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Kevin Roberts back as front-runner to succeed James Sutherland

Ricky Ponting and Kevin Roberts at a sponsorship announcement in 2005 Getty Images

Chief operating officer Kevin Roberts has re-emerged as the most likely candidate to succeed James Sutherland when the Cricket Australia chief executive exits the role after 17 years.

Little more than a week after it appeared that the race was down to CA Board director John Harnden and former Cricket New South Wales chairman John Warn, 46-year-old Roberts is now considered the name first in line amid a flurry of late jockeying for one of the most critical roles in the game. The final word will come whenever the lengthy and at times internally criticised succession process concludes.

Sutherland's replacement will inherit a freshly minted cultural review of CA as a whole, prepared by the corporate ethics expert Simon Longstaff, and also a review of the Australian men's team following the Newlands ball-tampering scandal, helmed by the former Test opener Rick McCosker. The findings of both reviews are also in line for imminent release.

CA's chairman David Peever - who has the in-principle approval of the Board to continue in his role for another three years pending re-election by the state associations at the CA AGM in October - is a keen backer of Roberts. He also strongly hinted at an internal replacement on the day Sutherland formally announced his resignation in early June with 12 months' notice.

"This is an incredibly complex job, it has many dimensions," Peever said at the time. "What we must do is find the best person for the role. While I don't want to put any constraints around it, it is a Cricket Australia role, so we're probably going to have a little bit of bias towards an Australian, and it is a role in cricket, so we'll probably have a bias towards someone in cricket."

Before that announcement, CA Board director Bob Every had resigned in protest at Peever's plans to remain as chairman, listing the succession planning for Sutherland among numerous reasons for his decision. "The list is long but in my opinion his handling of the MoU, the media negotiations, his 'fake' resignation and particularly his handling of succession planning for the CEO leave a lot to be desired," Every wrote in an email, according to the Australian.

A former NSW batsman with two centuries for the state team to his credit, Roberts graduated to corporate roles with the apparel companies Adidas - a former CA sponsor and clothing supplier - and Colorado, before serving as the chief executive of 2XU. In late 2012 he, Peever and Jacqui Hey were jointly named as the first independent directors on the CA Board, after a historic governance change to convert the Board from a collective of 14-state appointed delegates to nine independent directors.

He had appeared the heir apparent to Sutherland when he stepped down from the Board to become executive general manager for strategy, people and culture in late 2015, and was set the kind of task historically associated with CEOs-in-waiting when he was named as lead negotiator for the governing body in their pay negotiations with the Australian Cricketers Association.

These talks, in which CA attempted to break up the fixed revenue percentage model at the core of all collective agreements between the Board and the players since 1998, degenerated into a full-blown dispute, and all players went without pay for nearly a month when the existing MoU expired at the end of June last year. Roberts appeared in a pair of videos attempting to sell CA's preferred model, which replaced revenue sharing with a capped-bonus system, initially restricted to the top international players but then expanded to include domestic cricketers also. These pitches were not well received by the players.

With an Australia A tour of South Africa cancelled and time ticking down to a Test tour of Bangladesh, Roberts was ultimately sidelined from talks with the ACA's chief executive Alistair Nicholson, leaving the final compromise to be brokered by Sutherland and the team performance manager Pat Howard. Concerns about the possibility of the dispute stretching into the home Ashes summer compelled Australia's then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull to make a rare call to leaders on both sides of the divide.

Nevertheless, Roberts has had increasing responsibility bestowed upon him, including a role as the CA executive commissioned to be the main contact for all the state associations. Shortly before Sutherland announced his impending exit, Roberts was promoted to the role of COO, a position that the longtime CEO had never previously entertained as part of CA's structure.

He is seen by his supporters as a dynamic executive, given to swift decision-making and support for strategic decisions in the realms of scheduling and funding to the states to grow participation numbers in particular. It is also believed that Roberts' hard-line approach to the MoU was judged as vindicated by a CA internal review.

Other interested candidates have at various stages included the NSW chief executive Andrew Jones, and the Western Australian Cricket Association chief executive Christina Matthews. Warn resigned from his NSW role and also his executive position at shopping-centre company Westfield earlier this year, with a vacancy also emerging for the role of chief executive for the SCG Trust. Harnden has been in parallel negotiations surrounding the possible extension of his tenure as chairman of the Melbourne Grand Prix Corporation.