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James Sutherland's greatest challenge?

James Sutherland reacts during a press conference ICC

When Cricket Australia relocated to its current Jolimont headquarters in the early 2000s, the governing body's young chief executive was insistent on ensuring that his old office chair moved with him. It looked somewhat out of place amid the new architecture, but its presence suggested a fondness for stability and perhaps even a bit of nostalgia.

As he nears two decades into his leadership of CA, James Sutherland's own tenure has come to resemble that of the chair. He is at once a link to the past and a symbol of continuity in a dramatically changing game. As he flies home from England to Australia and into the crucible of the current MoU battle between CA and the Australian Cricketers Association (ACA), the question is how this most pragmatic of chief executives will deal with the rapidly gathering storm.

Numerous former colleagues and associates of Sutherland were surprised when he intervened so stridently in the dispute, via written correspondence to his ACA counterpart Alistair Nicholson on May 12, stating that players would cease to be employed after the June 30 expiry of the MoU. It was felt that by signing the letter Sutherland had left himself very little room for manoeuvre in the event of an extended dispute, making it more difficult for him to broker a late compromise between two wildly divergent positions.

After being involved in drafting and finalising the detail of the very first MoU in 1998 - shortly after his arrival at CA from the Carlton Football Club - Sutherland has played a diminishing role in each agreement struck since, preferring to delegate to the likes of Michael Brown, Dean Kino, Pat Howard, and this time, Kevin Roberts. But he has always allowed himself the chance to enter the negotiating room at the final stage, in order to ensure the final and smooth passage of the agreement. At the same time, he maintained a frank working relationship with the longtime ACA chief executive Paul Marsh.

"Numerous former colleagues and associates of Sutherland were surprised when he intervened so stridently in the dispute on May 12, stating that players would cease to be employed after the June 30 expiry of the MOU"

Much like the revenue-sharing principle at the core of each MoU over the period, Sutherland's way of doing collective bargaining business has remained consistent, in line with the views he expressed in the official board history, Inside Story, in 2007. On the topic of negotiation, Sutherland said: "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."

Of the fixed-revenue percentage model itself, he said: "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."

Discontent on the CA board about the revenue-sharing model is not in itself a new thing. As far back as 2005, the board's industrial relations committee, featuring a pair of future CA chairmen, Jack Clarke and Wally Edwards, questioned the sustainability of the arrangement in the face of mounting costs. But rather than pushing for it to be broken up, Sutherland compromised by altering the definition and scope of Australian Cricket Revenue to take into account a range of growing expenses for the game. Put simply, this meant eroding the players' share by excluding revenue streams and also by deducting a percentage of other revenue streams from the share of revenue given to players. The board was satisfied with the trade-off, and so too were the players.

This sort of pragmatism, however, showed signs of ebbing away in the wake of sweeping reforms of CA's governance and financial structures in 2012. That ebbing away was accelerated with the arrival of the former Rio Tinto managing director David Peever, an outspoken advocate of direct employer-employee relations and critic of "third-party" negotiations. His influence at board level was felt immediately, and it only grew after his appointment as Edwards' deputy, and thus the chairman-elect, in May 2014. Players, for one thing, started to be referred to as "employees" more often than "partners".

More broadly the board became an independent assembly of nine directors drawn from a variety of business and cricket backgrounds. The game's financial model was redrawn to ensure fixed annual allotments of cash for each state, while CA's ability to apportion strategic funding, and any "blue sky" above expectations, was greatly enhanced. Sutherland, who was brave in allowing executives like Kino and Andrew Jones to challenge the "old" board of 14 state-appointed directors in the semi-public setting of the 2010 Australian Cricket Conference, was now working with a group more agile and more capable - but also more demanding.

What has followed is a period where Sutherland's own actions and persona have oscillated more wildly than in the past. One senior Australian cricket figure, who worked closely with him either side of the change, referred to it as the emergence of a "Jekyll and Hyde" mixture, alongside the increased corporatisation of CA at both board and management levels.

Chief among CA's major partners in being at the receiving end has been the ACA. In part as a result of the close and constructive relationship the players' association had enjoyed with the administration, Marsh felt within his rights to spend much of 2013 canvassing the nation's players to prepare a "state of the game" report that looked at numerous issues both on and off the field. At the same time, it offered a significant investment from the players' payment pool to address the Test team's perennial struggles against the spinning or seaming ball, among other matters. If the report struck one particularly bum note - advocating that the Big Bash League be used as an October prelude to the season instead of a school holidays centrepiece - its intentions were good.

At another time, Sutherland may well have received it more warmly. There was the example from earlier years of his taking up Marsh's suggestion for a global ODI league to add context to the game, an idea for which he was always careful to offer credit to the ACA chief executive.

"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"

Sutherland, speaking in 2007, on his negotiation philosophy

But in early 2014, the report was given scant regard at CA, and then used as a stick with which to beat Marsh, first at a dinner and then a meeting of state CEOs. The message appeared to be that any criticism of CA reflected badly on Sutherland and his choices of executives: this was not something he could stand for in the new environment. It was no longer the ACA's place to offer such opinions.

Duly angered, and having already been outspoken in criticising the "Big Three" reforms at ICC level that CA had been intimately part of, Marsh made up his mind to get out of cricket. By mid-year, he had been installed as chief of the AFL players' association. When the move was announced, Sutherland said of Marsh: "Paul has made a significant contribution to Australian cricket for more than a decade, and on behalf of Cricket Australia, we congratulate him on his appointment to lead the AFLPA. I've enjoyed a healthy relationship with Paul since he became CEO at the ACA and we've worked together in the best interests of Australian cricket."

But he declined to build a similarly close relationship with Marsh's successor Alistair Nicholson, and slowly but surely the partnership between players and board began to disintegrate. The relationship with Nicholson was largely delegated to Howard, who in turn delegated it to the head of cricket operations, Sean Cary, among others.

Always adept at keeping his chairman-chief executive relationship strong, Sutherland deferred to the desire of Peever to be more directly involved in planning for the next MoU. He also elected to appoint Roberts, a former first-class batsman for NSW and an accomplished corporate executive, to lead the negotiating team, in a mirror of his own role under Malcolm Speed before he became CEO in 2001.

The longer the dispute has gone on, the more apparent it has become that both Sutherland and Roberts are intent upon delivering the desired outcome for Peever and the board, who have similar views to those held by Clarke and Edwards in 2005, but also an increasingly hawkish attitude. There have been informal talks in these circles about wanting to "crush" the ACA, in sharp contrast to the era of detente over which Sutherland presided. Whoever is seen to have failed to do so can expect to pay for it with his job.

Knowing the history, the ACA have now made it plain that it no longer wishes to deal with Roberts, but insist upon Sutherland bringing his more pragmatic views to the table. Given how the two parties have grown to dislike and plot against one another, and how he has tried his best to keep at some distance from the industrial relations battlefield, the elevation of Sutherland by the players as a figure capable of bringing about a compromise may not be the sort of endorsement he wished to hear.

All of this leaves him in perhaps the stickiest situation of his long tenure, notwithstanding a host of earlier crises, from the Monkeygate and Homeworkgate dramas and the reforms of 2010-12, to the horrid days and weeks following the death of Phillip Hughes. Having always spoken about acting in the best interests of the game, Sutherland must quickly decide where he thinks those interests currently lie, and how far apart they are from his own. Calculate wrongly, and the chair may well be passed to another.