On Thursday, the Australia ‘A’ players decided to pull out of an upcoming tour of South Africa for a tri-series. Withdrawing from an ‘A’ team tour doesn’t appear a big deal at the outset. Australia can even scrap their proposed tour of Bangladesh in August-September. But a limited-overs series in India is scheduled in October followed by the Ashes Down Under. Australian cricket would be teetering on the edge unless a truce is reached in the ongoing pay war between Cricket Australia (CA) and the Australian Cricketers Association (ACA) in three months. “By making this call, the Australia A players have sacrificed their own ambitions for the collective; an incredibly selfless act that shows their strength and overall commitment to the group. All players are deeply disappointed at the behaviour of CA which forces this course of action, given the players would rather be playing for their country,” ACA chief executive Alistair Nicholson said after the ‘A’ tour pull-out. It’s debatable whether this is a “selfless act” or player power ‘going berserk’. But we would come to that later.
The MoU negotiations between the CA and the ACA had started in November last year, with the players’ body asking for the inclusion of digital revenue in their new pay package. The CA, however, is stubborn about retaining the existing fixed salary structure, agreeing only to distribute the surplus profit, A$20 million, to its international cricketers. Subsequently, Steve Smith and Meg Lanning, Australia’s men’s and women’s captains, wrote to the CA chief executive James Sutherland without eliciting a positive response. The players association, in fact, has come up with a 14-point charter of demands. The CA, on the other hand, warned the players about possible unemployment. The MoU between the two parties expired on June 30 and we now have some very high-profile ‘unemployed’ players in world cricket.
Australian cricketers, however, have been standing firm. David Warner appears to be the most vocal of them all. “We won’t buckle at all; we are standing together and very strong,” he had said a couple of months ago. More recently, the Australian team vice-captain posted a picture with his wife Candice on Instagram and added a caption: “I may be unemployed but I still have the support and backing from this amazing lady. Family is everything to me. I thought the same about my old workplace, but I guess I was wrong.”
Australian stars get a princely salary from their cricket board. Smith was on A$1.12 million (`5.5 crore approx) per year apart from his match fee and captaincy bonus. India captain Virat Kohli is on a `2 crore retainer fee. But top rung is not the issue here. The top players are showing solidarity with those who ply their trade at the Sheffield Shield level or further down, and women cricketers. Over 200 cricketers are involved in this, which make things a little more interesting, and a bit different from the Packer revolution (or circus, the way you want to put it).
In 1977, when Kerry Packer launched his World Series Cricket—it eventually changed the game—Dennis Lillee used to earn a little over A$200 per Test. Cricketers around the world had been surviving on peanuts. So the initiative taken by the late Australian business tycoon instantly became a full-blown global phenomenon. Packer shook the very foundations of the sport and roped in almost all global stars save a 5-ft-5 in opener from India. The contracts he offered had been astronomical by the ‘70s yardstick.
Unlike the ongoing pay dispute, Australian cricket’s biggest crisis since 1977, the Packer revolution, however, was meant for the crème de la crème of the game. Back then, the Australian cricket board still had the option to field a second-string side and throw up talents like Kim Hughes, Allan Border, Rodney Hogg, Graham Yallop and Bruce Yardley.
This time, there’s no dividing line. Against a unified front, divide and rule ceases to be a viable option. If Australia don’t turn up for their limited-overs series in India, the reciprocal tour next year could be jeopardised. The CA knows that it would be very unwise to put the relationship with its Indian counterpart under threat, notwithstanding the fact the BCCI’s stature in world cricket has been reduced of late. The CA also can ill afford to cancel a home Ashes series.
At the moment, it seems like it has become a game of who will blink first. Coming to the player power issue, world cricket is now replete with domestic T20 leagues, a trickle-down effect of the IPL. Warner bags a cool $1.07 million (`6.9 crore approx) for his 45-day stint with Sunrisers Hyderabad every year. Then there are other T20 leagues—South Africa’s T20 Global League will be the latest entrant to the club. Modern-day cricketers have a lot more options and they can survive pretty well without playing international cricket.
The flip side of this ‘opportunities upsurge’ is that without substantial international cricket, it’s tough to get a lucrative contract in the franchise-based leagues. Jackson Bird, for example, needs international success to woo T20 franchise-owners. The ACA will have to be careful about not adversely affecting the interests of its members in the long run, although it holds the edge in this battle.