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Earl Eddings: from the frying pan into the fire?

The chairman of Cricket Australia looks back at the eventful days following the Newlands scandal and cultural review, and to bigger challenges that lie ahead in his role at the ICC

Daniel Brettig
Daniel Brettig
Relationship-building has been one of Eddings' key strengths, along with an understanding of all the links in the chain from grassroots cricket to the top of the game in Australia  •  Getty Images

Relationship-building has been one of Eddings' key strengths, along with an understanding of all the links in the chain from grassroots cricket to the top of the game in Australia  •  Getty Images

Earl Eddings was sitting in the Qantas Lounge in Canberra airport on the morning of November 1 last year when he took a call from Cricket Australia chairman David Peever. Eddings was Peever's deputy on the CA board, and they had spoken much over the preceding six years. This was not a pleasant call.
A few days had passed since the release of the Ethics Centre's damning independent review of CA and its culture, during which time Peever had proven himself a leaden-footed public performer in a time of crisis. Having already endured the traumas of the Newlands ball-tampering scandal, this was another storm, just days from the start of the international season.
As a result, Peever had lost the vital support of Cricket New South Wales to continue leading the game in Australia.
"David, to his credit, said, 'Well, this is damaging the sport, and if I haven't got the support, I will stand aside for the good of the game'," Eddings says. "That was really tough to hear him say that. I was left thinking, 'Oh dear, it's me now, so what am I going to do to fix it?' It was quite a seminal moment in my life."
Four days later, having watched Australia's ODI team get thrashed by South Africa in Perth the previous evening, Eddings was packing to leave for Melbourne when he took another call of import. Mark Taylor, the most experienced and widely respected director on the CA board, was resigning too.
"Tubby rang me and he thought I was back in Melbourne, so it was 5am in Perth and I was packing to go to the airport. He said, 'I'm leaving, I can't do this anymore,'" Eddings says. "It was a big week, losing the chair, then losing Tubby, and certainly a very lonely time there for a bit."
In cricket and in business, Eddings had dealt with his share of scrapes, but nothing quite so public as this. Unlike Peever, however, he had a deep understanding of all the links in the chain from Australian cricket's grassroots to the top of the game, having taken the traditional path once trodden by all cricket administrators, starting as a player.
At the time of the Ethics Centre review, the widely respected former CA chairman Bob Merriman pushed publicly for Eddings. Merriman, still a figure of enormous influence in the Geelong region, had been a mentor to Eddings when he first joined the Cricket Victoria Board in 2005. Eddings had already cut his teeth in the game as captain and coach, and then in other roles at the North Melbourne Cricket club in the decade after moving from Northcote in 1992.
Eddings had grown up in working class Bundoora to Melbourne's north, an area that grew swiftly from the early waves of post-war migration before it saw the construction of Latrobe University in the 1960s and an RMIT campus in the 1990s. As a young man, Eddings balanced university study and business involvement with playing plenty of cricket and hockey. It was enough of a rough and tumble background to help equip him for the hard conversations to crop up in running the game.
"The outpouring of grief [after Cape Town] really showed how important Australian cricket is to the tapestry of Australian society - it's part of our DNA"
"No one grows up wanting to be a cricket administrator," Eddings says. "I think like most you get thrown into it because there's no one else to do it. When I was at North Melbourne we were a struggling club, had no money and a lot of debt, so I was president, coach and No. 1 sponsor, because there was no one else to do it.
"At that stage in my business life, my first business [Ark Consulting] made the BRW top 100 fastest-growing companies, top 25 start-ups. And at that time the Cricket Victoria board was looking for some renewal. You're young, you know business, you know cricket, why not get involved. So it sort of happened from there, and happened much quicker than I thought. It was never a plan to do that, just the way the cards fell."
Along with Merriman, Geoff Tamblyn, the chairman of the Cricket Victoria board when Eddings came on, were key influences on how Eddings grew to see the running of the game. "They were great exponents of understanding the game at its grassroots but also saw the bigger picture. They were really strong role models.
Eddings joined the CA board in 2008. "The first five years when I was on the board was really very parochial around states, a typical member-based board in a federal model. It wasn't what I'd call a governance structure per se, more about how you make things work for different stakeholders."
A critical lesson came from Tamblyn, who accepted that, in order to bring about the governance reform that many CA directors, including Merriman, had attempted in the past, he would have to be the proverbial turkey voting for Christmas. In expressing to the board his intention to resign and so make room for independent directors on a smaller, nine-member board, Tamblyn helped open a gate that had remained locked for more than a century.
"Probably without Geoff and [CA chairman] Wally Edwards, the governance reform wouldn't have happened," Eddings says. "I don't think Tambo gets enough credit for that - he's the one who threw himself under the bus as the first state chair to say, 'I'm going to stand down.'"
It's not uncommon in 2019 to hear Eddings describe himself as the most dispensable person at CA, an attitude informed by the examples of Tamblyn and, latterly, Peever.
Governance reform helped CA operate more strategically, rather than as state-based seagulls fighting over the financial chip. But it also arrived at a time when CA was growing more ruthless, more performance-based, more about "winning at all costs without counting the cost", as the Ethics Centre review so damningly stated. The warning signs can be seen in hindsight, but the way the Newlands scandal blew up was still a shock for Eddings, who by this time had been installed as Peever's successor.
On the evening the ball-tampering news broke, Eddings had been watching his beloved Collingwood play their first game of the AFL season at a friend's house. He was not initially sure what he was seeing when the channel flipped. "I could see this yellow piece of paper and I thought, 'Why are they focusing on that, someone must have run a note out to the captain or something.' Then I turned the volume up and realised what was going on. I quickly realised it was going to be a big week.
"It was late at night, about 11-11.30pm. David was on a plane home, he didn't know about it. James [Sutherland] was on the phone in the middle of the night, and then we were made more aware of it first thing in the morning. That was around the time Gerard Whateley had just started his [radio] program on SEN, and they went to a special the next morning and every man and his dog rang in and fanned the flames, if you like."
For all the issues that Newlands and its aftermath raised, Eddings thinks the board functioned as well as might have been expected. In concert with the then CA head of integrity Iain Roy handing down a series of penalties for Steven Smith, David Warner and Cameron Bancroft that balanced the storm of the moment with wider concerns.
"You were virtually on the phone all day and all night with various board members trying to work out what was going on," he says. "It was a case of not panicking, given the amount of emotion that was flying around, people saying ban them for life and whatever else. I thought we kept our heads pretty well. We didn't get caught up in the emotion.
"We discussed, 'Okay, what do we do, this is more than just accepting a ban from the ICC, this is something that goes against the whole fabric of what Australian cricket stands for'. I think we [knew] that we had to make a stand as a board."
That stand resulted, too, in the commissioning of the review by the Ethics Centre, after a tender was put out for the task. While the Ethics Centre had in the past been somewhat kinder to the Australian Olympic Committee, among other organisations, this was a review that left no one in doubt that Australian cricket's leadership was in the dock.
"If I look at the events in South Africa, that wasn't a one-off," Eddings says. "I look at the MoU dispute, some of the behaviours before that and some of the relationships we had. So it had been eating away at our culture, but you couldn't ever really put a finger on it.
"If I'm trying to find a positive out of Cape Town, it's that it allowed us to really reflect as a sport on what's important to us, and while it was really difficult at the time, the outpouring of grief really showed how important Australian cricket is to the tapestry of Australian society - it's part of our DNA."
" We all had everyone on the same page, so it allowed us to do the right things rather than be rushed into action through the scoreboard pressure of losing"
Eddings on the team's recovery after the ball-tampering scandal
When asked how he and the chief executive Kevin Roberts could justify their roles given how deeply they had been involved in the previous administration, Eddings says, "Are we part of the problem or part of the solution? I like to think we're part of the solution, because cricket is such a complicated business, it's not as simple as people think. You've got a range of competing interests, from overseas with the Future Tours Programme, broadcasting, state associations, the grassroots, the players, and your corporate sponsors.
"It's a really complicated business model, and despite all the angst we went through, cricket was still in good shape. In the really dark times the women's team were great ambassadors, great team players and great cricketers coming out of the same system. So it's not all broken."
Slowly but surely, the broken bonds began to be mended, aided greatly by the way that Justin Langer, Tim Paine and Aaron Finch were able to bring the men's team closer in line with the behavioural record of the women. Eventually, too, results began to improve, helped along by the returns of Smith and Warner from their bans. "We also knew it would take time. Putting Justin in, there was a really strong line between all the key people," Eddings says. "We all knew we were in this together, we all knew we had each other's backs.
"You take two of the best players in the world out of your team and any side would struggle. We also knew we had good, young talent coming through, a big year coming up with the World Cup and the Ashes, so we had something to aim for.
"On-field performances didn't bother me - you always hate losing - because we knew we were on a journey and it wasn't going to be fixed overnight. We all had everyone on the same page, so it allowed us to do the right things rather than be rushed into action through the scoreboard pressure of losing.
"The way the men's team responded, I was and still am very proud of how they took ownership and said, 'Yeah we've got such a strong role in Australian society that we have to lift our game.' We've seen that change now in how they've played over in the UK and how they've started this summer. That was really critical, getting the players understanding their role as custodians of the game.
"I went over to the UK and saw some of the ODIs when we were getting smashed - that was pretty tough, but we knew we had a plan."
When that plan came together for the retention of the Ashes for the first time since 2001, Eddings was a far happier spectator than he had been 12 months previously.
Speaking to Eddings, there is something almost folksy about how he speaks - in a way familiar to so many in cricket's club and community heartland. That relatability is helping in rebuilding relationships, for Eddings possesses a far more natural, affable style of interaction than the often stilted and overly corporate ways of his predecessor. This is not to say that the road ahead is smooth, far from it.
As the Australian Cricketers' Association has shown over the Emily Smith case, every relationship is only as good as how it can stand up to the next issue to arise.
With Greg Dyer moving towards the exit at the ACA, and a new, more contemporary president arriving in Shane Watson, there is a new relationship to be formed. Watson has publicly expressed a long-held displeasure at the ability of cricket boards to control so much of the lives of players they centrally contract. At the same time the exorbitant figures fetched by the likes of Pat Cummins in the recent IPL auction speak of the other side of this complaint.
As someone who married hefty club cricket involvement with his business career, Eddings is eager to see a better balance struck in the life of players in CA's care. Not only to make them better people and athletes but also to ensure they have the diversity of experience the game's leaders need.
"We're always keen to have contemporary cricketers on the board, which is why Mel Jones [who took over Mark Taylor's seat on the CA board] has been fantastic," he says. "That allows us to keep in contact with the game when it's changed so much in the last ten years. You need to be connected with it, you can't be too far removed because you're looking through a different lens. Players now leave school straight into a career of cricket and they don't have the luxury of having another job or having other life experiences.
"So trying to get a pool of ex-cricketers with the skills to sit on a board from a governance perspective is going to be more challenging. Certainly the ACA and us do a lot in that area, but we could always do a lot more. Also the players have got to want to deal with it as well.
"I'm really proud we can pay our players really well, but we've also got to give them other life skills for their wellbeing. That's always a challenge when they're travelling all the time and playing different formats, and something we'll keep working at."
Equally, the international scene is facing significant change. The return to traditional governance for a more muscular BCCI in India takes place alongside the early months of Manu Sawhney's revenue-raising commission as the new chief executive of the ICC.
ICC chairman Shashank Manohar has charged Eddings with reviewing the ICC's governance, a vexing task, and with Roberts has recently met with Sawhney to try to find a middle ground between cricket's financial behemoths Australia, India and England, and the mounting need for ICC revenue among the game's other nations.
The new BCCI president Sourav Ganguly's recent pronouncements about a new, annual ODI "Super Series" to feature India, England Australia and one other nation have illustrated how far apart the two poles currently are. As Edwards discovered between 2011 and 2015, domestic reform was a simple task next to finding international balance - the man who granted CA an independent board for the first time found himself a party to the self-centred "Big Three" move alongside N Srinivasan and Giles Clarke in 2014.
"I don't think that did cricket any favours," Eddings says of the Big Three. "You find that balance between looking after your own backyard and understanding your responsibilities as a custodian of the global game, and that's always a challenge. But certainly we walk into those conversations saying we need to look at bilateral cricket, but as members of the ICC, also have a responsibility and accountability to maximise it and make it work for everyone."
In that sense, the global scene may turn out to be more difficult for Eddings than even the darkest days of 2018, for as he says, the cultural problems at CA were distinct from structural or financial issues. "There was never a sense of panic," he says. "We had a good business model, a good strategy and money had come into the game with a really good broadcast deal. So we weren't trying to fix the whole business model at the same time. It was purely a cultural fix."
In trying to find a balance between the players, the BCCI and the ICC, Eddings is about to contend with elements of all three at once.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig