In the early 90s a child could attend a Benson and Hedges World Series Cup game at any venue for anywhere between $6 and $14 and adults usually for only $10 more than that. At recent T20Is around Australia you mightn’t have had much change from a $100 note.
In the 80s and 90s of course, Adelaide and Brisbane both boasted a double-header weekend of ODIs every year and they were set aside in the calendars of local cricket lovers, even the neutral games. Now a lot of us don’t have time to scratch ourselves and make do with TV. Not all of that is the fault of cricket’s bosses but you wonder how often they look back on the salad days and take lessons.
At the end of the day though it’s about the games themselves and World Series Cup cricket left us with many lasting memories. Everyone has their favourites; Phil Simmons taking 4/3 from 10 overs against Pakistan in 92-93; Mike Whitney’s near lap of celebration after catching Tendulkar in the second final of 91-92 at the SCG; Fanie de Villiers and his remote control car in 93-94; Anthony Stuart’s hat-trick of 1996-97; Ronnie Irani’s slog-sweeps of 2002-03; Deano risking life and limb in telling Ambrose to take off his wrist-bands.
Or England crumbling against the might of Brian Strang and Heath Streak, obviously.