Cricket Australia's relationship with players heads for transformation

Cricket Australia chairman David Peever's (left) views on the employee-employer relationship suggests he thinks the Australian Cricketers Association is meddlesome IDI/Getty Images

October 22, 1997. The first meeting between the Australian Cricketers Association (ACA) and Australian Cricket Board (ACB) takes place in Melbourne. It lasts all of 28 seconds, long enough for the ACB chief executive Malcolm Speed to declare: "We've considered your proposal. We believe it is unacceptable. We reject it and see no further point in discussing it."

December 19, 2016. Another meeting between the ACA and what is now Cricket Australia (CA). The ACA's delegation, led by its chief executive, Alistair Nicholson, arrives at CA's Jolimont headquarters for a meeting to be held in the boardroom. Upon arrival, they are told that talks have been suspended, amid accusations that the players' union has failed to negotiate in good faith. There are no minutes or finish time recorded for a meeting that never even takes place.

How, then, did we get to this point, the first total breakdown of talks between the board and the players since that springtime meeting 19 years ago?

Certainly the issues around women's contractual conditions have been the flashpoint, leaving CA's chief executive James Sutherland and head of team performance Pat Howard to angrily assert the legality of clauses around pregnancy in particular. Claim and counterclaim, leak and counter-leak.

But there is something far deeper at play here. The suspension of talks for the first time since 1997 is highly portentous, because it points to the fact that CA, as outlined by the submission relayed to the players last week, is trying to make the most sweeping changes to the board-player relationship since the ACA was formed.

A long-standing partnership, based around a fixed revenue percentage for the players and an annual grant to fund the ACA, is openly being brought into question by the board. For most of the past two decades, the matter at hand between CA and the ACA has been, "How do we reach a deal?" This time around, CA's query is more like: "Why do we need to deal with you at all?"

It is fair to surmise that this question first began to be raised in earnest when CA's board was overturned completely in October 2012, changing from 14 state association representatives to nine independent directors, many with strong corporate backgrounds. Two of the independent directors were David Peever, the former managing director of Rio Tinto in Australia, and Kevin Roberts, former global senior vice-president of Adidas, the corporate saviour of the outdoors brand Colorado, and latterly CEO of his own company, 2XU. Peever was by his own admission a modest club cricketer; Roberts was accomplished enough to have made two centuries for New South Wales.

"CA's present reasoning behind breaking up the model seems to be based around the need to free up more cash to be spent at the grass roots of the game - an old echo of the idea that greedy elite players are robbing their counterparts down the chain"

The current MOU between the players and the board had been struck earlier in 2012, before either Peever or Roberts arrived. It was largely a continuation of previous agreements, with added clauses around T20 and also some form of performance bonus payments, off the back of recommendations inked into the Argus review of 2011. Howard, less than six months into his job, had been a major negotiator for CA; Paul Marsh, nearly a decade into his role as ACA chief, led the way for the players.

Marsh had always been known for speaking his mind in public but at the same time maintaining relationships behind the scenes that allowed negotiations to continue fruitfully - not once during his time did the two parties find themselves unable to speak to one another. Marsh was a key player alongside Howard, Sutherland and the players in deliberations over replacing Mickey Arthur with Darren Lehmann.

But that sort of partnership, while familiar to Sutherland, is anathema to the likes of Peever, who, in the same year he joined the board, spoke bluntly at a mining conference about the employer-employee relationship. "Direct engagement between companies and employees, flexibility and the need for improved productivity has to be at the heart of the system," he said at the time. "Only then can productivity and innovation be liberated from the shop floor up, and without the competing agenda of a third party constantly seeking to extend its reach into areas best left to management." The ACA, then, is not seen as a partner but an outside meddler.

Another factor in CA's thinking is the success in changing the financial model for the states. Also in 2012, the board moved away from an outmoded equal share of revenue to each state, offset by the gate receipts for larger centres, to a more strategic model that guarantees a minimum amount for each state and leaves the upside in CA's hands for strategic investments. That change was successfully pushed through six often irascible state associations; the ACA may look like small beer by comparison.

There have been times in the recent past that the ACA has not helped itself, espousing views that have sounded either reactionary or just plain wrong. A proposal for the Big Bash League be played in October, outside school holidays, was never likely to get far, nor president Greg Dyer's suggestion that 2016 - five years in - was the time to introduce private ownership to the BBL. Some of the ACA's scepticism about day-night Tests has also proved too alarmist by half. More than once, CA directors and management have styled the players' union as "the opposition party".

Undoubtedly that is the impression CA has tried to give to the ACA. Ever since Nicholson arrived to replace Marsh in late 2014, he has been kept at arm's length from the top tier of CA - spending very little time with Peever or Sutherland and having most of his conversations with either Howard or the head of cricket operations, Sean Cary. Whether this was Sutherland's idea or Peever's is not clear, but it has created a distance that, with the addition of the need for detailed and robust MOU discussions, has now become frostiness.

As a counterbalance to the awkwardness created by Howard's role in 2012, when the players were confused as to how the man appointed to help them perform could be playing hardball on contracts, Roberts has stepped in as CA's lead negotiator, having left the board to join management last year. Not surprisingly given his previously stated positions on industrial relations, Peever has been more involved than any CA chairman since Denis Rogers back in 1997-98. He has even retained the services of an advisor - the former Industrial Relations Commissioner Ken Bacon.

Peever's involvement is yet another subplot to it all, for it means that Roberts has a chance to deliver an MOU for the chairman that would help expedite his own elevation - as is widely expected in the future - to replace Sutherland as chief executive. It should not be forgotten that Sutherland himself gained his Jolimont spurs in taking on much the same role, earning the trust of Speed by working successfully with the ACA's then-chief Tim May.

Over his time working with the ACA, Sutherland can best be described as a pragmatist. In the 2007 book on the board's history, Inside Story, Sutherland described his concept of the board-player accord thusly: "My view of the MOU is that there are four or five issues you can't really resolve. So what you do is trade them off." Later in the book he actually mounts quite a persuasive case for the retention of the revenue sharing model:

"Sometimes there's a feeling around the place that it wouldn't be a bad thing to break away from that share of revenue. Personally I think it's now too difficult. I also think it has a lot of benefits. It makes it clear what the players can and can't do, and it's simple to understand."
CA's present reasoning behind breaking up the model seems to be based around the need to free up more cash to be spent at the grass roots of the game - an old echo of the idea that greedy elite players are robbing their counterparts down the chain. Yet there was plenty in the board's submission that did not stand up to even the most cursory scrutiny. The assertion that only the top 20 CA-contracted players, not domestic players or women, deserve to share in a fixed revenue percentage is difficult to comprehend.

"International men are amongst the highest-paid sportsmen in Australia and CA believes this should remain the case in the future," the board argued in its submission. "CA believes the players who contribute to financial returns should continue to share in those financial returns. CA believes retainers for international men should increase significantly compared to the retainers that were agreed on in the current MOU."

Yet it is undeniable that through the BBL and now the WBBL, both attracting enormous interest from commercial broadcasters, domestic and female players are contributing more to the financial value of Australian cricket than at any other time in the game's history. Even before the BBL began, many of its start-up costs were bankrolled by domestic players taking part in the much-maligned Champions League T20.

And this is all without mentioning the Sheffield Shield, the breeding ground in which all those players who "contribute to financial returns" are developed. Unless CA is keeping much of its programme at the National Cricket Centre in Brisbane a closely guarded secret, it is not yet possible to grow a fully formed international cricketer out of a board-approved test tube.

So it is clear that CA and the ACA are as far apart in their core positions as at any time since the players first banded together in 1997. Around the time that it was formed, one senior player retorted to a question about the strength derived through collective bargaining via the union with the words "it's not a f***ing union". Whether the current generation likes it or not, a bullish CA has identified the ACA as such. The question now is how much the players are prepared to fight to keep it.