Knowledge is power, or so the ancient saying goes. In assessing Kevin Roberts' dramatic fall as chief executive of Cricket Australia, it is inescapable to conclude that the disputes around the game's financial health amid Covid-19 are as much about knowledge of cricket's finances as about the power to control them.
Roberts had to leave just over 18 months after he was appointed to the role to follow the 18 *years* of James Sutherland. Only once before in CA's history had the chief executive exited in such rancorous and newsworthy circumstances: in January 1997, after Graham Halbish fell out irreparably with his chairman Denis Rogers. Back then, CA's staff numbered fewer than 40 and annual revenue was a little more than A$15 million. Before this week's redundancies, CA had more than 400 staff, and annual revenue of A$485 million.
Roberts sat on the CA board between 2012 and 2015, then worked as Sutherland's COO until 2018, when he ascended to the role of CEO in early October. He should have gleaned all the knowledge he needed to ensure a reasoned response to the coronavirus pandemic, one that could be articulated to the organisation's state association owners, players union partners and the wider public. Instead, he fell afoul of the fact that for perhaps the first time in CA's entire history, most of the best number-crunchers in cricket sat outside the top tier of its leadership.
Sutherland had been the primary accumulator of this knowledge as CA grew exponentially over the last two decades, but not the only one. The former Victoria and New South Wales seamer Neil Maxwell had become a prominent player manager and ACA executive member.
Then there was the small circle who oversaw CA's broadcast rights go from a A$275 million deal in 2005 to A$1.18 billion by 2018 (not counting overseas deals with India and the UK that also leapt in value). Instrumental to that were two of the keenest thinkers and strategists: John Knox, until last year the CEO of Credit Suisse Australia and a longtime consultant to CA, and Dean Kino, former head of legal at CA and a pivotal player in the Champions League Twenty20 cash windfall that helped make the Big Bash League possible.
Kino has since moved into player management, notably for Marnus Labuschagne. Maxwell joined the Cricket NSW board in 2018, a few months after Knox became its chairman. Between them they possessed a prodigious amount of knowledge about the game's workings that transcended actual possession of CA's internal balance sheets.
These, of course, sat with Roberts, his executives and board when they sat down to map out a path through Covid-19 in mid-March. It says much about the muddled communication that afflicted Roberts throughout his time at CA, from the fractious MoU dispute in 2017 to the tribulations of the past 12 weeks, that he more or less let slip in a March 17 press conference that he was assembling a razor gang to strip back CA's costs.
"We're moving now from management of the onset of coronavirus as a critical incident," Roberts had said."To how do we guarantee the continuity of our business and our organisation beyond that - moving from the reactive to the more proactive, and forming a team of business continuity experts that work through all of that over the coming months. We really empathise with the situation for winter sports, we are more fortunate with the timing of this."
What most picked up at the time was the emphasis on cricket's good fortune, having lost only the very tail of the 2019-20 summer while the football codes were faced with the prospect of going without half a season at the very least. Those same observers were then left shocked, mouths agape, when one month later CA unveiled what that "guarantee" of business continuity looked like. Knox, Maxwell and Kino were near the front of the queue of the disbelieving.
Disbelief was twofold. First, there was incomprehension about how CA might be in any danger of "trading insolvent" before the scheduled start of the next season. Secondly, and far more damaging for Roberts in particular, was the realisation that none of these cricket business experts had even been approached about a shared solution to any problems about the game's financial state.
In subsequent days, it became clear that Roberts and the CA chairman Earl Eddings had worked with a close circle to formulate their chosen medicine for the game in Australia. The group featured fellow board directors Paul Green and Michelle Tredenick, COO Scott Grant, departing CFO Todd Shand and his interim replacement Paul Reining. The corporate communications chief Karina Keisler and head of legal, Christine Harman, were also involved. Of this group, Shand was the most experienced, but like his predecessor Kate Banozic, had always worked closely with Sutherland on understanding of the numbers and their implications.
Five days went past before CA's blueprint was articulated publicly by Roberts in any substantial way, a vacuum in which all manner of shock, anger, frustration and distrust were able to metastasize into something like revolt.
Left outside this circle were executives, including the head of commercial (and broadcast rights) Stephanie Beltrame, the head of events (and W/BBL) Anthony Everard, and the head of community cricket (previously interim head of team performance) Belinda Clark. So not only were CA's leaders avoiding consultation with the wise heads outside Jolimont's walls, they had vested most power over cost-cutting to only a select portion of their own executive. The wider group, including Twenty20 World Cup chief executive Nick Hockley, were effectively the first set of "outsiders" to be informed of plans.
