Australian cricket's warring chiefs James Sutherland and Alistair Nicholson have held their most intensive meeting yet in an urgent attempt to end a pay fight that will ultimately have ruinous consequences for both men and their organisations if not resolved quickly.
Amid mounting commercial pressure both externally and internally, ESPNcricinfo has learned that Cricket Australia's (CA) chief executive Sutherland spent more than four hours with his Australian Cricketers Association (ACA) counterpart Nicholson in Melbourne on Tuesday in an effort to find a way forward.
While the meeting did not result in a breakthrough, more CEO-to-CEO talks are planned, and in itself the extensive discussion underlines the dire path Australian cricket is on. CA is presently without sponsors for its international men's team across all formats, with even the likely Test team sponsor Magellan unwilling to put pen to paper until the dispute ends.
The governing body's existing commercial partners such as the Nine Network, KFC, Commonwealth Bank, Bupa and Toyota are growing increasingly anxious about the uncertainty. The car manufacturer in particular was left fuming when it emerged that Mitchell Starc had signed up with a rival Audi dealership in western Sydney - defying the protected sponsorship rights for which Toyota have paid a premium. Other such deals are reportedly in the works.
It is believed that the next step for these sponsors would be to request fee reductions in lieu of the uncertainty and the ability of CA to fulfil its contractual obligations by making players available for advertising and promotional appearances. Such a move would have swift financial consequences for the board even as it withholds about A$1.2 million (USD 910,000) a fortnight in payments from around 230 players left unemployed by the June 30 expiry of the previous MoU.
That expiry has served as something of a trigger for Sutherland to get steadily more involved in discussions with Nicholson. Following Sutherland's May 12 letter to Nicholson threatening that players would eventually be left out of contract, the pair's first significant communication is believed to have taken place before the CA chief left for ICC meetings in the middle of that month. They spoke via the phone when Sutherland was in England, and again on his return to Australia.
Sutherland returned to CA's Jolimont headquarters on June 29 and initially declined to get directly involved in negotiations, despite the players' calls for him to do so. But once the MoU expired, his contact with Nicholson began to increase, leading to face-to-face talks briefly last week and more extensively on Tuesday. At the same time, CA's official lead negotiator Kevin Roberts has continued to meet with ACA negotiators, including the association's general legal counsel Joe Connellan.
Roberts has taken a harder line, echoing Sutherland's earlier letter, and also a pair of written refusals by CA's chairman David Peever to allow for third party mediation.
However the increasingly febrile commercial atmosphere around the game is creating pressure for CA, as sponsors ask for explanations and the board's commercial teams ask how to go about their usual jobs in this gridlock. At absolute maximum both commercial partners and relevant CA staff are thought to have only about another four to six weeks before it is too late for new sponsors to commit to summer deals, though other areas will bite sooner than that.
For one, even though CA would be saving money from not paying players or sending the Australia A squad to South Africa, a significant portion of the board's staff are being left with little to do, opening questions about whether working hours are rolled back in the interim, or extra holidays taken. This abnormality in turn leads to questions being asked by staffers of managers, managers of executives and executives of Sutherland.
At the same time, the ACA's negotiators and the players themselves are aware that an extended dispute will only serve to shrink the overall revenue created by cricket in Australia, scaring off sponsors, drawing decreasing fees for those who remain and also reducing broadcast rights and gate revenues as angry fans either switch the channel or fail to turn up to matches.
While ultimately it will be CA's job as the governing body to clean up most of the mess, the players will feel the sting of reduced pay packets and also the invective delivered to them by spectators - much as Major League baseballers did at the end of the 1994-95 lockout that forced the cancellation of the World Series.
Sutherland's meeting with Nicholson came on the same day that the longtime CA board director Mark Taylor addressed nervous commercial partners about the current storm. In doing so he effectively stated that there was far too much at risk for the battle to go on much longer, whatever either party had hoped to gain out of it at the beginning.
Another voice calling for cooler heads to prevail this week was Sutherland's former lieutenant Michael Brown, who worked alongside him at CA for a decade from 2002. "It surprises me that the relationship has been allowed to get to the level it has," Brown told the radio station 3AW. "We spent a lot of time during my tenure making sure players were part of the game and we respected players.
"We lived with the arguments about payments and what was fair and reasonable... their share of revenue was always important. It seems now that both parties have come to a stumbling block, and my best advice is leave your egos at the door, sit down quietly, away from the media spotlight, and find a resolution because this is not good for the game.
"While the Ashes is important, the biggest driver of our revenues is our Indian tours, and we saw with Monkeygate back in 2008 the damage that [trouble with] India can do, not only to bilateral relations but to world cricket itself. We are one of the three strong teams in world cricket, and we need to maintain leadership on both [board's and players'] sides."