Cricket, the stately summer sport that spawned baseball, is currently experiencing the roughest innings of its centuries-old history. For the game, which helped to knit the British Empire in its heyday, is being confronted by changes and challenges that have aroused bitter controversy.

At the center of the controversy is Kerry Packer, an Australian television and publishing tycoon, whose father spent millions vainly trying to wrest the America Cup away from U.S. yachtsmen.

Armed with money and driven by determination, Packer is trying to commercialize cricket. His critics, most of them memebrs of the traditional establishment, allege that he is striving to "Americanize" the game by turning it into big business.

Within recent months, his checkbook in hand, Packer has poached 50 top players and created four new teams to rival the international cricket circuit that has, in quiet gentlemanly fashion, existed for years.

Packer's financial offers have not come close to the magnitude of U.S. football or baseball. He has been signing up stars for the equivalent of $30,000 a season, about three times what they have been earning.

He has succeeded in winning over the captains of the official English, Australian and West Indian teams and other players, who are now touring Australia.

Moreover, Packer's injection of relatively large funds into the sport has prompted the game's establishment to compete for attention on his terms. Thus the managers of the Australian and Indian teams are seeking television time, press coverage and mass audiences in order to keep up with what they derisively call "Packer's Circus."

AUSTRALIA'S Canberra Times, remarking on Packer's plan to televise night matches, said that "cricket under lights is as natural as football under water." The Guardian, one of Britain's more progressive newspapers, summed up the Packer approach in apocalyptic terms: "The world as we know it is about to end."

Packer, who once played a bit of schoolboy cricket, is investing some $6 million in projects designed to commercialize its future. He has perceived that cricket, which Rudyard Kipling labelled the pastime of "flanneled fools," has become a hot property.

The five-day Australia vs. England match, held in Melbourne early last year to celebrate the centenary of the annual event, attracted a half-million paying spectators, and though not tramsitted on commercial channels, it was viewed by 75 per cent of the television audiences here and in Britain.

At first, Packer made a bid to buy the exclusive rights to show matches on his own commercial television networks, but was rebuffed by the international authorities who control the game. They preferred to limit broadcasts of the sport to public networks throughout the Commonwealth.

Undeterred, Packer came up with the bold notion to form his own teams and devise rules tailored to television's need for sustained action. The positions of the players would be rearranged to bring them into closer camera range, and they would be equipped with microphones so that their comments could be heard during the game.

THE PURISTS accused Packer of turning cricket into something akin to professional wrestling, and the British Broadcasting Corporation, scarcely a disinterested party since it has had a corner on televising the game, compared his scheme to a religious heresy.

But seen realistically, cricket has become increasingly vulnerable to a takeover by a shrewd promoter.

Run by dedicated and often unpaid administrators, the game has earned profits only when the big international matches have taken place, and even then there has been little left over after epxenses to pay the players well. A star, for example, has never received more than $100 per day.

Packer's first season has been going slowly, perhaps because most fans still cling to tradition and perhaps because he has been preoccupied by legal battles with the cricket officialdom, which has attempted to blacklist his contract players.

But bulwarked by his enormous bankroll, Packer is contemplating the idea of taking his own cricket league to any country with ball parks and color television, including the United States.

A move to the United States would not be inappropriate, since the first international cricket match was played in 1859 in, of all places, Hoboken, N.J.

Because the game was alien to the Americans in that contest, they were permitted to field 22 players against the regulation English team of 11 men - which furnishes Packer with the precedent to argue, as he has been, that the rules of cricket are not so holy as to be altered to suit circumstances.