Cricket is a sporting code that divides this nation; you either love it or hate it. Less polarising, however, is Channel Nine’s newest cricket feature Howzat: Kerry Packer’s War. The first episode of the mini-series has already won unanimous votes of approval from the Australian public, and rightly so. It is one of the best pieces of Australian drama you’ll see this year.
Howzat takes us back to the 1980s, re-telling Kerry Packer’s famous battle with the world’s leading cricket bodies. In arguably the performance of his career, Lachy Hulme summons the controversial Packer, with the help of some fantastic make-up work. Hulme’s Packer is curt, aggressive and vulgar, epitomised best when he compares his secretary (Mandy McElhinney, of Rhonda fame) to a “sack of potatoes”.
Yet for all of Packer’s unlikeable character traits, the audience is always behind him. Packer demands reverence from not only his peers, but his audience; we’re too afraid to not like him. This is a huge credit to Hume, director Daina Reid and writer Christopher Lee, who have transformed one of Australia’s richest people into an unlikely protagonist.
It can be argued that this film will only appeal to cricket lovers. It’s a fair call, given that half the appeal of Howzat is matching up moustached B-grade actors with their cricketer counterpart. Todd from Life Support is Rod Marsh (Brendan Cowell); Shackleton from Balibo is Greg Chappell (Damon Gameau); and Patrick from Offspring is Dennis Lillee (Matthew Le Nevez).
Ten minutes in, this reaches new heights of novelty when ’90s all-rounder -cum-Getaway presenter Brendon Julian plays a news anchor. But thankfully the acting throughout Howzat is convincing enough for one to soon look past the curious casting decisions.
While this is a film about cricket, Howzat is so much more. Much like The Castle, it’s a battle between the common man and the law-making authorities. It’s about passionate people protesting their rights in the face of career-threatening sanctions. In this respect, Packer – an otherwise wealthy mogul – isn’t representing himself, but the underpaid cricketers being exploited by a conservative authority.
At times Howzat can appear like a product placement for Channel Nine’s Wide World of Sports, especially with Messrs Benaud, Chappell and Greig key characters in the story. But such a cynical attitude is unnecessary; Howzat is gripping television that will capture the minds of Australian viewers. And it might even win some new cricket followers in the process.
Howzat: Kerry Packer’s War premiered on 19 August. The second part of the mini series will screen on 26 August at 8.30pm.