Cricket Australia's good business methods not always good sport

The odd couple: David Warner and Ed Cowan have contrasting on-field methods, but similar political leanings off the field Getty Images

When they opened the batting for Australia, Ed Cowan and David Warner were habitually termed the "odd couple". Tortoise and hare, academic and bulldog, absorber and aggressor. They offered to journalists on deadline the sort of quick, lazy study familiar to filmmakers who use copious scenes featuring smoking to denote character depth.

But there was one thing the two shared then and still do now that says rather more about Australian cricket in 2017, and the pay dispute that is currently occupying plenty of minds around the country. Cowan and Warner are both conservative in their political leanings, and have each shown an entrepreneurial bent in line with plummeting union membership across Australia over the past 25 years. Yet both are committed members of the Australian Cricketers' Association, and have made their case publicly over the past two weeks.

It was Warner's pronouncement that "[CA] might not have a team for the Ashes" that summed up the players' blunt response to a threat from Cricket Australia's chief executive James Sutherland that they would cease to be employed if they did not agree to the board's terms by the end of June. A few days later Cowan followed up with words to the Daily Telegraph that were more eloquent but no less determined:

"It's about wanting to be a partner, as the players have been, and enjoying promoting the growth of the game. The point needs to be made loud and clear that, by turning down that offer, these guys have shown that they're willing to take a pay cut for the benefit of all cricketers and the benefit of the game. They want both CA and the players to be accountable for how cricket is administered. The players will take less money to ensure the game is in good health."

Cowan, educated at the exclusive Cranbrook School, studied economics at the University of Sydney and might easily have found himself in blue-blood political ranks were it not for his cricket ability - the sort of young man who would have always eschewed union membership. His work outside the game has included starting up of a company trading in renewable espresso pods.

"Corporate Australia has become used to being able to deal from a position of considerable advantage, and the majority of CA directors are drawn from that background"

Warner, by contrast, was raised in the housing commission district of Matraville in Sydney's east, but has emerged as a self-made man in the traditions of former blue-collar manufacturing employees who are now far more likely to be working in individual trades or small businesses. After their roles were redefined by the early 1990s recession, these groups were termed over the years as "Howard's battlers" or more recently "Tony's tradies", per the two recent conservative prime ministers John Howard and Tony Abbott.

Over that same period of time, which also happens to be the field of experience enjoyed by the nine directors on CA's independent board, union membership in Australia has dwindled dramatically. Back in 1992, the figure stood at around 40% of the workforce. Earlier this month it was reported to be less than 15% overall, a level reduced still further when public-service organisations were subtracted.

Corporate Australia, then, has become used to being able to deal from a position of considerable advantage, and the majority of CA directors are drawn from that background. There's a former Wesfarmers chairman, Bob Every, veteran of numerous battles over the work practices of truck drivers delivering goods for Coles supermarkets. Another director, Jacqui Hey, also sits on the board of Qantas, where in 2011 the entire fleet of aircraft was grounded by the decision to lock out disputing employees. And of course, the CA chairman David Peever, formerly of Rio Tinto, has well circulated views on third-party negotiations in the workplace.

In that context, the strategy outlined by CA's board and the tactics employed by CA management make more sense than if viewed simply in isolation. The threat to discontinue existing terms of employment in the event of CA's pay offer not being accepted as the basis for negotiations comes as part of a similar sequence of events as in other recent episodes in the business world.

These included the summary terminations of expired enterprise bargaining agreements for major companies such as AGL (electricity) and Griffin Coal and Aurizon (rail freight) over the past three years, all with the blessing of the national regulator, the Fair Work Commission. Not surprising, then, to hear complaints from CA's camp that the ACA are operating "like an old-style union".

However the parallel story over the past 25 years has been of the rise of players' associations across Australian professional sport. A key moment arrived in January 1993, when the previously supine AFL players' association made a show of force by having 134 listed players meet together to discuss possible industrial action if the league continued to stall over the AFLPA's log of claims. It remains a key event in the story of player and league relations, as much for demonstrating the players' will to operate as a collective as for the gains made at the time.

Four years later cricket's moment arrived when the national team voted to withdraw their services from several high-rating limited-overs matches in December if the then Australian Cricket Board did not come to the table. The subsequent compromise led to the fixed-revenue percentage model that has existed, in one form or another, in every MoU deal struck since.

Other moments have included strike action taken by the national women's soccer team, the Matildas, over pay and conditions in 2015. The players withdrew from a tour of the United States and a match against the world champions, and were ultimately rewarded with significant improvements. In the words of the midfielder Hayley Raso, it wasn't "something that we wanted to do but in order for the game to grow and for the future of women in sport, I think it's something we had to do".

Players' associations around Australia are more conscious of what is going on in other sports following the foundation of the Australian Athletes Alliance, with its board comprising the chiefs of the nation's eight major professional sports - cricket, AFL, rugby league, rugby union, soccer, basketball, netball and horse racing. In 2014, the alliance unveiled a charter that included the right of all members "to have any dispute resolved through impartial and expeditious arbitration in which the athlete has an equal say in the appointment of the arbitrator" and also "to organise and collectively bargain".

Players, then, understand strength in numbers as a concept that extends beyond the middle and onto the bargaining table - membership of the aforementioned players' associations stands at 100% in the shared knowledge that their small, organised workforce can have a huge influence on events. That belief in collectivism has duly been bolstered by numerous examples over the past two decades, making it harder than ever for CA or any other sporting body to play the old game of divide and conquer.

Perhaps because the league's move to a fully independent board at arm's length from its clubs coincided with that 1993 exercise in AFLPA power, the AFL's governors have invariably struck a more conciliatory tone with their players than CA has done with its present posture. This has not only been true of enterprise bargaining but also in terms of appointments. One of the league's longest serving commissioners was the former Australian Council of Trade Unions secretary Bill Kelty, while Andrew Demetriou went from helming the AFLPA in the late 1990s to becoming chief of the league itself a few years later. If the players have not always got all they wanted, they have at least felt able to communicate.

This is where the make-up of CA's board comes back into view. Among nine directors, it features a pair of former players, Mark Taylor and Michael Kasprowicz; the latter was also a one-time president of the ACA. But in recently making the CA case for a break-up of revenue sharing in his other role as a television commentator, Taylor demonstrated that it was the view of corporate Australia, rather than its sporting equivalent, that holds sway on the board.

So it is that Warner and Cowan are united alongside the rest of Australia's cricketers on an argument over the principles underpinning their relationship with CA. A relationship defined, funnily enough, by the David Crawford-Colin Carter governance review that brought the current independent board into being. The players, they wrote, may not be co-owners, but "their long-term position is best served by working in partnership with CA". Sounds more like the sentiment of Cowan than that of Taylor, doesn't it?