Feature

'We can be proud we're finishing this season in a much better place than we started'

Cricket Australia CEO Kevin Roberts assesses his first few months in office, which included the release of the damning cultural review and some high-profile resignations

Daniel Brettig
Daniel Brettig
27-Feb-2019
Kevin Roberts poses for photos as Cricket Australia's new CEO, Australia v Sri Lanka, 2nd Test, Canberra, 1st day, February 1, 2019

"I'm not the only leader here. Part of leadership is fostering other leaders around you, so we're building a really strong executive team for the future"  •  Getty Images

"For 104 seasons, young warriors have gone to the field to battle for domestic cricket's greatest prize, the Sheffield Shield. This season they come again to fight for state supremacy and a place in history..."
Hidden away in one of YouTube's many back corners is a 1998 commercial for television coverage of the Sheffield Shield. The martial voiceover and knights-in-armour sound effects are accompanied by moody footage of one of these "young warriors" padding up to bat, unnamed, but with an unmistakable profile. Twenty years later, that same figure would pad up to sell cricket once again, this time as the chief executive of a decidedly embattled Cricket Australia - Kevin Roberts.
In the decades between his modest first-class career for New South Wales and emergence as Cricket Australia's choice to replace James Sutherland as CEO, Roberts gained diverse experience, established a deep network in the game, and moved up the ladder of cricket administration while also enjoying an eventful corporate career in apparel sales with Adidas, Colorado and 2XU.
But nothing could have prepared him for the early weeks and months of his tenure, which ticked over its first 100 days on February 2 - coincidentally the day after Joe Burns and Travis Head had tallied the Australian Test team's first two centuries of the international summer, against Sri Lanka in Canberra.
In the earliest period of his role as chief executive, Roberts might easily have considered donning the pads, gloves and helmet from his state-cricket days for protection: the reckonings of the Ethics Centre cultural review of CA peppered the organisation as savagely as any of the bouncers Roberts might have swerved away from for NSW.
"Things were thrown into chaos," Roberts says, "and we were in crisis management mode from about the second day of my tenure - perhaps the first day."
That first day was October 25, when the CA AGM was held at the MCG, formally concluding Sutherland's tenure while also ratifying David Peever's return to the board as chairman for a further three years. This pageant of calm lasted about an hour.
"James finished at the AGM before lunchtime," Roberts says. "I started immediately after. My first task was sharing my vision with the state and territory CEOs and chairmen at the MCG, and playing a video of Kurt Fearnley [an Australian wheelchair athlete who has won multiple Paralympic gold medals] on the big screen to reinforce our opportunity to unite and inspire communities together. Then we came back across to the CA boardroom and the Ethics Centre report was shared with the chairmen and CEOs. It's fair to say the week unravelled from there."
"Every time we get the staff together I joke that they shouldn't let me out of the hot seat until they've asked me three questions"
That night, Roberts, Peever and the board dined together, after Sutherland declined the invitation to join them - a decision that, while intended to give the new man room, was known to have annoyed the chairman. While the state and territory CEOs and chairmen kept their counsel in the wake of their first sight of the Ethics Centre's report, rumblings about the timing of the AGM and Peever's re-election relative to the release of the review grew louder over ensuing days, and reached a crescendo when he fronted its public release the following week.
From the moment he first saw the key themes of the review about three weeks before then, Roberts knew that relationship-building was going to be crucial to his job, provided, of course, that he was still permitted to carry it out.
"It was very clear that the different parts of the cricket community had grown somewhat apart, and so it emboldened me around that responsibility I take seriously to bring the community together."
Peever's removal, orchestrated in New South Wales by the state association's chairman, John Knox, left Roberts without a key ally. But as a former CA board director from 2012 to 2015 and then the link man between CA and the states after joining the executive, he was able to keep relationships stay afloat - not least with Earl Eddings, Peever's successor as chairman, and also with Steve Waugh, his former team-mate - and show he had an awareness of what needed to change.
"It was an awful time for so many people in cricket," Roberts says. "My reflections and feelings at the time were for everyone involved in the game, how the states and territories felt, how the coach of my twin daughters' Under-10 cricket team would feel as a passionate local volunteer.
"That was a really sad period that impacted a lot of good people, David included. David did so many good things for Australian cricket and some outstanding things around the ICC table that have made the model of international cricket better. They were among the things that weren't immediately visible to the local cricket community."
Even if he had not seen the early version of the Ethics Centre review when preparing his pitch for the chief executive's job, Roberts was shrewd enough to know that he needed to demonstrate the qualities of a relationship- and bridge builder if he was to replace Sutherland. No area was more pressing at the time than the relationship between CA and the Australian Cricketers' Association (ACA), with whom Roberts had unsuccessfully attempted to reshape the MoU in 2017 during the standoff over cricketers' pay, on Peever's instruction, before being sidelined at the union's request.
Therefore it was not just understandable but essential that "deepening relationships across the cricket ecosystem" was one of four key pillars of his pitch, alongside entertaining fans, helping states to have a more impactful presence at community levels, and developing a stronger and more robust high-performance system.
"Starting with our own people, creating a better experience for them of working at CA, and to allow them the opportunity to feel more pride in working at CA," Roberts says.
"Then embracing the players as a part of CA rather than having any artificial divide between administrators and players. Certainly the groups have got different roles to play, but we're all cricket people.
"Then state and territory associations as well. How do we give states and territories their own strong sense of purpose and identity but align around a higher purpose for the sport, so they feel empowered as members and owners of CA, but also feel connected to something bigger? Further to embracing the players, working on the ACA relationship and on the grass-roots fund specifically has been a key part of that in this initial period.
"Our broadcasters and commercial partners - making sure that that we consistently live up to that description of 'commercial partner', making sure it reflects the spirit of those relationships."
One of the complications of arriving in the job when Roberts did was that in his expectations for CA, he was attempting to put down longer-term plans in the midst of a season where the day-to-day was demanding enough. Like how a staff forum at the MCG took place on the day high-profile executives Pat Howard and Ben Amarfio were fired, meaning Roberts, rather than concluding the forum, addressed a press conference - where he was pointedly asked why he, as the former head of people and then chief operating officer, was not also walking out.
"Who would have thought a couple of years ago that the Australian women's team would attract an average audience of over 600,000 on free-to-air TV playing New Zealand, back in October?"
"If you look at the Longstaff review, it's independent and objective," he said. "They have called out at least three key positive involvements I've had, and one that wasn't so positive. None of us are perfect. We are all human, and I'll do my best to keep improving."
More recently, the February workloads of staff have been far higher than had been customary, as Roberts has sought to commence a pattern of planning for the next summer earlier than usual - February-March rather than April-May. This is to allow more CA staff to get a break at the end of the season, but in terms of workflow, it's taking some getting used to. Internal staff feedback on their levels of satisfaction and happiness are believed to be little better now than they were last year at the time the review was released, although this is likely to be as much about general tiredness as low morale.
"Those people who were interviewed or completed surveys through the Ethics Centre review, their experiences are real to them and it's not for me to question how they feel about them," Roberts says. "Our role is to understand when we did receive constructive feedback, through the Ethics Centre report, how widespread a particular issue might be.
"If it's an isolated incident, it is still real to that individual, but it doesn't necessarily mean that that aspect of cricket is broken. Whereas if there's more widespread feedback on a particular topic, it's incumbent upon us to determine what the key priorities are and to address that."
Roberts has made very plain to staff that he wants them to feel they can ask questions and get answers about how CA is operating. He has made a habit of not allowing forums or meetings to break up until he has answered no fewer than three questions from the floor, while also making his executives consistently available to do the same.
"Someone might lead off with a comment, which is great, and I'll remind everyone, 'You've still got to hit me with the three questions before you let me off the hook'. That will become the way of life pretty soon. We're still finding our way with that, but we did encourage people to raise all their issues and committed to responding to them openly and in person. I'm not the only leader here. Part of leadership is fostering other leaders around you, so we're building a really strong executive team for the future."
