From Don Bradman’s final innings duck to Kim Hughes’ teary resignation, Australian cricket has always specialised in dramatic departures.
But if Cricket Australia (CA) CEO Kevin Roberts fails to survive this week with his job intact, his demise will have been hastened by that most mundane of corporate sins: the offending email.
On June 3, a message hit the inbox of Australian Cricketers’ Association (ACA) chief executive Alistair Nicholson. What the players’ boss expected was a detailed report — for which Roberts had already received two extensions — forecasting CA’s current and future financial position, and backing Roberts’ claim the game faced imminent peril thanks to COVID-19.
What Nicholson received was a 900-word brush-off with no workings to justify CA’s forecast of a 48 per cent revenue downturn for the 2020-21 season.
Nicholson’s email to players soon after, and the growing distrust of Roberts and CA, can be summarised in one line: “The ACA expresses a lack of confidence in these reforecasts.”
The rest hardly needs repeating at this point: In April, as coronavirus took hold, Roberts stood down 200 CA staff on 80 per cent pay cuts while the remainder, including executives, stayed on with only 20 per cent cuts; players gasped at mooted cuts of their own and reductions to domestic playing schedules — a perceived misalignment of priorities; without so much as a single cancelled professional fixture denting revenue, a wave of sackings gutted community cricket.
In any event, India remains a likely arrival next summer for fixtures which will be money-spinners regardless of crowd numbers — and it looks increasingly likely fans will be in their rightful place anyway.
In the meantime, the cratering of fixtures and TV schedules suffered by the football codes has still barely touched cricket.
As it stands now, CA’s board is forced to reconsider Roberts’ slash and burn approach to human relations two months ago, and the considerable damage done to relationships with the states — CA’s owners.
Broadcast partners will doubtless ask for discounts — and, in its own insignificant way, that wishful gesture might be said by Roberts to justify decisions already taken — but until fixtures are actually lost, the point is moot.
The antecedents to Roberts’ current crisis can be traced back three years.
Before he rose to the CEO role in October 2018, Roberts was tasked by his predecessor, James Sutherland, with handling the player pay dispute.
To put it mildly, that effort spiralled out of control and created a deep division between the players and CA.
The trust issue it created for Roberts has, in the intervening time, spread from the players to the states and even fans who wonder why a summer sport has just spent its autumn and winter recess in a state of red-faced panic. Fans follow players, not administrators.
But when players are lining up to voice their discontent, as they have in recent times, a perception problem like Roberts’ becomes hard to shake off.
Misfortune is perhaps not the word, but it’s been Roberts’ tragic fate to save his most lacklustre displays of leadership for a period in which there has been no actual sport to distract anyone. Without games to analyse, media attention turned to identifying winners and losers in executive ranks.
Peter V’Landys was recast as a Churchillian pillar of strength. Todd Greenberg and Raelene Castle were wheeled away in the tumbrel. Gillon McLachlan endured by falling somewhere in between; pragmatic, slow talking, steady as she goes.
Roberts, on the other hand, has provided an object lesson in misreading the room.
Whereas Sutherland toddled along politely for almost 18 years, enduring the odd crisis of his own with canny delegation and a hangdog expression, Roberts’ approach to diplomacy and public relations has made him something closer to cricket’s David Brent — showy, cavalier, sometimes unintentionally comic; at one stage he claimed that stood-down staff were “very comfortable with how we’re working through this”.
In years to come, these months will be picked over for symbolic artefacts of Roberts’ time at the helm of Australian cricket.
The near-sightedness of trimming the women’s professional schedule within a blink of the Southern Stars’ landmark World T20 win was one.
Another, less eye-catching, was Roberts’ decree that the Sheffield Shield’s traditional 10-round season and final would be replaced by an eight-game sprint with no decider.
The Shield’s role in Australia’s cricketing fortunes has always been better respected by players than administrators, it’s true. Referring to the Shield in 1992, Richie Benaud put it best: “As loss makers go, it is in the very highest bracket.”
Frankly, Roberts should have known better from a few crises ago: One of the key reaffirmations of the Argus Report of 2012, apparently forgotten already, was the primacy of the Shield and its crucial role in manufacturing resilient, consistent Test cricketers. The latter remain the bedrock of Australia’s cricketing fortunes, and the star attractions of the coming summer’s most lucrative show.
Compromising the Shield was the cost-cutting act of an organisation mistaking its assets for liabilities. It spoke of muddled leadership and confused priorities. From the start, the players were leery, and their faltering confidence in Roberts soon spread throughout the game.
At the beginning of this inglorious episode in Australian cricket, another of Roberts’ predecessors, Malcolm Speed, said respect was a more valuable commodity for a CEO to possess than popularity.
On both fronts, Kevin Roberts has spent the best part of two years playing and missing.