Dispute down under: Australian cricket’s civil war

With only four months to go before the first fixture of Test match of cricket’s signature series, The Ashes, there are genuine fears that it may be cancelled. Cricket Australia’s (CA) insistence that a revenue-sharing model that had been in place for 20 years is dropped has created a bitter impasse with the Australian Cricketers' Association (ACA). As a result, 230 players registered to the ACA are on strike and the mighty cricket nation currently has no players to pick from.

Dispute down under: Australian cricket’s civil war

When England’s Test cricketers travel to Australia for the Ashes tour later this year, it could give a new meaning to the term ‘one-sided series’. 

At the time of writing, Cricket Australia (CA) cannot put out a team, as it does not have a single player under central contract.

Once Alex Blackwell became the final Australian woman to lose her wicket in the semi-final of the ICC Women’s World Cup against India earlier this month, she effectively concluded CA’s agreement with its national team’s players.  

Blackwell’s swashbuckling 90 runs off just 56 balls only served to slightly prolong her team’s participation in the tournament, yielding to the reality that of the 33 male and female international players to whom CA had offered 2017/18 central contracts, not one has signed up. 

The crux of the matter is that a revised memorandum of understanding (MoU) - which had been offered to the players by CA - ends a revenue-sharing model that had been in place for the past 20 years. The elite players, despite being offered a 15 per cent increase in their base salary by the sport’s governing body in March, want the existing model to continue, partly because domestic cricketers playing in Australia’s Sheffield Shield would be hit hardest by the move. 

Nevertheless, It is important to note that it is not just the stars of the national teams that have gone on strike. A further 230 players registered to the Australian Cricketers' Association (ACA), the country’s cricketers trade union, have joined them. 

As a result, Australia have already cancelled a planned visit of their second-level ‘A’ team to South Africa and their participation in an upcoming men’s tour of Bangladesh in August is in serious doubt. Moreover, CA’s two biggest money-spinners - the Ashes and Australia’s domestic Twenty20 (T20) competition, the Big Bash League - are four and five months away respectively. A cancellation or dilution of either event would be catastrophic for the organisation’s finances and reputation.

Australia's Alex Blackwell is bowled by India's Deepti Sharma in the semi-final of the ICC Women's Cricket World Cup 

Not since 1977 - the World Series Cricket era, where media mogul Kerry Packer lured the most exciting performers to a rebel league with higher salaries - has Australia’s summer sport been so fractured and divided.  

Although multiple face-to-face meetings, as well as phone and email conversations, have taken place, a compromise still seems to be a long way off. The ACA, with the full backing of the players, remains frustrated at CA's response to its adjusted revenue-model scheme, which included plans to inject part of the player payment pool into the game's lower levels as the Players Grassroots Investment Fund. 

Australia’s men’s vice captain, David Warner, and many of his former colleagues have taken to social media to vent their spleen about the standoff and the out-of-work cricketers have not been subtle about where they feel the blame lies. 

Warner tweeted: ‘Not sure the players can do much more to solve the dispute. We're really proud to offer up to an extra AU$30million for grassroots #fairshare.’ 

What is becoming abundantly clear is that they won’t put on the baggy green - the men’s Test match side’s iconic cap - without an agreed MoU in place. 

 

The top order: who are the leading figures involved? 

CA is the governing body for professional and, perhaps equally importantly in this saga, amateur cricket in Australia. It operates all of the country’s national representative sides, as well as organising and hosting Test tours, one-day internationals (ODIs) and T20 fixtures with other nations.

The organisation also arranges domestic inter-state cricket in Australia, including its first class competition the Sheffield Shield, the Matador BBQs One Day Cup, the Big Bash League, the second-tier Futures League, the Women's National Cricket League and the Women's Big Bash League. In addition, it runs the age representative leagues, as well as the National Indigenous Cricket Championships and the National Cricket Inclusion Championships.

The men at the top of its administrative structure are its uncompromising chairman David Peever, longstanding chief executive James Sutherland, who has been doing the vast majority of negotiating with the ACA, and high-performance manager Pat Howard.