Five days went past before CA's blueprint was articulated publicly by Roberts in any substantial way, a vacuum in which all manner of shock, anger, frustration and distrust were able to metastasize into something like revolt. Even at this stage, it may have been possible for Roberts to bolster his own position by reaching out to those who knew the game's business model and finances more deeply than he did, but there were years-old clues that this would not happen. Back when he was named CEO, sitting alongside then chairman David Peever in CA's boardroom, Roberts had been asked what advice he would take from Sutherland. The reply was a typically roundabout way of saying none.
"James has imparted advice on me, but I'd say the most powerful advice has been through his actions. I don't know that I've ever seen anyone respect their office as much as James, the office of CEO at CA, and that is something I have deep respect for as well. He's been a great role model for any Australian who leads any organisation in terms of the way that he respected that responsibility. So it's been through his actions more than through his words."
Accordingly, the former CEO's phone did not ring either - a marked contrast to his own habits of seeking counsel from the likes of Bob Merriman, Malcolm Gray, Malcolm Speed, Colin Carter and others from the deep ranks of former and current cricket and sporting administrators. Instead, it was the outsiders to the CA circle who were more collaborative than those inside, pooling knowledge and insights in a way that the AFL and NRL had been forced to do by the need to combat Covid-19 within their own seasons. A cross-industry forum sharing information and insight was nowhere to be seen, except among those moved to double take at CA's actions.
This contrast meant that by the time CA went to the state associations requesting annual distribution cuts of 40% over two years, there was well-informed opposition, which remained in NSW and Queensland even after the initial request was pulled back to 25%. Rapidly, Eddings and Green became the focal points of negotiations with the states rather than Roberts and Grant, as CA had initially intended, simply because there was little or no desire to deal with them. In the case of the ACA, discussions at executive level were basically non-existent, as Eddings and his opposite number Greg Dyer entered "board to board" talks instead. Even these talks, however, were dogged by the initial mistrust of Roberts' grasp of the numbers.
By the time CA went to the state associations requesting annual distribution cuts of 40% over two years, there was well-informed opposition, which remained in NSW and Queensland even after the initial request was pulled back to 25%.
Some of the states, beset by their own internal funding or governance problems, took CA's request for cutbacks as an excuse to launch their own purges, most pointedly in Victoria, to the cost of more than 150 jobs and incalculable effects on morale. Internally, several CA departments made their own pushbacks against stand downs and redundancies, resorting to whatever "smoke and mirrors" they could to save staff in the face of forecasts and plans that, even by the end of April, were looking out of date. In the end, the 40 redundancies announced this week were around half the number that might otherwise have gone.
Roberts, though, forged on unswervingly and unwittingly. Unable to contribute much to negotiations, he had time to draft a letter asking where money raised by cricket for bushfire relief had gone, in eerie parallel to the questions that staff, states and players were asking of him. Contentions about how broadcasters were threatening to reduce their rights fees - despite no loss of actual content as was the case in the winter codes - were brushed off ever more stridently whenever Roberts tried to make them, including by Pat Cummins, the Australia's highest paid player and a client of Maxwell's.
By May, conversations about how to find consensus in an increasingly fractured cricket landscape began to consider Roberts' position as CEO in addition to his position on cutbacks. By early June, when the same old March forecasts were trotted out more widely to states, the ACA and the media, Roberts was unknowingly entering his final days. Tellingly, some invitations to these briefings were wearily rebuffed. Knox then wrote to Eddings requesting a meeting of state chairs for the first time since April 17. Within a week it was made clear that any collective resolution to disagreements across the game would be found without Roberts' presence.
All that remained was for the CA board to find a sturdy interim CEO in Hockley - who had been mentored by the CA director John Harnden and Sutherland in his role as a T20WC director - and go through the process of informing and settling with the outgoing leader. Painfully for Roberts, the news of this process broke before it was complete on Monday afternoon, with his resignation from CA accepted later that night, under financial terms that clearly left Eddings with little latitude to publicly explain the reasons the following day.
It was strange, in some ways, that a former cricketer who had gone on to a well remunerated business career could ultimately find no advice or relationships strong enough to save him from such swift removal. But Roberts had long been perceived by cricketers as more of a businessman, and by businessmen as more of a cricketer - he looked to be a bowling allrounder when batting, and a batting allrounder when bowling.
Neither group could quite make sense of Roberts, leaving critical trust never to be fully engendered in someone who could easily have kept wiser, and wider, counsel. Knowledge, and power, were always only a few phone or Zoom calls away.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig