How to make a players' union work
Africa has some of the world's biggest differences in one land mass, a clear illustration of which can be found in cricket.
At the bottom tip of the continent, there is South Africa- home to the top-ranked Test team in the world in a professionally organised game which rakes in profits to the tune of hundreds of millions. Just next door, there is Zimbabwe who, apart from not having a Test ranking, are also severely debt-ridden and routinely lurch from one crisis to the next. People who believe the marketing that Africa regards itself as a single country, will wonder the obvious: why don't South Africa extend a helping hand to their neighbours?
Most of the time, that is just not possible because although they have had Zimbabwean domestic teams playing in the local competition, South Africa can't offer extra fixtures and provide a loan without doing a disservice to themselves. But there was a place for their assistance when Zimbabwean players decided to form a union, and the South African Cricketers' Association (SACA) was happy to help, even though their model did not fit their neighbour's situation.
In fact, it could not be more different. South African cricket is stable and the relationship between the board and the SACA is strong. The Zimbabwean game sits on moving ground and has not had a player organisation in almost a decade. That they want to emulate the African set-up is no surprise, because it works, but Zimbabwe's cricketers will have to be both patient and persistent if they want to turn their fledgling body into anything resembling the SACA.
To begin with, Zimbabwe need a co-ordinator. Currently, their players' union is headed by five senior squad members believed to be Hamilton Masakadza, Vusi Sibanda, Elton Chigumbura, Prosper Utseya and the captain Brendan Taylor. The SACA is an example of why that will not work.
"You have to have someone who is prepared to run it, someone who is dedicated to the job and someone who is willing to make sacrifices upfront and that person cannot be a player," Tony Irish, the SACA CEO, told ESPNcricinfo.
When the SACA was formed in 2002 after South African players demanded compensation for their commercial rights being sold on their behalf following the Champions Trophy that year, Irish was that person. He was close to the players without being one of them, and also had the corporate skills to run an organisation. He incorporated his work with the SACA into his practice as a lawyer and was, in effect, a volunteer for the first three years because the SACA generated no money.
Irish operated almost entirely on his own and in the early years, the job was as lonely as it sounds. Although CSA were not, in principle, opposed to the idea of a players' union, Jonty Rhodes, who was the founding president and helped Irish start SACA, remembers there had been some hostility.
Rhodes said Irish was "not invited to join in sponsorship meetings" even though that would directly affect the players' income potential and that he was "ostracised" by the cricket community.
"Tony is too humble to say those things but it was very tough on him. I was involved but more as a figurehead, and because I was in my final year of playing before retirement I didn't face as much as risk," Rhodes said. "Tony absorbed a lot of it and in those early years he really stuck to his vision."
Irish differentiated himself from a typical trade unionist by being diplomatic rather than aggressive. Rhodes recalls the formation of the franchise system as the incident which helped Irish enhance his credentials because of the way he stood up for players.
In the 2004-05 season, CSA revamped its domestic structure from 11 provincial unions to six franchises to increase competition. All provincial unions except Kwa-Zulu Natal had to merge to form the new teams. Fewer teams meant fewer contracted players and many found themselves out of jobs.
"Some of the provincial players still had contracts for the next two or three years and they could easily have gone to the labour court to seek compensation," Rhodes said. "But Tony went to all the provinces and worked out settlements between the players and the unions. He didn't take on the cricket board, so to speak, he worked with them to make sure the players were happy. It was a softly-softly approach and it worked, although it took time."
Zimbabwe's players are constantly at loggerheads with their board, tact and subtlety replaced by demands and threats. Neither Rhodes nor Irish believe this to be the way to foster good relations between players and and the board, favouring a mutual agreement to be built between them over time, but that is a luxury Zimbabwe do not have.
The players have already threatened to pull out of two of their last three series. In April, they did want to play Bangladesh because of unsatisfactory daily allowances afforded to players not under central contract and last week, they boycotted training demanding a hike in match fees and a percentage of the World Cup disbursements. Zimbabwe Cricket (ZC) caved on both occasions and the protest was called off, but they still suffered losses.
Craig Ervine's decision to play club cricket in Ireland instead of his country, and Kyle Jarvis' premature retirement from international cricket last week, are recent examples. A source close to Zimbabwean cricket believes more players will leave as their requests are ignored, unless the union has a way to assure them of better terms of employment.
ZC is in severe debt and may not be able to meet the players' requests for more money. By implication, the players themselves sometimes suffer financially and this may impact their ability to fund a players' union which according to Irish, would eventually need money if it were to sustain.
In South Africa, the financials around a union were resolved fairly quickly. Irish bore the burden of running SACA at the beginning, but as it, as a result, its membership grew, a collective agreement was reached with the players about how it would be financially viable. Apart from raising its own money, a percentage of the 230 members' commercial fees is also used to run SACA. It does not receive any money from CSA. The Zimbabwean union, with a reported 30 members, from the national side and a fair number of franchise ones, would have no such luck.
One thing they do have on their side, for now, is unity. Irish said the most important aspect of running a cricketers' union is to have a "critical mass" of players behind it which is "usually the majority" and he believes the Zimbabwean players' union can be powerful, if the members can band together. "For any cricket board the national players are the most important and if you don't look after them you run a big risk. If the players are unified behind the union, they will have clout."
That is another difference between Zimbabwe and South Africa. Although racial issues affect both countries, it has previously been a source of substantial division. Now both white and black cricketers are fighting for the same thing and if they continue on that path, Zimbabwe cricket may be rescued by a union after all.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent