A week ago, Australia’s prime minister Scott Morrison announced that the 28-year-old system of state and territory leaders meeting twice every year with the federal government was going to be scrapped. It has been replaced by more regular contact that emerged out of the Covid-19 pandemic: fortnightly or monthly “national cabinet” video conferences. This change was not just the fruit of all involved realising that regular, less formal communication was more functional and practical, it was also the result of lobbying behind the scenes and on camera, by two former state New South Wales and South Australia premiers Mike Baird (Liberal) and Jay Weatherill (Labor).
Nowhere in Australian life is there a greater contrast to this than what has overtaken cricket over the past two months. Baird has had a front-row seat here too, as a board director with Cricket NSW, and it would not surprise if he has wondered aloud at how government has leaned on greater collective communication while in cricket the conversations have been far less rounded and less effective.
Perhaps the most extraordinary single fact of a period in which Cricket Australia has stood down more than 200 staff on 20% pay, and every state but NSW has followed by cutting a total of more than 150 staff thus far, is that 49 days have passed since the chairmen of CA and the six states held their own “national cabinet” meeting. The Australian Cricket Council, a body notionally formed after a cultural review in 2018, has not met even once, having last convened in October 2019.
A mess of confusion, disillusionment, anger and mistrust has swept into this vacuum, as opportunistic decisions have been made in some quarters, survival efforts attempted in others, and previously sound relationships have frayed or cracked up altogether. CA has, based on modelling put together in March, forged on with a plan for stand-downs followed by redundancies that have undeniably talked down the game, and completely contradicted last week’s announcement of the international schedule for next summer.
In Victoria, some 60 staff, most from community cricket, have lost their jobs, while the Cricket Victoria board, composed primarily of delegates beholden to Melbourne’s club competition, ring-fenced cash and assets valued at some A$70 million. Most of the money contributing to CV’s A$1 million financial loss for 2018-19 – a primary justification for the “restructure” – had been spent on severance settlements for the ex-CEOs of the Melbourne Stars and the Melbourne Renegades as part of the previous restructure only a year before. If you didn’t laugh, you’d cry.
“Roberts has lost the confidence of a wide range of figures in Australian cricket who gave him a second chance after the 2017 pay dispute with the ACA, partly by deflecting much of the blame for that and other issues to the former chairman David Peever. Eddings, a more natural communicator than Roberts, has a greater supply of goodwill but cannot escape blame for the chaotic way the cost-cutting has unfolded, and is also distracted by conflicts and conundrums at the ICC.”
Events in South Australia, Western Australia, Tasmania and Queensland have been a little less dramatic but, in many cases, just as damaging to the game’s future growth. Queensland were forced, with just A$7 million in reserves, to cut some 32 staff though still disputing CA’s request for a 25% reduction in their annual grants, while SA was compelled to move first with some 23 job cuts due to the loss of immediate revenue drawn from their co-dependency on Adelaide Oval’s postponed AFL fixtures.
CA is planning to make as many as 20% of its total staff redundant as soon as next week, and is still arguing individually with NSW, Queensland and the Australian Cricketers’ Association (ACA) over terms of their own cutbacks. After a failed first attempt to articulate its position in April, CA’s chief executive Kevin Roberts went out on an information campaign this week, but both the dissenting states and the ACA were unimpressed at being handed forecasts more or less unchanged from those cobbled together in March.
In the simplest terms, a 50% revenue drop for the 2020-21 season may have been possible to contemplate three months ago, but now that India have committed to a tour worth some A$300 million in broadcast revenue and sport has resumed in Australia? No chance. If broadcasters had been making undeniably panicky noises in March about the need for reductions in rights fees, it was only in a moment where the loss of an Australia international summer was possible. Now the schedule has been announced, and there is a contract to honour for another four years.
This is all to say that CA, the states and the ACA have used up more than eight weeks of precious time not available to the winter football codes in squabbles over a course of action the central governing body committed to before it had any way of knowing how Covid-19 and its financial shocks would unfold. Now that much more is known, a fresh round of conversations must be had, and fast.
Undoubtedly, cricket in Australia is due a reassessment of its cost-base, but that much was obvious even before. When CA returned a surplus of just A$18 million for a 2018-19 summer featuring four Tests, three T20Is and three ODIs against India, the same programme as 2020-21, it was clear that the commitment of cash to operating activities had gone too far – beyond even the windfall provided by effectively doubling CA’s Australian broadcast rights deal to A$1.18 billion in 2018. This is without mentioning big overseas deals with Sony (India) and Sky (UK).
But such a conversation requires unity, transparency and shared purpose – anything but the dog’s breakfast of individual negotiations and arguments that have bubbled across since March. Roberts and the CA chairman Earl Eddings must have realised this much after they watched aghast at CV’s indiscriminate job cuts, which mean CA must take more responsibility for developing community cricket in the state, while also seeking a way to bring the state association’s self-destructive elements to heel.
Realisation, of course, is not the same thing as action. Plenty of scar tissue must be overcome. Roberts has lost the confidence of a wide range of figures in Australian cricket who gave him a second chance after the 2017 pay dispute with the ACA, partly by deflecting much of the blame for that and other issues to the former chairman David Peever. Eddings, a more natural communicator than Roberts, has a greater supply of goodwill but cannot escape blame for the chaotic way the cost-cutting has unfolded, and is also distracted by conflicts and conundrums at the ICC.
Inaction by CA will only add weight to the arguments of those who would like to see the Board overturned, with the current system of nine independent directors replaced by a hybrid model of six direct representatives from state boards and three independents. That model would, at least, ensure that the states are privy to major strategic and budgetary decisions in a more natural way, even as it carries the risk of what has taken place in Victoria, where the delegates have run roughshod over the bigger picture.
Such a shift would require constitutional amendments that consume time, energy and grey matter best used in a quieter moment. For now Eddings and Roberts need to be practical, seeking solutions through a method akin to that pushed by Baird and Weatherill in an opinion piece for The Guardian: “leaders of different levels of government with different affiliations gathering as peers, looking for joint purpose and creating constructive ways of managing differences.”
CA’s leaders must show humility about their own actions, and curiosity about the needs of their owners and partners. Fire up Microsoft Teams, Zoom or even House Party, get the state and ACA chairs together, and work out how to move forward in a sporting economy that, for the first time in decades, is less likely to shrink than to grow. Australian cricket’s health depends on it.