Australian cricket's lifters-and-leaners moment

Brettig: Players want a significant say in financial matters (4:17)

Daniel Brettig explains the implications of Cricket Australia's financial wish-list (4:17)

In May 2014, Australia's then treasurer, Joe Hockey, handed down his first federal budget in which he characterised a point of difference between those who contributed to the nation's economy and those who did not. "We must always remember that when one person receives an entitlement from the government," he said, "it comes out of the pocket of another Australian." His speech ended with the phrase "we are nation of lifters, not leaners".

A little less than three years later, a similar sentiment pervades Cricket Australia's formal pay offer to the Australian Cricketers' Association. The recurring theme is that international cricketers fund the game, and are doing their domestic colleagues a mighty favour by bankrolling state and Big Bash League contracts.

The document is littered with references to how international players deserve credit for sharing the money they earn with domestic players. On page six: "CA commends international men for continuing to support domestic cricket." Page eight: "International men should also be commended for continuing to support domestic players." Page 21: "International men deserve significant credit for supporting domestic players given that domestic cricket does not generate a financial surplus."

In summary, Australia's international players have been deemed the game's "lifters", and domestic players the "leaners". Following that logic, CA have indicated that rises in domestic player wages will be minimal over the next five years, with only international players eligible to share in any surpluses above projections.

"The logic applied to the pay offer would appear to suggest that Australian cricket exists in distinctly separate realms: international players having nothing to do with their domestic counterparts. This is a hard claim to justify"

Even this measure, allowing international men and women to share in the money raised from the staging of the matches in which they play, is merely vestigial next to what was available in the past. It is the only sliver of "blue sky" left for any players under the current deal, in sharp contrast to the fixed revenue percentage inked into all previous pay deals between CA and the ACA.

Yet, the logic applied to the pay offer would appear to suggest that Australian cricket exists in distinctly separate realms: international players having nothing to do with their domestic counterparts and vice-versa. This is a hard claim to justify in light of the fact that the Sheffield Shield has long been described as the breeding ground for Australia's Test team, while the recent growth of the BBL has put domestic players at the forefront of an area that stands to reap rich financial returns for CA over the coming decades.

It has been odd to hear CA's chief executive James Sutherland consistently talking up the BBL's burgeoning status as a source of new fans but also new revenue for the game over the past six years, then contorting his logic in the context of the pay offer by saying: "It's true that on the surface, the BBL may be starting to break even in certain quarters, but we've still got a very significant deficit from previous years". Estimates for next year's looming renewal of the BBL television rights deal have its value tripling from A$100 million (US$76m approx) to A$300 million (US$227m approx).

Equally, all the game's broadcast and commercial partners are happy to invest in Australian cricket out of the belief that domestic competitions are strong enough to produce international players whenever necessary. The success of the likes of Matt Renshaw and Peter Handscomb, two players moulded as much by the Shield as anything else, over the past season confirmed that this low-profile competition is vital to maintaining the standard of talent coming into the teams that generate the revenue CA builds its operations around.

This is all without mentioning that CA has itself been pushing for greater cooperation across the nation over the past eight years, starting with the Australian Cricket Conference in 2010. That event led to reforms such as the start of the BBL, the introduction of an independent CA board of directors, and even the adoption of a national philosophy called "One Team", meaning that CA and the state associations should all be pushing in one direction, leaving old differences behind. The pay offer's repeated assertions that domestic players do not contribute to the financial whole make for quite the contradiction to all this - One Team, or divide and conquer?

Cast in the role of Hockey for CA is Kevin Roberts, the board's head of strategy and people, appointed after serving first as one of its first independent directors, and a former Sheffield Shield cricketer himself. Roberts is fair-minded and sharp, and has at least avoided Hockey's mistake of being caught smoking a cigar on the day the 2014 budget was announced. But like the former treasurer, he has been caught between competing demands and ideologies - those that have been in place for two decades, and those of the new board and its chairman, the former Rio Tinto managing director David Peever.

Things get curiouser still when examining the rich - and deserved - increases in pay allocated to female cricketers under the offer. In explaining why CA has moved to bring greater financial rewards to the women's game in advance of the financial returns it currently gains, the board states that research suggests a past deficit is in need of correcting: "Independent experts have highlighted that the historical disproportionate investment in international men's cricket relative to international women's cricket has contributed to the value differential between the two."

That is an undeniably fair justification for bringing full professionalism to women's cricket down under. But it is also an argument that may be applied to domestic cricket across the board, given how the BBL has flourished with the help of greater investment to promote the competition and its players. CA's appeals to find more money for grass roots falls into similar territory - funding areas that don't bring direct financial returns but help build the game as a whole.

So it must be concluded that the reality of "lifters and leaners" in Australian cricket becomes more complex and nuanced the more closely one looks, not unlike that of the national economy. Which brings us to one more parallel between Hockey's budget and the CA pay offer: the first was blocked from passing through the Parliament, the second stands about as much chance of being agreed to by the players.