Australian Cricketers Association's chief executive Alistair Nicholson

Peever, the former managing director of mining corporation Rio Tinto Australia, is said to oppose collective bargaining through third parties, a stance that he frequently undertook when dealing with mining unions in his previous position. 

The players view themselves as partners of CA. Peever, on the other hand, is believed to consider them as contracted employees and would prefer the current difference of opinion to be settled directly between management and players without the help of the ACA.

In an interview with ABC, Sutherland - a former first-class cricketer - rejected the characterisation of Peever as a "union buster", adding that "when it comes to cricket, he's first and foremost a club cricketer".

Others take a different view.

“Cricket Australia bears responsibility,” says Gideon Haigh, renowned Australian independent cricket journalist and author. “It was an unnecessary and disproportionate escalation of the dispute, that's had the effect of distracting from what could have been a worthwhile debate about balances of funding.  

“I think the dispute will be resolved by the Ashes, but I wonder at what cost to the vital relationship between players and administrators.”

The ACA, for its part, represents the rights of the professional first-class cricketers in Australia. It is, however, not a formally registered trade union in Australia and is instead recorded as an ‘incorporated association’. The current president of the ACA is one-time New South Wales and Australia wicketkeeper Greg Dyer. The other members of the executive committee are made up of former men’s captain Shane Watson, retired state cricketer and agent Neil Maxwell, and current international team stars Aaron Finch, Moises Henriques and Lisa Sthalekar.   

The man who has been charged with leading the ongoing discussions with CA is its chief executive Alistair Nicholson, a retired Australian Football League (AFL) star, who served on the AFL Players' Association prior to joining the ACA.

 

The collapse: what has brought about the breakdown in negotiations?

While the common consensus is that that it was CA that precipitated the ill feeling, it could be argued that the ACA’s arrogate nature has not helped matters. 

That said, both parties have underestimated each other’s stubbornness and Sutherland certainly could have stepped into negotiations much earlier. Haigh calls his tardy entry a “mind-boggling” decision, “whether or not it was the preference of his board”. 

Essentially the players, who are set to earn a collective AUS$450 million over the next five years, want to continue to be paid from gross revenue, but CA wants to change this to a set pool with a share in surplus funds. 

The ACA’s threat of a lockout - and the players’ insistence to follow it through – was not an idle one but it probably came as a shock to CA and Peever, a successful businessman used to getting his own way. Nevertheless, the two parties do still need each other and the conditions that might give life to a rebel league like World Series Cricket, or an unsanctioned national team, do not seem to exist for now.

“I would not overestimate the possibility of a Packer-style entrepreneur jumping in: in 1977 the game was cheap; now it is dear,” says Haigh. “Mitchell Starc is more valuable in an Australian cap - for the moment, anyway.  And Australian caps need to worn by the deserving. 

 

The balance of the contest: who does public opinion favour? 

“I don't think there's a common feeling [from the Australian cricket public], nor do I think the public is well-informed: the response has echoed existing prejudices,” suggests Haigh, when asked to give a read on the opinion of the Australian public of the impasse. “Some people will always think administrators untrustworthy, some will always think players overpaid prima donnas.  But I would be interested how ten-year-olds are seeing this.”

It is not just Australian fans who will be affected should discussions not be completed by the first Ashes Test on 23rd November. England’s 30,000 travelling fans, for example - many of whom have booked their flights, hotels, tickets and tours - might be hard pressed to secure full recompense, while its official fans’ group, the Barmy Army, could face financial ruin.      

1,100 people have already booked on the approved Barmy Army tour at a cost of between UK£15,000 and UK£20,000. The tour organiser had already committed to paying for tickets, merchandising and T-shirts, as well as catering plans – many of which are unrefundable.  

Retired men’s national team fast bowler Mitchell Johnson, who had a love-hate relationship with the sometimes raucous travelling Barmy Army, said in an interview with Fox Sports that “something needs to happen really soon” to protect the group’s investment. “It is disappointing when you hear that the Barmy Army could go bankrupt,” said the 35-year-old, the man of the series in the last Ashes tour on Australian soil. “We need the players to stay strong but we need to find some compromise somewhere”.