Another challenge for Roberts and CA is that anyone connected to cricket has endured more than their fair share of searching questions since Newlands last year, with fresh waves of questions accompanying a new season and the removal of men's ODIs and T20Is from free-to-air television screens.
"I received an email from the father of a cricket-mad eight-year-old boy, and the father is a passionate cricket fan as well," Roberts says. "He was good enough to take the time to email me and share his views on the fact that some international cricket is no longer available on free-to-air TV.
"I said, I don't necessarily expect you to agree with our perspective, but can I share some relevant facts with you around the broadcast arrangements: the first one of those was that the revenue from the new broadcast arrangements has allowed us to provide funding to states and territories to employ about 70 more people on the ground in community cricket, to inspire kids and support volunteers at a local level in growing the game. We've also been able to have more international cricket than ever before on free-to-air this summer."
That last point, which Roberts has made numerous times over the summer, is accurate in the sense that there are more hours of international cricket broadcast on Seven in 2018-19 than were on Nine in 2017-18, but it ignores the fact that until this summer, every ball of televised international cricket in Australia was viewable without having to navigate a paywall.
The corporate polish Roberts has brought to the role is a product of plenty of experience in not only sales and marketing but also public communication. It occasionally makes those who have to deal with him sceptical about whether his actions will match his words.
At times, his responses to questions can seem to take the long route to tell a short story. Like when he explains CA's effort to raise the profile of the women's game, a process that is woven tightly into the decision to give men's limited-overs formats exclusively to Fox Cricket. By doing so, CA has not only given itself more money to invest in the game but also served to regulate the broadcasting diet available to the biggest audiences in a way that elevates the feats of Ellyse Perry, Meg Lanning and company.
"Too often we have people thinking that the Australian men's team is a very special part of Australian cricket. It's something we're so fortunate to have as the jewel in the crown of Australian cricket to some degree, but that's not all there is to Australian cricket.
"Who would have thought a couple of years ago that the Australian women's team would attract an average audience of over 600,000 on free-to-air TV playing New Zealand, back in October? We've seen a combined audience for the WBBL final across Seven and Fox of about 480,000 people."
Roberts made a pointed decision in November to travel to the West Indies to witness the Australian women's team win the World T20 final rather than being present for the men's concurrent T20I series against India at home. But he is also closely involved in decisions about the men's team, which will see Steven Smith and David Warner return from their 12-month bans at the end of March.
"We should always have a goal of our national teams winning, but I emphasised the non-negotiable expectation that we must compete with respect. I'm really proud and happy for Justin [Langer] as coach and Tim [Paine] as Test captain in the way that under their leadership the team has done that this season," Roberts says. "Have we won everything? No, we haven't. Have we competed with honour? We absolutely have and I think the team's taken some great strides in opening their hearts to the public and letting cricket fans in to see who they are as people."
It is a journey that is far from over, not least because persistent questions remain about what may have been uncovered if CA's investigation of the Newlands scandal had been given wider terms of reference by the board. Roberts, though, is not a little relieved to have forged through his first 100 days as chief executive. The longer he endures, the more he can concentrate on what he has a long record of doing - selling cricket - rather than merely surviving.
"I've said a number of times together with Earl over the last couple of months that we put a lot of effort into using our ears and our mouths in the god-given ratio [2 to 1], and I think that was very important in this first phase. No one knows everything there is to know about the game and no one's bigger than the game.
"I think we can be proud we're finishing this summer season in a much better place than we started and really giving ourselves a sound foundation to build on."
Roberts' corporate sheen was put to use in the nation's capital Canberra last week, where CA hosted a "friends of cricket" event for around 250 guests at Parliament House. Pressing the flesh with luminaries, including opposition leader Bill Shorten, Roberts was flanked by Allan Border as he did his best to sell cricket to figures who will shortly enter their own period of tribulation - a federal election campaign.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig