Suddenly, it’s shades of 1977 in Australian cricket; the players’ association has rejected the financial deal proposed by the Board and there’s uncertainty surrounding the next TV rights deal.
A similar formula in 1977 resulted in the advent of World Series Cricket. The players were agitating for better pay and conditions and Kerry Packer - owner of the Nine network - was apoplectic when the Australian Cricket Board refused his offer of a substantial increase for the TV rights, then held by the ABC network.
Packer didn’t take rebuttal lightly and with his curse, “the devil take the hindmost,” ringing in their ears, he commenced a torrid legal battle with the cricket administrators. He found plenty of willing allies among the players and worldwide more than fifty signed to play for the TV magnate.
The animosity towards the administrators had been building among the Australian players since the tour of India and South Africa in 1969-70. In 1974-75, Dennis Lillee - the premier fast bowler - had just returned after a serious back injury and described his displeasure at the pay scale (A$200 per Test) in a series of newspaper articles.
The then chairman of ACB, Tim Caldwell, pleaded with me as captain; “Tell your fast bowler to back-off in his newspaper articles.” My response was simple; “Why don’t you tell him yourself Tim, because I happen to agree with him.”
From there it gradually went downhill to the point in 1977-78 where WSC played its first season in direct competition with the ACB’s series between Australia and India.
I’m not suggesting it’s reached that stage; the players are too well paid these days to seriously contemplate a strike against their major employer. However, the greed that has been palpable in cricket for the last decade looks like it might be coming home to roost.
Worldwide Boards have been guilty of siphoning every last dollar out of their media deals. The result in some regions has been detrimental to the game, which is now only available on subscription TV in the UK and Indian viewers are entitled to complain that the cricket coverage gets in the way of them watching the ads.
The TV companies pay so heavily for the rights that understandably they then try to capitalise on any commercial opportunity to recoup some of their investment.
The players - in Australia at least - are so used to being well remunerated they’re unhappy at any hint their livelihood may be curtailed. The difference now, compared with 1977, is the players have lucrative T20 leagues as alternative employment if they’re unhappy with the Board offer.
Officials to blame
This is a situation of the administrators’ making. They demand exorbitant prices for the media rights, so surely they must expect the players to be just as financially vigilant. And it was the administrators who devised the IPL and other burgeoning T20 leagues, which has increased the financial options for cricketers.
The greed of the administrators - they claim it’s money needed to run the game - has resulted in the players expecting regular pay increases every time a new media rights deal is struck.
In the meantime, a surfeit of one-sided Test and ODI matches, where the number of really competitive teams - especially away from home - is insufficient to keep up with the increased attractiveness of T20 games. The ability of T20 leagues to lure star overseas players and the relative shortness of the contest means they have serious advantages over the longer forms of cricket.
T20 matches capitalise on the attraction of close finishes and possible upsets. In the shorter game there’s more likelihood that scores will remain close and a favoured team can always lose to a less fancied side.
For all but the marquee series and tournaments, this has meant T20 leagues are growing in television value while the longer versions of the game are in danger of receding. The current Australian wrangle could well be an insight into where cricket’s future is headed.