 

"Unapproved endorsements" and intellectual property

A week after his central contract concluded, fast bowler Mitchell Starc, who sits third in the International Cricket Council’s (ICC) ODI bowler rankings, signed a personal endorsement with automotive manufacturer Audi. 

The agreement takes on further significance because it meant the left-arm fast bowler became the first Australian cricketer to take the somewhat confrontational step of commercially aligning with a rival to one of CA’s protected sponsors, whose number includes Toyota for the 2017/18 Australian cricket season.

Pat Howard had previously warned the out-of-contract stars that they jeopardised a future contract with CA if they were to sign an "unapproved endorsement" or agree to massive deals in the lucrative Indian Premier League (IPL) before the MoU is finalised. 

“I think Howard's remarks acted as a kind of provocation [to Starc],” considers Haigh. “They amounted to a secondary boycott. I don't think you'll find many doing such deals.  But someone always was, to demonstrate that they could.

“CA had a very good, simple and convenient deal on intellectual property, which they've now blown. I'm sceptical that the Cricketers' Brand [ACA’s business for managing and commercialising Australia’s male and female cricketers’ intellectual property rights] can achieve much. CA will always be the natural repository of the image rights but the risk is now complication and fragmentation.”

Furthermore, with the continual washing of dirty linen in public, neither the players or the board are doing their respective marketability any good. For example, CA has two as yet unnamed sponsors waiting to replace Carlton and United Breweries as its lead partner but a decision cannot be made if there are no cricket teams to sponsor. 

As Haigh points out: “Who would sign anything under present circumstances? I wouldn't.”

 

Close of play: ramifications, resolutions or compromise 

Despite a recent four-hour meeting between Sutherland and Nicholson, going is still painfully slow and the Australian summer is rapidly approaching. There is, of course, sympathy among many fans for the players, who are ostensibly standing up for their less-heralded colleagues, but there are other observers who would characterise their stance as being as honest as a batsman refusing to walk when they knows they have edged the ball.       

The question also arises as to whether the dispute is indicative of something else: a weakening of the bonds between player and country in an era when the riches of the Big Bash League and, in particular, the Indian Premier League (IPL) provide another source of financial security.

“I think the inference you can draw is opposite,” argues Haigh. “They feel strongly attached to the game here, and to each other - a somewhat counterintuitive state of affairs because, as you say, there is ever greater accent on individual advance in the present day game. The top players could easily have skimmed off the supernormal rewards they were offered. But they didn't.  

People are sick of it. But someone's going to lose face. And nobody will be in a hurry to do that.

“David Warner has played next to no domestic cricket, yet still exhibits a tribal loyalty to those who do. It's interesting.”

The impasse almost had consequences for Sutherland closer to home. His son, Will, is the captain of the Australian under-19 team but also a highly sought-after Australian rules football prospect. The younger Sutherland spent the Australian winter playing for Vic Metro in the Under-18 championships and had been continually being wooed by Australian Football League (AFL) scouts.

Essentially, his father’s inability to come up with an agreement means that Cricket Victoria cannot presently offer him a legitimate contract, something the circling AFL clubs can do. Sutherland did chose cricket in the end, citing his “love and passion for the game” as the main reasons but one wonders what decision another 17-year-old – without a former cricket star as a father – might make in the existing circumstances.  

 

Cricket Australia's chief executive James Sutherland addresses the media outside of its head office.

Sutherland still hopes that the issue can be resolved amicably but confirmed that CA would take the matter to an independent industrial arbitrator should it become necessary. 

Sutherland, said: "To that end, we're prepared to take residual issues to arbitration and we're prepared to take whatever decision comes, in cricketing parlance we're prepared to accept the umpire's decision and move on.

That said, if Cricket West Indies (CWI) and its players can compromise despite years of running battle, albeit for a small selection of games, this saga can be expected to come to an end. 

With the Ashes on the immediate horizon, Haigh supposes that it is “possible” an interim deal could take an Australia team through the lucrative five-match series. However, even if a resolution is agreed upon, the consequences for the organisations, for Nicholson and Sutherland, and for Australian cricket as a whole, could still be ruinous. 

Haigh adds: “The public desire [for a solution] is very strong. People are sick of it. But someone's going to lose face. And nobody will be in a hurry to do that.”