Cricket Australia back to square one as ‘elite honesty’ goes missing in Kevin Roberts’s exit

In November 2018, during a campaign to recover public respect for the Australian men’s cricket team and the administration behind it, the decorators were called in to emblazon Perth Stadium’s dressing rooms with the slogan “elite honesty”.

What could give a binary concept like honesty elite status was never made clear, but it was at least a well-meaning attempt to state new values for the team.

It was a response to the decidedly un-elite level of honesty shown by David Warner, Cameron Bancroft and Steve Smith in Cape Town, where they each lied about sandpapering the ball during a Test match.

As it later transpired, the new elite honesty did not extend to any of the banned players when they returned; they’ve kept conveniently quiet about that story ever since.

Nor did it involve looking into the likelihood that the same team had been tampering before the day they were caught.

On Tuesday, as Cricket Australia (CA) chairman Earl Eddings announced the departure of chief executive Kevin Roberts during a disastrous national argument about CA’s coronavirus response, the concept came to mind again.

Both Roberts and the board that appointed him, claimed Eddings, agreed that 18 months into a CEO’s first term was exactly the “time for a change of leadership”.

Eddings said that despite relationships becoming unworkable with the state cricket associations, who had been asked to take revenue cuts of 45 per cent, and the players’ union, who had been asked for pay cuts of 50 per cent, and on top of the 80 per cent pay cut to most of CA’s staff, the CEO had chosen to resign rather than be pushed.

Kevin Roberts, David Peever and James Sutherland outside Cricket Australia's office in Melbourne.

Kevin Roberts, David Peever and James Sutherland outside Cricket Australia's office in Melbourne.

Roberts (left) offered the chance of fresh leadership when he was appointed chief executive in 2018.(ABC)

He said that Roberts had not lost the support of the board and staff, and had done a “wonderful job” steering cricket through the COVID-19 crisis, while the board took full responsibility for any discontent with that strategy.

Roberts, however, still had to lose his job.

And Eddings said that despite the apparent urgency for financial savings that had made Roberts so unpopular, no one would confirm how much of his multi-million dollar salary Roberts would be paid out on an early departure.

Elite honesty.

One wonders at times like this just what public figures think they stand to lose by a straight answer. Organisations don’t just sack senior executives if they don’t have problems. To make this move so early in Roberts’s tenure, CA must have serious ones.

Declining to name them is an indignity to everyone in the conversation. Eddings spent most of the statement talking up Roberts’s achievements in the role, a couple of which deserved to be highlighted.

But there is only absurdity to lay public praise on somebody who has been sacked, while also pretending it wasn’t a sacking.

CA mishandles coronavirus response

The trouble was brought about by a return to bad habits.

In 2017, Roberts had been second in charge at CA and was tasked with negotiating the new pay deal for players. CA entered negotiations talking up a looming financial crisis, saying that cricket would go broke and the grassroots game would die if players kept a share of revenue rather than a flat fee.

The very starting principles were misrepresentations. Multiple rounds of negotiations were called off, months went by with no progress, and the players’ union complained of being shut out from the financial information that they needed to come to a realistic position.

In the end, only removing Roberts from the job solved the impasse.

Australian women's cricketers high five after a wicket in the T20 World Cup semi-final.

Australian women's cricketers high five after a wicket in the T20 World Cup semi-final.

There are fears Cricket Australia’s funding cuts may affect the national teams in the future.(AP: Rick Rycroft)

The 2020 version looks very similar. CA had a duty to plan contingencies for a coronavirus disaster and one could yet come to pass.

But while the summer of scarcity they first forecast looks less likely by the day, the doomsday tone of their planning has not brightened one bit.

State associations have already started laying off hundreds of staff thanks to their reduced income from the national body.

Redundancies at CA itself were very much planned until this week but may get a last-minute reprieve. Most staff are still stood down on 20 per cent of their pay. Programs are on hold.

The $3 million or so that the workforce suspensions are supposed to save are a drop in the bucket of the possible losses from a cancelled summer and have cost the anger and alienation of much of the workforce — but those in charge went ahead and did it anyway.

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The television broadcasters may be arguing for a reduction in fees given the uncertainty of the period, but in large part they would be relying on how much CA itself has been talking down its season.

The $300 million of revenue attached to India’s Test tour is looking good — with India currently willing and able — and aside from probably rescheduling the Twenty20 World Cup this October, not an international match so far has been lost.

Yet the players’ union is still being asked to accept projections of revenue cut in half.

The impossibility of getting detailed information to help them either accept or revise CA’s suggestions has been a major point of frustration for both the states and the union.

There is always a sense from them that CA is fudging, giving a summary, holding things back. Just as CA is doing now by not saying how or why the issue of Roberts’s job was forced.

A group of men high five with smiles on their faces

A group of men high five with smiles on their faces

Cricket Australia is desperate for India’s tour to go ahead later this year.(AP: James Elsby)

In between crises Roberts had done that job decently. He got rid of executives who didn’t help the workplace culture, made efforts to be more open and contactable, heavily backed women’s cricket to fine effect and under his regime CA showed more social responsibility with things like climate change planning and an updated Indigenous reconciliation plan. There are things to regret in his departure.

In the end though, we looped back to where we started. With communication blunders that left key participants excluded and angry, with urgency that soon looked like a scare tactic, with an eventual breaking point, right back to a chair of the board offering the mildly nodding incomprehensibility that previous occupant David Peever delivered so well.

No straight answers, no good faith — exactly what landed CA in another problem of its own making, at the same time as it refuses to say its name. The same aspects on the way out as on the way in.

Honesty. It doesn’t even have to be elite. Just start us there.