Back in May, a story appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald. Written by the accomplished newshound Chris Barrett, it contended that Cricket Australia and the Australian Cricketers' Association were in dispute over pay, conditions and representation for the nation's female cricketers.
"Cricket Australia and the players' union are at loggerheads over the women's game," Barrett wrote, "with the national body resisting a move to have the likes of Meg Lanning and Ellyse Perry covered by a collective bargaining agreement and disagreeing with the Australian Cricketers' Association over which entity should be stumping up the cash to pay female players extra for next summer's inaugural women's Big Bash League (WBBL)."
Coming as it did outside of the cricket season, at the outset of the men's team's tour of the West Indies, few waves were created by the story. Six months on, as the game moved more centrally into sporting dialogue in Australia, another couple of news pieces emerged, this time in the Daily Telegraph. The basic facts of Barrett's story were unchanged, but in the hands of another news-breaker, Jamie Pandaram, the accent had changed 180 degrees. Rather than women players not being represented, now they were being undersold by their male counterparts.
"Australia's cricketers have landed a massive $70 million windfall, but not a cent will go to our female stars," Pandaram wrote. "While the Australian men's Test team was humiliated by England and lost the Ashes, and Australia's women won their version of the Ashes and are No. 1 in the world, the average salary of a male player next year will be $1 million, compared to just $85,000* for their female equivalent."
A follow-up piece revealed that CA would refuse to sign up to a separate Memorandum of Understanding for player payments with the women unless the male players allowed the money involved to come out of their existing share of the game's revenue. Whatever way you looked at it, some serious spinning was being done on both sides.
So what is actually going on? CA is certainly eager to rattle the tin for women's cricket at the outset of the first season of the WBBL, and having significantly increased payment for women in 2013 (a $1.5 million pot then that has risen incrementally since) will be cutting the pie again to introduce separate wages for the new event. This work is being driven by CA's team performance manager Pat Howard, whose oversight includes the women and the men.
But there is more going on underneath and around this dispute that demonstrates how relations between the board and the players are moving into new and challenging areas. Relationships, dynamics and ideologies are changing on both sides of what has always been a fairly lively divide. It is no secret that CA quite likes dealing directly with the women rather than through the ACA, and that some in the board would quite like to do the same with the men as well.
The ACA is not registered as a trade union but was engaged by all first-class players in 1997 to act as a bargaining agent on their behalf. Its primary source of funding is an annual grant from CA that was listed as $3.14 million for 2013-14, as against a total income of $3.9 million. While CA is contractually bound to negotiate the terms of the next MoU with the ACA, it could conceivably cut the association's funding.
In June last year, Paul Marsh resigned as chief executive of the ACA after nine years in the job. The son of former Australia wicketkeeper Rod Marsh, he could be a prickly figure, and had no qualms about fighting the players' corner when necessary. But importantly, he built a constructive relationship with his CA counterpart James Sutherland, allowing the two men to thrash out any serious problems in one-to-one phone calls.
A demonstration of how this axis worked can be found in the uncertain days of June 2013. Then, Marsh was one of a select group of figures consulted by Sutherland and Howard when they were working out how to pull the national team out of an Ashes-threatening dive. That they ended up settling on an ex-ACA president, Darren Lehmann, as coach had no little amount to do with Marsh's words.
But in replacing Marsh, the ACA moved into another direction, choosing Alistair Nicholson, a former defender for the Melbourne AFL club, who cut his business teeth with the marketing firm Gemba Group. The decision appeared motivated by growing the size of the union as a business, but Nicholson has found that his lack of direct relationships with his opposite numbers at CA is an obstacle - he has nothing like the same contact with Sutherland that Marsh once had.
Meanwhile, a reformed CA board and management are becoming increasingly bullish about their desire to grow the game in the manner they see fit. The looming chairmanship handover - to be ratified at CA's AGM in Melbourne this week - will see a former Test batsman and long-time state board representative in Wally Edwards replaced by David Peever, one of three independent directors added to the board in 2012.
As managing director of the mining giant Rio Tinto's Australian operations, Peever was among the nation's most vocal critics of unions in the workplace, and a friend of the former prime minister Tony Abbott. He spoke frankly of his views about unions at a conference in Perth in November 2012, describing them as the "elephant in the room" of Australian business. This was less than a month after he, Kevin Roberts and Jacquie Hey were unveiled as CA's first fully independent board directors.
"Reform of the Fair Work Act needs to go much further than has so far been flagged by the government," Peever had said in reference to federal workplace legislation. "Direct engagement between companies and employees, flexibility and the need for improved productivity has to be at the heart of the system. Only then can productivity and innovation be liberated from the shop floor up, and without the competing agenda of a third party constantly seeking to extend its reach into areas best left to management."
In London earlier this year, Edwards agreed that it might be time to review the relationship between board and union. "People change, ideas change, times change," he said. "It might not be as appropriate now to have that model as it was when Mark Taylor started the argument [in 1997]. We're 20 years on nearly and the world has changed. I wouldn't like to pre-guess where the board would go or how it'll all work, even the ACA. There's got to be many ideas there, and hopefully it will all be productive. Certainly the players can't complain about what they're getting paid."
These views are shared by others within CA, and there has been the contention that the ACA is "too negative" and "sound like the Opposition" when disputing the board's view of the world. There is also the fact that on a global level, the Federation of International Cricketers' Associations (FICA) is wrestling with its place in a cricket world now dictated more or less by the whims of the "Big Three" nations. It is perhaps understandable, then, that a sort of survival instinct has kicked in, stalling negotiations on the women's game, among other things.
Something both parties might be able to consider is a little more dialogue with one another, so there can be better understanding instead of heavily spun news stories and whispers about what each other's intentions may or may not be. Useful, too, would be an acknowledgement that the Australian game is currently welcoming new sources of revenue on near enough to a yearly basis, with decisions to be made about how it is best split to grow the game and support its players.
One such pot is the compensation money due to CA for the cancellation of the Champions League T20, a much-maligned tournament that was nevertheless an important counterweight to the money spent on setting up the BBL before it was sold lucratively to the Ten Network. The cash due to CA is somewhere in the region of $100 million, and as usual there will be haggling between the board and the ACA over how much of this should be part of the players' 26% (or thereabouts) share of the game's revenue.
Instead of CA trying to keep the percentage as low as possible, as it always does, or the ACA trying to make the percentage as large as possible, as it always does, it would be refreshing to see the two parties speak constructively to each other about using a portion of these funds to bankroll the women's game. At the same time, an MoU inclusive of women could be nutted out, without any arguments about whether it would cut into the existing pie.
Such an outcome would be proof that the players and the board can continue to work together despite their differences, and would doubtless encourage more positive measures, like the use of revenue from this year's World Cup to set up a past player and game development legacy programme. That's not the story to make a snappy headline, but it would certainly be better for the game than allegations that the men are short-changing the women.